The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

“What will that innocent lamb tell her friends when she grows up? My father is Barsam Tchakhmakhchian, my great-uncle is Dikran Stamboulian, his father is Varvant Istanboulian, my name is Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, all my family tree has been Something Somethingian, and I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustafa! What kind of a joke is that!”

This passage, shouted out by one of the characters in The Bastard of Istanbul, is what got Elif Shafak in court for “insulting Turkishness”, another case based on the by now infamous Article 301. The case against Shafak was eventually dropped, but she became well-known as one of the very few Turkish authors, together with for example Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who was not afraid to tackle the issue of the Armenian genocide in a way that was not well appreciated (to put it mildly) by the Turkish authorities.

Armanoush is the child of an Armenian father and an American mother who remarried to a Turkish man. She divides her time between her mother in Arizona and her father’s family in San Fransisco. When she feels something in her identity is missing, she sets off on a trip to Istanbul, to stay with her stepfather’s family and find out more about her past. In Istanbul, she quickly becomes friends with Asya, the youngest member of her stepfather’s family.

The Armenian genocide is a major theme in the story, but eventually it is one of the ways the bigger theme of dealing with the past is worked out. All of the major characters have something in their past they have to deal with, either by accepting it or denying it or, even before acceptation or denial, by trying to find out what their past actually is.

The first chapter was hard to finish – I didn’t like the writing style, very “flowering” with long sentences and many adjectives. I regularly had to reread a sentence to actually get the meaning. Fortunately, that was only the first chapter, after that I either got used to the language or the style changed (I guess it was a bit of both). Anyway, I got hooked and, having started the book on Saturday afternoon, had finished it Sunday before dinner.

It is a beautifully told story with an interesting plot, if somewhat constructed at times. I felt as if the author wanted to represent all the different opinions on the Armenian genocide in the book. There is the staunch Turkish nationalist who is absolutely convinced that there was no genocide and that, on the contrary, the Armenians killed the Turks en masse. There is the Turk who acknowledges that the Turks did horrible things to the Armenians during World War I, but that that was in the past and that the current generation is not responsible for it. There is also the Armenian who thinks that Armenians still living in Turkey are being repressed and who is convinced that they’d be better off emigrating. There is the somewhat skeptical Armenian who thinks that striving for recognition of the genocide is the only thing that still binds the Diaspora and that once recognition by Turkey has been achieved, the Diaspora will fall apart. Finally there is the Armenian who was born and raised in Istanbul, feels IstanbulluĀ first and foremost and doesn’t want to live anywhere else. This urge to represent all those opinions led to superfluous scenes and even characters in my opinion. I ended up quickly reading the superfluous parts and then diving back into the rest of the book.

There were already so many characters, major and minor, that at times, especially when the perspective changed for example from San Fransisco to Istanbul or from present to past or back, I had to try to remember who was who and what the relations were between them. On the other hand, this extensive set of characters was also part of why I loved the book. I especially loved Asya’s family with all their quirky characters. Armanoush initially started out as an interesting character as well, but soon I started finding her a bit bland, colorless, especially compared to colorful Asya and her equally colorful family.

I am not sure the book is among my favorite reads of this year, but I did enjoy it very much and am certainly interested in reading more by Elif Shafak.

This review is crossposted at Internations Musings.

12 thoughts on “The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

  1. Thanks for your review on this – earlier this year I read The Flea Palace by this author and didn’t really like it for some of the reasons you site as to why this book was a challenging read. I find the author’s style difficult…although I like the premise and plot you outline here. Not sure I want to read another book by Shafak – but if I do, I’ll try this one out šŸ™‚

  2. Interesting review. I also read the book this year, and while overall thought it was good, I found it a bit to “agenda” oriented. It would have flowed much better and been more engaging if the author wasn’t so preoccupied with each character representing an opinion.

  3. Can, I think that we both have the same feeling about the book, that the urge to represent all the different opinions from both sides take away from the quality of the writing. I liked the book, but it does have some serious flaws connected to what we both mentioned and I think it would have been better with some things taken out, for example both cafe’s and the character of Aram who doesn’t really have a role besides representing an opinion. I have the feeling that if it weren’t for the ridiculous court case, this book wouldn’t have attracted so much attention. But that’s all if-if-if speculation.

  4. Nice Review. I’d like to read the book too. According to your review, I feel like the author wants to say that both Armenians and Turks need to achieve understanding together–in peaceful atmosphere. Is that right?

  5. Thanks, Myrthe, for this review. I have added this book to the list on Book Around the World and have included a link here to your review of the book:

    Have you read the book Gilgamesh by Joan London? I finished the book just over a year ago, but I’m still thinking of Armenia … the music and the lay of the land, for instance:

    (p. 156) Hagop’s eyes glittered, he seemed at ease, elated, as if he had come home. He clapped loudly as the music began. The sound curled up like smoke, Armenian music, familar to her now, as were the instruments that looked like weird root vegetables, the doudek, the kamanchar, the saz. Soon the men were dancing, whirling and clapping.

