The Architect’s Apprentice – Review

Name: The Architect’s Apprentice
Author: Elif Safak
Year: 2014
Bookhad Rating: ❤❤

The Architect's Apprentice_CoverAs I entered Istanbul, my guide pointed out the borders of erstwhile Constantinople. Further into the city, he pointed out the aqueducts. And as a part of the full-fledged city tour, I saw all the other monuments and a few mosques that rose high on the Istanbul sky line. In an earlier musing on Istanbul – one of my favourite cities – I had said that history is pervasive in this otherwise modern, world-class city; all you need to do is stop and look.

Elif Safak’s latest book is set in the 16th century Istanbul and, among many other things, revolves around the construction of the grand structures under a talented and dedicated architect Master Sinan. The book opens with the arrival of a 12 year old Indian boy Jahan with a white elephant named Chota. At the start of the book, the couplet by the 16th century Indian poetess Mirabai caught my eye. Along with it is another couplet by a 16th century Ottoman poetess. The prologue of this book also has a letter in which the protagonist confesses that his master had buried, underneath one of the great buildings he built, the secret of the center of the universe. I looked to tie up the couplets to some fragment of the book, and I couldn’t. I was eager to stumble upon the center of the universe somewhere in the written word, and I didn’t.

The plot of the novel revolves around Jahan and Chota as they arrive in Topkapi Palace and join the royal menagerie. As the story progresses, an inquisitive Jahan, finds himself as the royal architect’s apprentice, while he also plays mahout to the magnificent white animal. He not only learns how to take care of an animal much larger than him in size, he also learns how to create drawings of structures so huge that they’d stay long after he and his master would die. Not only does Jahan find a vocation and his passion, but he also falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Mihrimah. As he starts to loosen the clutch of his past and embrace a new future, Jahan falls privy to schemers, meets with disappointments, and makes the odd friend. Jahan juggles his different lives, that of being a thief, a mahout, an architect’s apprentice, and even a one-sided lover, while the reader cruises through Istanbul’s story of creating and even destroying.

I have followed Elif Safak assiduously as her ultimate fan girl. I’ve read all her books, seen/read all her interviews and her TED talk, written to her email address numerous times, spoken to her on BBC radio, and even took my maiden solo trip to her country. I safely assume some credit to say that this book is far from enchanting. I beg to differ from the reviews on major sites which say that this is her best work yet. No, I’m afraid it is not. I will not recommend The Architect’s Apprentice to someone who hasn’t read her yet. If you want to start reading this wonderful author, this book is not one to be started with. For this novel is all over the place to say the least.

In her attempt to capture the people who are generally not given screen space, this book is more of a catalogue of the 16-century Istanbul commonfolk, food items, religions, animals, professions and on and on. She’s not only tried to coalesce the grandeur of building something greater than oneself, but also tried to bring across how God built the world. There are numerous references to people of all Abrahamic faiths who lived in Istanbul back then. There are also gypsies, harlots, and infidels. In places, her sentences are too descriptive, and there is more reflection than action. Her narrative of the menagerie and the animals is lackluster. While reading it, I was reminded of Yann Martel’s description of the zoo owned by Pi’s parents in Pondicherry. I think Yann Martel has done a fabulous job of dealing with the biology of animals and painting a picture to the general reader. Come to think of it, Life of Pi is a book I don’t even like all that much.

Some notable online reviews have also called this Safak’s most ambitious book, yet. I have to agree with that. She has tried to fit a lot of nuances in one outing: architecture, common folk, royal politics, religion, love, discovering oneself, rich heritage of Istanbul, revenge, jealousy and more. It tends to wear down eventually and get tedious. I wish the story had been treated differently or narrated in an unorthodox fashion. This story is forgettable as opposed to that of Jamila in Honour, or that of Zeliha in The Bastard of Istanbul. By the end of the book, you’ve left behind Mirabai, the center of the Universe, and even disappointed by how easily everyone can be passed, except Chota. Although I waited for this book with tipping anticipating, it doesn’t live up.

The secret of creating something bigger than oneself is elusive to me. However, I think that’s the eternal search of life. For everyone. Your life is bigger than you. You’re creating it. What tools do you need to bring to each work day?

I think that’s the important question this book tried to answer.

I think that’s the important question we must all answer.

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