Book: The Bastard of Istanbul
Author: Elif Shafak
Year: 2006

The woman herself.
The woman herself.

The fastest way to become a Shafak fan is to watch her TED talk The Politics of Fiction in which she mesmerizes in ways unseen by us non-magical folk. The slow and sure way is to read one of her books. I’ve done both, and not once have I come away feeling untouched.

The Bastard of Istanbul is the second Shafak book that I’ve read. It is also Shafak’s second book in English. The brouhaha when this book released has been much talked about every time one mentions The Bastard of Istanbul. That Shafak was almost convicted for 3 years while she was heavily pregnant is a common tit bit of information that tags along with the book. Makes you want to pick up the book instantly, doesn’t it? When a work of art rattles the system and brings unto itself their wrath, the common man (and woman) wants to be one with it. Such is the power of system shunning.

The Bastard of Istanbul, on a visceral level, is about two 19 year old girls and how their individual stories decussate. In the larger scheme of things it is about the many lives struggling to find their voice. Asya Kazanci and Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian (I can’t pronounce this for the life of me) are the two girls in question who are born in diametrically opposite geographical conditions. Asya is a Turkish girl, hedonistic and untamed. She lives in Istanbul with her four aunts and grandmother. Her uncle has moved to Arizona to study and has never returned. This family of women is said to be bound by a curse which causes all the male members of the family to die early. On the other hand, Armanoush is an Armenian-American girl with her head on her shoulders shuttling her life between her father’s Armernian family and her American mother. Her parents are divorced. Armanoush is that smart girl who reads a lot, is aware and also very pretty. While both girls are quick witted and intriguing, they are both grappling with their identities. Asya doesn’t know who her parents are while Armanoush is battling cultural differences and her unclear individuality.

The book is also about Zeliha, Asya’s youngest aunt who is as hedonistic and untamed as her. Although, they are exactly the same, they never see eye to eye. Zeliha runs a tattoo parlour and wears mini skirts. Her profession and her clothes contribute to her individualistic persona. Asya’s other aunts are niche characters in themselves. Aunt Bano is a newly self-discovered clairvoyant; she can talk to djinns and has some thick friends of the fire. Aunt Cerviye, a widowed high school teacher and Aunt Feride is a hypochondriac who is incessantly scared of impending disaster. Asya wonders how she got trapped in this menagerie of a house, and finds solace in her friends from Cafe Kundera – a cafe in honour of Milan Kundera. She spends her hours in the cafe talking to her existentialist friends even bunking classes that her aunts impose on her.

Book Cover
Book Cover

Armanoush’s mother is incidentally engaged to Asya’s uncle, who then get married. While searching for her identity, Armanoush flees to Istanbul. She informs Asya’s family that she is their brother’s step daughter and is visiting. While Aramoush’s mother is under the impression that she is at her father’s house and vice versa, Aramnoush turns up in Istanbul to quell the questions in her head. When she does, the past is uncovered layer by layer. Armanoush tells Asya’s Turkish family of how her father’s Armenian family was displaced during the Armenian genocide. And this part of the book is what put Shafak under the political scanner. Turkey, which does not recognize this genocide, did not take Aramoush’s views lightly. Nor did it consider either family’s point of view. The characters in Armanoush’s tale seem more familiar than everand you find yourself making a map of how the Kazanci and Tchakhmakhchian families are inter-related. This can get a little complex because Shafak’s narration of the story is not linear. As Armanoush’s stay progresses, Asya uncovers the truth about her identity too, and frankly, here I was unsure why Shafak thought this was necessary.

Since I finished, I have been thinking and I would be so audacious to say that the title, in my humble opinion, does not allude to Asya Kanczi as we perceive it to be. And this is my own interpretation. I believe The Bastard of Istanbul is a metaphor for all those broken lives caused by domestic violence. Maybe Shafak intended it to be a symbolism for all the women who are the subject of abuse in one way or another. But it’s hard to know.

To be honest, this book did not touch me as much as Honour did. Yes, there is a carnival of colours in Elif Shafak’s writing, and as much as this book is informative, a certain sense of querulousness exists. As with Honour, the titles of the chapters in The Bastard of Istanbul are exotic. In this one, they are names of spices such as Cinnamon, Garbanzo Beans, Sugar, Roasted Hazelnuts, Pine Nuts and more. This and the use of stunning imagery is Shafak’s USP. The flamboyance in her writing and her story-telling is like no other author I have read. I could almost smell the aromas of the city and walk through the lanes of Istanbul while I read this book.

I would highly recommend Shafak to all those who believe writing is the invoking of another world. A world that you can see. A world that you want to dip your feet into. A world whose characters you want to know. Even though I may not come away as impressed as Honour, The Bastard of Istanbul leaves vivid memories. It’s not only enjoyable, it is also informative; like visiting a city with a localite. It is not only assertive, but also reflective; it tells the stories of both sides of the Armenian genocide. It is not only phantasmagoric, but also realistic; people do feel that way and they are often misunderstood.

This book is recommended reading. It will surely leave you with a strong after taste, and that the reading is as easy as putting a hot knife through butter adds to the fascinating experience. You’re going to love it.

“We’re stuck. We’re stuck between the East and the West. Between the past and the future. On the one hand there are the secular modernists, so proud of the regime they constructed, you cannot breathe a critical word. They’ve got the army and half of the state on their side. On the other hand there are the conventional traditionalist, so infatuated with the Ottoman past, you cannot breathe a critical word. They’ve got the general public and the remaining half of the state on their side.” 
― Elif ShafakThe Bastard of Istanbul

Bookhad
(14.11.2013)

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