She’ll be waiting in Turkey

Weekend Australian
September 29, 2007 Saturday
All-round Review Edition

She’ll be waiting in Turkey
by Barry Oakley

REVIEW; Pg. 14

The Bastard of Istanbul
By Elif Shafak
Viking, 360pp, $32.95

IN 2005, Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel prize-winning Turkish novelist, got
himself into serious trouble for his remarks about the Armenian
massacre of 1915: ”Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians
were killed in these lands and nobody dares talk about it.” He was
charged with ”insulting Turkishness”, received death threats and
needed the protection of armed guards.

Then Elif Shafak was similarly accused and her insult could have been
seen as even worse. In The Bastard of Istanbul, she treats the
Turkish taboo as a joke. Her exhaustingly exuberant novel is a comedy
of forgetting.

We meet two families who could be mirror images of each other. Both
are noisy and assertive, both are heavily populated with sisters and
both have a single spoiled brother. Their similarities make their
differences all the more stark. One is Turkish; the other is
Armenian, living in exile in San Francisco.

Three generations have passed since the unmentionable event. One
family still nurses grievances, the other has forgotten what happened
or doesn’t want to know, and Shafak takes mischievous delight in
bringing them together. Her mischief begins with their names.
Kazanci, the name of the Turkish clan, is manageable enough, but that
of the Armenians is a copy editor’s nightmare: Tchakhmakhchian.

I know little about the confinements of the Turkish novel, but this
one bounds along like a dog suddenly released into a park. Shafak is
lavish with her plot lines and even more so with her characters but
to oversimplify, the story goes like this: Barsam, scion of the
Tchakhmakhchian family, abandons Rose, his American wife, leaving her
with profound resentment and a baby girl named Armanoush.

Rose takes exquisite revenge. She meets an attractive young man
called Mustafa in the dry beans section of her local Arizona
supermarket, and when she discovers he’s Turkish, she pursues and
moves in with him. To the horror of the Tchakhmakhchian family,
Armanoush now has a Turkish stepfather. Armanoush grows up troubled
and travels secretly to Istanbul to learn more of her family history.
She stays with her stepfather Mustafa’s family who, unaware her real
father is Armenian, try to make her feel at home (”Turkish
restaurant many in America?”).

The two-family parallels continue. Armanoush is taken up by Asya,
who’s her age and even more assertive. If Armanoush has a secret,
Asya has a bigger one: she has four aunties in the Kazanci family and
one of them, the unmarried Zeliha, is in fact her mother. Asya is the
bastard of Istanbul.

Shafak creates characters with Dickensian relish and Asya is one of
her best: spoiled, wilful and as nihilistic as any of the Western
equivalents on which she models herself. She shows Armanoush, and us,
a different Istanbul. She introduces her to a group of world-weary
bohemians who’d be at home anywhere in the West: the Dipsomaniac
Cartoonist, the Closeted-Gay Columnist and the Exceptionally
Untalented Poet.

This is not the Istanbul she expected. And the Kazanci family’s
reaction when they learn Armanoush’s Armenian secret is similarly
surprising. Not shock but puzzlement. Why, if she’s settled in
America, does she need to come here?

Shafak dramatises the extent of their Turkishness, which unfolds in
question after question. Your family was once here? Why did they
leave? ”Because my great-grandfather was on the list,” replies
Armanoush. What list? ”The list of Armenian intellectuals to be
eliminated — and after this came the mass deportations, the beatings
and killings.” Now comes the most remarkable question of all: who
committed this atrocity? Armanoush is astonished. ”They could see no
connection between themselves and the perpetrators of the crimes.”

While Armanoush is getting her Turkish education, her mother and
stepfather Mustafa discover where she is, and travel from the US to
bring her home. Mustafa is thus reunited with his mother and sisters.
But how to account for his reluctance to do so?

We find out in the finale, which I won’t reveal, other than to say it
has to do with food. Both families have yet another thing in common:
they love their food. The Kazancis do their forgetting with the aid
of it, the Tchakhmakhchian family their remembering, and their
creator names every chapter after an Istanbul staple.

Pamuk’s Nobel prize citation praised him for ”his quest for the
melancholic soul of his native city”. With this seething bazaar of a
novel, replete with byways, back stories, chat-room gossip and jokes,
Shafak has not so much insulted Turkishness as tunnelled under it,
leaving it in danger of collapse. (The charges against her have
recently been dropped.)

Barry Oakley, a former literary editor of The Australian, is a
novelist, playwright and anthologist.

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