    (p. 168) In the far distance was the black wall of the Caucasus. The turned back. Ahead were the light red mountains of Persia.

    Anyway, I thought I’d mention the book to you, in case you haven’t heard of it yet. Joan London is the daughter of Jack London, who wrote Call of the Wild and White Fang.

  6. Bonnie, thanks a lot for your comment! I just visited your blog quickly, because I am short on internet time this week (no time and bad internet connection šŸ™ ), but I will be back for sure! So many ideas and suggestions for new books!

    I did read Gilgamesh a couple of years ago and I enjoyed it a lot. I have the book somewhere in my boxes of books in Holland, but right now I have no idea where exactly! If I find it again, I will reread it.

    There is another book about contemporary Armenia, Penelope by Goar Markosyan-Kasper. I have the book in Dutch translation, but I don’t know if it has been translated into English. It is very different in style and subject, set in the gloomy early 1990s, just after Armenia gained independence again. These were difficult years, war, the aftermath of a big earthquake, no gas or electricity, etc. I came across this book again while going through some boxes with my books at my parents’ in Holland. I will take it back with me for a reread. I remember that I didn’t really like the book when I read it the first time around, but maybe now it is different, now that I live in Armenia.

    Another, yet again very different book that I have up for a reread is Ali and Nino by Kurban Said. This is a classic set in the beginning of the 20th century in the Caucasus region, mainly in Baku and Georgia. I loved this book when I first read it.

    Both books will of course eventually be reviewed here on the blog.

  7. Hakob, I think you are right. Shafak gives all the different opinions from both sides, but she doesn’t directly take sides in the story itself, she basically presents the different views. Though, of course, already in writing the book in the first place and in the way the Armenian side is represented, I’d say she obviously does take a stand. But as you suggest, if there is a message at all, it is definitely that both sides need more understanding and learning about each other in a peaceful way.

    Throughout the book she makes it very clear in more and less subtle ways that Armenians and Turks do have a lot in common, whether they like it or not, and that that might be a basis to continue from in learning to understand each other. I am not talking big things here. One obvious example that keeps coming back in the book is food. At Asya’s home for example, Armanoush finds out that she knows all the different dishes on the table from her own Armenian family. These dishes are a bridge between the two cultures in the book.

  8. Probably interesting from a superficial historical perspective, at least if you never came across the Armenian genocide (i.e. if you either are from Turkey, or have never read a newspaper).
    However, as a novel, it is really bad: badly constructed, badly written, with extremely sketchy, superficial, two-dimensional characters, bad dialogues, pretentious descriptions, with many sentences that try too hard to appear “interesting” or “insightful”.

    I am sure that if it wasn’t for the confrontational aspects (from the title, to the Armenian-Turkish background) nobody would have read it. Which makes you wonder….

  9. Silvia, I wouldn’t say nobody would have read the book if it weren’t for the controversy because Elif Safak is already an established novelist in Turkey and she has a regular readership.

    However, I do agree that some of her writerly anxieties make the book feel a bit contrived at times. I will not go into the Armenian question because a lot of people have already talked about it but as a person who lived all his life in Istanbul, I found her representation of Istanbul in the first chapter extremely stereotypical and I was very frustrated. Luckily, the remaining chapters were better.

    I think since she wrote the book in English and had an international intended audience, she was anxious to give a picture of Istanbul in the first chapter that is recognizable to them by using stereotypes, but that ends up creating some minor yet (to me as someone from Istanbul) siginificant mistakes. Some of these from the first chapter:

    – Zeliha is walking to her gyno appointment and passes through the old bazaar (kapali carsi) and her appointment is supposed to be in one of the richest neighborhoods in Istanbul. The thing is, the old bazaar is not in walking distance to any of the rich neighborhoods of Istanbul.

    – When she arrives in the doctor’s office, it’s supposed to be 4 pm on Friday, and she starts hearing the Friday prayer from the mosques. Any muslim person would know that the Friday prayer is around 1pm, not after 4 pm.

    – Again, when she is in the doctor’s office, she is hearing street vendors selling ‘tangerines’, but I know for a fact, that street vendors wouldn’t sell tangerines in the summer months. It would have been more authentic if she said something like tomatoes, cucumbers, or even plums.

    There are also some more subjective stereotypes presented in the first chapter.

    For example, when Zeliha is younger, they have a cleaning lady who is supposed to be Kurdish, but the way she and her daughter are presented is very stereotypical.

    – Again, when Zeliha is in the doctor’s office, she presents three caricatures of women who are waiting for their appointment and she immediately assumes that the one with the headscarf is there because she is not able to conceive, AS IF, no secular woman has that problem, and AS IF, religious women never go to a gynocologist unless it’s because of infertility treatment.

    Also, Zeliha’s portrayal in chapter 1 as a free-spirited woman in the late 80s (I am assuming that’s the setting of the first chapter) didn’t sound very convincing to me.

    As I said above, I was ready to stop reading the book but the rest of the book turned out to be less stereotype-ridden than the first chapter. So, I continued reading. (Though I am sure, if I was familiar with Armenian American culture, I would recognize more stereotypes in chapter 2).

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