Dark history, suffocating love and mouthwatering food

The Daily Telegraph (LONDON)
July 28, 2007 Saturday

Dark history, suffocating love and mouthwatering food

by Robert Colvile

The Bastard of Istanbul
by Elif Shafak
360pp, Penguin, pounds 16.99
T pounds 14.99 (plus pounds 1.25 p&p) 0870 428 4112

Over the years, I’ve read a few modern novels that could be described
as criminally bad – but The Bastard of Istanbul is the first that’s
got its author put on trial. Elif Shafak’s crime was to use, or
rather have her characters use, words such as "genocide” in relation
to the pogrom against the Armenians that accompanied the dawn of the
Turkish state. This, under Turkey’s nationalistic legal code, was
tantamount to denigrating Turkishness, although Shafak avoided a
three-year jail sentence when the judge dismissed the case for lack
of evidence. (Shafak was heavily pregnant during the trial.)

If it is shocking that authors can be put on trial for what they
write (as has happened to many other writers and journalists in
Turkey, most famously Orhan Pamuk), it is also oddly appropriate,
given the subject of this novel. The central question in The Bastard
of Istanbul is whether it is best to disinter the past, with all the
trauma and pain that entails, or cut ourselves off from it. It is a
dilemma personified by two girls just emerging from their teens –
Asya, the illegitimate Turkish child of the title, and Armanoush, an
Armenian-American whose divorced mother took up with a Turk – Asya’s
uncle – mostly to spite her former in-laws.

Both girls are smothered by the suffocating love of their respective
clans (Asya’s aunts, especially, are "a pack of female animals forced
to live together”). But they differ over their attitude to the past.
Armanoush, seeking to explore her Armenian identity and confront the
Turkish oppressors, makes a daring trip to Istanbul. Asya, with a
blank space where a father should be, prefers not to explore her
roots. Each attitude is reflected more widely: Armanoush is egged on
by a crew of embittered Armenian message-board buddies from the US,
whereas Asya’s friends in Istanbul’s Café Kundera can offer sympathy
but not remorse for the fate of the Armenians.

All this talk of history and identity might suggest that this is a
rather po-faced novel. In fact, Shafak is a sprightly author,
generous with the comic touches – I particularly liked the San
Francisco restaurant in which the dishes are arranged to resemble
great Expressionist paintings. Indeed, the narrative is laced with a
mouthwatering appreciation of food.

The atmosphere is rich and slightly off-kilter: the story of the
Armenians’ expulsion is narrated by Armanoush, but confirmed to
Asya’s soothsayer aunt by the djinn who sits on her shoulder. When
Armanoush says of her trip to Turkey that she feels "like I am in a
Gabriel García Márquez novel”, the sensation is familiar.

Towards the end, the novel swings from the political to the personal,
as Shafak reveals buried secrets and unexpected ties between the two
families, both of which feel rather clichéd. Things aren’t helped by
the re-entry into the narrative of Rose, Armanoush’s mother, who is a
caricature of the insular American – the kind of woman who will take
a cactus-shaped bottle of Mexican sauce to Istanbul in case the food
isn’t any good. But this is still an engrossing novel, and one can
only hope that its author’s courage in tackling this subject, and
defending herself from an unmerited prosecution, will hasten the
abandonment of an unconscionable taboo.