This Turkey’s been overstuffed

This Turkey’s been overstuffed

It’s shocking, ambitious and nearly put its author in jail. What a
shame, then, that Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul is so hard to
read, says Geraldine Bedell

Sunday July 29, 2007
The Observer

The Bastard of Istanbul
by Elif Shafak
Viking £16.99, pp357

The bastard of Istanbul arrives already weighed down by baggage.
Written in English, the novel was published first in Turkey, in
translation, where it rapidly became a bestseller. Its author, Elif
Shafak, was accused by the Turkish government of ‘insulting
Turkishness’ and could have been the first writer to be jailed in
Turkey for fictitious words spoken by an invented person. In the event,
the charges were thrown out but Shafak’s first pregnancy was
overshadowed by the possibility of a three-year prison term. The
incident generated international concern.

So much for the brouhaha; what of the book? This is a cluttered
carpetbag of a novel, crammed with characters and themes, not unlike
Istanbul itself. But what might be invigorating in a city can, in a
novel, be a bit bewildering. Towards the end I found myself drawing a
family tree of the characters in an attempt to get the convoluted
relationships straight in my head. (Shafak and her publishers can’t
provide this service themselves because the revelation of these
relationships is the meat of the novel.)
In the first five chapters, rather like Robert Altman in Short Cuts,
Shafak presents a series of disconnected scenes and characters that
may, possibly, we hope, eventually cohere. This may work better in film
than in a novel: by page 80 or so I was starting to feel frustrated at
having to gird myself for the fifth change of focus. Did the young
woman in Istanbul who failed to have an abortion have anything to do
with the American housewife? Why had we jumped 19 years? Were any of
these characters going to step forward and require some sustained
emotional input?

Fortunately, around one-third of the way through, the two central
figures, 19-year-old cousins Asya and Armanoush, one Turkish, one
Armenian-American, finally meet in Istanbul and start talking about
memory, identity, the wilful ignorance of the Turks of the massacres of
Armenians in 1915, and whether the past can be shaken off, which are
evidently the issues that Shafak really wants her readers to think

The trouble is that these poor girls are often overwhelmed by the
book’s political intent. Asya and Armanoush talk unlike any normal 19
year olds; even clever girls surely don’t sound quite so relentlessly
like an essay. The other characters are typically distinguished by a
couple of salient features – sensible history teacher, miniskirted
tattooist – as if they are there for a higher purpose, and a sketch
will have to do.

Sometimes Shafak caves in completely under the need for symbolic
weight, and refers to her characters simply by what they stand for –
the Closeted Gay Columnist, the Non-nationalist Scenarist of
Ultranationalist Movies (which feels a bit like being beaten round the
head: we’ve already spotted that in Istanbul people often have to
conceal their true identities). Most troubling of all, Mustapha, Asya’s
uncle and Armanoush’s stepfather, whose actions are central to the
plot, remains an enigma.

The magical realist descriptions of Istanbul and Asya’s home are
powerful: these are places where djinns comfortably coexist with the
Turkish version of The Apprentice. And the passages about the
deportations and massacres of Armenians are shocking, as Armanoush
finds a city and a country in denial about the genocide, and attempts
to make her cousins understand how much the past conditions the
present.There’s plenty of plot, too, even if it does mostly come in the
final third. And there’s no doubt that the book is clever, thick with
ideas and themes and politics. Clogged, even: there were times when I
could have done with fewer characters and rather less whimsical

The book is important for having drawn attention to the massacres and
to the Turks’ ambivalence about them, and for what it has exposed about
freedom of speech. It’s unquestionably an ambitious book, exuberant and
teeming. But, perhaps because of the sometimes florid writing, reading
it feels like holding a sack from which 20 very angry cats are fighting
to escape.