If you're an NPR fan (which I'm betting you are, otherwise why are you reading this blog?), you may have already heard about Turkish author Elif Shafak and the firestorm surrounding her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. Like Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk and scores of other prominent Turkish authors, Shafak was charged under the now-infamous Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which states that it is a crime to insult "Turkishness." While recovering from childbirth in a hospital, she was acquitted in absentia. Not long after, her friend and colleague, the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was murdered by an ultranationalist.
What I wasn't really aware of until doing a little research for this review is that these two incidents galvanized the Turkish public against Article 301, and against the government's continuing denial that a genocide took place against the Armenian minority in 1915. The trial against Shafak was widely regarded as a farce. In the days after Hrant Dink's death, crowds marched in the streets chanting "We are all Hrant Dink, we are all Armenian." The Turkish public is largely fed up, and is heavily in favor of changing laws to facilitate the country's entry to the European Union and heal the wounds of the past.Shafak's trial and subsequent backlash may be the catalyst that makes it happen. The Bastard of Istanbul has officially gone from "novel" to "cultural touchstone." So, why write another review? What is left to say about it?
Shafak was the first author ever charged under Article 301 for statements made by characters in a novel. It's a useful reminder to us here in the US that fiction, when handled properly, can be as incendiary as a pipe bomb. That it's a method of speaking the truth that can have literal, actual world-changing consequences. That a novel can be a matter of life and death. One thing you won't hear a lot about in the many articles that have been written about Shafak is the content of the actual book (aside from a few brief quotes of the passages that got her in hot water.) It seems like plain old bad manners to ask this: Is The Bastard of Istanbul -- as a novel, a story, a reading experience rather than a political statement -- any good?
The story is sprawling, populated by a cast of dozens, spanning a hundred years. It's tough to summarize, but I'll try. The story opens with Zeliha Kazanci, a rebellious, hot-tempered young woman in a miniskirt, angrily tromping through the rainy streets of Istanbul and cursing the skies. Before long, we find out why she is so disconsolate: she is pregnant, unmarried, and on her way to have an abortion. At the last minute, though, she can't bring herself to go through with the procedure. And thus she becomes the mother of Asya, the titular bastard.
Fast forward to the present day. Asya is now the age that her mother was when she was born. Asya is suffocating in an all-female household, stuffed with Aunties and grannies. There's her mother (who she calls Auntie Zeliha: a still unmarried Bohemian tattoo artist), Auntie Banu (a headscarf-wearing fortune teller) Auntie Feride (a paranoid schizophrenic with ever-changing hair color) and Auntie Cevriye (a shy schoolteacher). There's Grandma Gulsum, a grim woman who has never fully accepted her granddaughter, and Petite-Ma, the senile great-grandmother who keeps the secrets hidden. All the Kazanci men have either died of illness, been killed by violence, or sent into exile. In the latter category is Uncle Mustafa, who moved to Arizona twenty years earlier and has never been back.
Cut to Arizona, where Mustafa is married to Rose, the broadest caricature of a white American woman you can imagine. (We first encounter her in a supermarket, buying diet ice cream bars by the case.) Rose seems to have married Mustafa entirely out of spite: her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, is Armenian. That daughter, Armanoush (or "Amy", as her mother calls her) is the same age as Asya and is equally suffocated: by her doting, meddling Armenian-American relatives in San Francisco, and her bitchy, possessive, meddling blond mother in Arizona. Feeling lost and displaced, the only space Armanoush has to herself is Cafe Constantinopolis, an online community of young, politically outspoken Armenian-Americans.
In the chatroom, Armanoush is inspired by a discussion about Janissaries -- "Christian children captured and converted by the Ottoman state with a CHANCE to climb the social ladder at the expense of despising their own people and forgetting their own past," in the words of one virtual chatter. "Will you abandon your community to make peace with the Turks and let them whitewash the past so that, as they say, we can all move FORWARD?" The general consensus among this group is: There can be no moving forward, in any fashion, without Turkish acknowledgment of the 1915 genocide. Armanoush concocts a plan. She travels to Istanbul without telling either of her parents. She goes to stay with her stepfather's family -- sharing a room with Asya, her opposite and double. For the remainder of the book, Asya and Armanoush argue about history, bond against their respective crazy relatives, and discover a few deep dark family secrets. We find out the shocking identity of Asya's father, and we find out that the two families, one Turkish and one Armenian, are more closely tied by blood and by history than they know.
Elif Shafak translated her book into English herself. This might help to excuse or explain some of the stiltedness in the dialogue that mars the story. Early on, Asya is telling Armanoush about how she started hating sports once she grew breasts. "The body moves forward gaining speed in accordance with the law of acceleration. The amount of change in your speed is proportional to the amount of force impressed upon the body, and in that direction. And then what happens? The boobies accelerate too, even though they move with a completely dissonant rhythm of their own, up and down, eventually slowing your wind. The law of inertia plus the law of universal gravitation!" If you can find two nineteen-year-old girls who actually speak this way to each other, anywhere on earth, I'll give you a million dollars.
Given that the whole theme of the novel is cultural displacement and lack of understanding, I would have expected more attention to be paid to the way the characters speak to one another. Armanoush speaks no Turkish. Most of the Turkish characters speak no English, except for Asya and and a few of her friends. But we're simply expected to believe that Asya is able to translate and referee complex discussions about history and genocide, translating everyone's contribution around the table, with no pauses or misunderstandings. Jonathan Safran Foer dealt with this problem much more imaginatively in Everything Is Illuminated, another novel where a young American goes back to the old country to confront past atrocities. Foer has every other chapter narrated in broken English by Alex, the Ukrainian tour guide. As the book goes on, Alex's idiosyncratic English improves more and more. Shafak just skips over the language issue entirely, which seems like a missed opportunity.
A couple other aspects grated on me. One is the fact that the characters in the novel, over and over, are described as being like characters in a novel. "I am surrounded by Chekhovian characters!" thinks Armanoush, about her family. Later, to her chatroom friends, she writes, "I feel like I am in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel." Not ten pages later: "They are like Flannery O'Connor characters, Armanoush thought to herself." After hanging out with Asya's disaffected friends, Armanoush describes them as being like characters from a Kundera novel. (Not much of a stretch, considering they hang out at a place called Cafe Kundera.) Another tic that broke my concentration over and over is Shafak's liberal use of punctuation marks. Here is how Rose responds, when she discovers her daughter has secretly left the country: "Oh my god!! But she is not here! Where is my baby?! Where is she?!"
So, sure, the big dark secret at the center of the story ends up being not much of a secret at all to the attentive reader. And yes, the dialogue is a bit wooden. Maybe more than a bit. But that is because The Bastard of Istanbul isn't really a novel. Shafak uses fictional characters as proxies, symbolic of various political and ethnic factions, to have a book-length discussion about Turkey's past and future. Nationalists saw this book as a threat, because it is a threat. Had Elif Shafak taken all the opinions and statements of the characters and written a nonfiction book of essays on Turkishness, denial, and genocide, her very life could have been at stake, just like her friend Hrant Dink, rather than just her freedom. The Bastard of Istanbul is a provocation, a point of discussion, a refusal to deny the past any longer. By that measure, Elif Shafak succeeds, tremendously.