Book Review: Dark History, Suffocating Love And Mouthwatering Food

Robert Colvile reviews The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

The Daily Telegraph, UK
Aug 2 2007

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.

advertisement 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 Cafe 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 Marquez 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 cliched. 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.