Monday, October 01, 2007

The Bastard Of Istanbul (Not A Review)

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult (January 18, 2007)
  • Language: English

Life is coincidence, though sometimes it takes a djinni to fathom that.

The word “jinn” literally means anything which has the connotation of concealment, invisibility, seclusion, and remoteness. In pre-Islamic Arabian mythology and in Islamic Culture, a jinni (also “djinni” or “djini”) is a member of the jinn (or “djinn”), generally thought to be a race of supernatural creatures.

In that simple sounding line is captured the essence of the complex web that humans weave that makes up their life. Their history, culture, religion all form an amalgam that make up one’s identity. Their actions can often have a lasting impact on lives, both on those that have faded in to the realms of the past and on lives that have barely lived. These form the basis of Elif Shafak’s novel “The Bastard of Istanbul” a lively and a multihued tale of two families one Turkish the Kazancis and the other the Armenian-American Tchakhmakchians linked together by their pasts. A past that includes the Armenian genocide that a lot of the Turkish nation and people barely acknowledge and even ignore and is something that the Armenian people consider an important part of their history and a grave injustice committed against them.

We get to meet the strong willed, iconoclastic, sassy and independent, Zeliha clad in miniskirts and high heels and runs a tattoo parlor. She is a mother to Asya a 19 year old who is like her mother in a lot of ways yet far removed from her. She refers to Zeliha not as mom but as aunt. Asya is a fan of Johnny Cash and dabbles in existentialism, sneaking off to the Café Kundera (a gathering place for Turkish “intellectuals”) and for trysts with one of the members of her circle at the café while she is supposedly taking ballet lessons. Asya is a bastard, a name that she is first called to by Grandma Gulsum and then by a kid at school, which is when the meaning of the word dawns on her. Asya is complex, multifaceted personality with a family full of women and bereft of men. Asya sees her physical self as a manifestation of the Quranic creature Dabbet-ul Arz, an ogre who takes each of his organs from different animals in nature, she visualizes herself as a disembodied construct of parts inherited from the females of her family.

Asya has three aunts the observant, religious Banu who is now a clairvoyant and also can “speak” to two djinni a good and a bad one. Then there is Cevriye a national history teacher at a private school who is widowed and Feride a hypochondriac whose mind constantly dwells on one imagined impending disaster to the next. There is also their mother Gulsum and grandmother Petite-Ma. As Asya describes it, this is a nuthouse, but one full of rich, strong yet nuanced and memorable female characters. There is no man in this household (they never seem to survive past their 40th birthday). There is the absent son Mustafa living in Arizona who has disconcerting feelings and memories at the sight of miniskirts and is seemingly happily married to an American woman Rose but yet has trouble relating to the female sex.

Rose has a daughter Armanoush from her previous marriage to Barsam Tchakhmakchian who lives in San Francisco along with his mother Shushan and three sisters. Armanoush spends her time between the two places. She decides to eventually go to Istanbul to find out more about her grandmother Shushan’s time there and to also understand her roots and reconcile her fragmented childhood spent between the two cultures and the Janissary’s paradox. She ends up visiting the Kazancis, the family of her stepfather Mustafa. And those begins a friendship between Asya and Armanoush children born into families that cannot dust off the vestiges of their unspoken past.

The that link these two households share threaten to come to the fore as events transpire that will bring Mustafa (and Rose) to Istanbul.

Will aunt Banu’s clairvoyant abilities to peek in to the past with the help of her djinni be a Faustian pact with the darker elements of the supernatural? What she learns will change lives and reveal truths. But will this make it any easier for those who live with the consequences of their and someone else’s actions? Can one’s past truly be completely shed or walked away from?

I loved the way Shafak captures the spirit of Istanbul a city I would so love to visit. I could smell, see and feel the place thru her rich, vibrant words that brought the city and its people, its chaos, its modernity and its antiquity to life. The characters she penned so well completely captivated me and I loved that they could not be pigeon holed in to comforting categories.

The part of the book that I did question – Zeliha goes to the doctor’s office to get an abortion and it as she is going under for this procedure that she hears the call of nearby mosques to prayer. An agnostic/atheist she screams, does she have a vision or a message or was it just the rambling of a mind unlocking itself under the fog of sedation? She decides to have the baby instead and leaves the doctor’s office feeling less dispirited. But as one finds out who the father of the baby is, and the circumstances that led to it, I found her decision to carry her baby mystifying, but I guess it ties back to life being all about coincidences and the choices we make at any given time?

Don’t expect neat answers to all your questions at the end of the book but perhaps that is the point of it too. This book is a fascinating look at cultural, gender and national identities and the forces and events that shape them and a look at religious and political currents that continue to shape Turkey.

Some of you may already be aware of this, the author Elif Shafak was charged under Article 301 the Turkish criminal code (also used in the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk earlier this year). The charges were reportedly based on remarks made by a character of Armenian ancestry in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul - the character describes the death of Armenians during the first world war as a genocide. link. These charges were subsequently dropped for lack of evidence.

Elif Shafak currently is an Assistant Professor in the Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. For more on her bio, go here. As someone who straddles two cultures I loved her interview to the Haagsche Courant newspaper and if you are an immigrant and/or someone who lives amongst more than one culture what she has to say will likely resonate with you. link

To quote her from an essay for Time Asia..

East and West are often used as if they were mutually exclusive categories—static and eternal. There is, however, one city where you quickly learn to mistrust the two concepts. In Istanbul, you understand, perhaps not intellectually but intuitively, that East and West are ultimately imaginary ideas, ones that can be de-imagined and re-imagined.

I can’t wait to read her latest The saint of incipient insanities”.


Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

What a gorgeous cover!!! The design reminds me so much of tiles unique to Islamic architecture, especially in Turkey and Iran...does the book's jacket provide any further information about its design?

Onto the review...Sanjay, you always write such thorough reviews, it's such a pleasure to read them. I had heard much about the Turkish government's displeasure with Elif Shafak and I had always wondered what the fuss was all about. Is the Armenian genocide simply referred to by one of the characters in her novel or is it a theme around which the novel pivots?

With so many references to Djinns, Janissaries (sp?) etc. I can only assume the novel oozes folklore and mysticism and that excites me! I also like that it's a novel that will teach a reader more about Turkish culture and society.

"Saint of Incipient Insanities" does sound like a great read (the author is quite prolific, isn't she?). I also would like to get my hands on one her previous one titled, "The Mirrors of City" which is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

THanks for a truly wonderful review, Sanjay, this write-up has certainly whet my appetite for more reading on Turkish history.

Lotus Reads said...

p.s. Forgot to mention...what a strong and fascinating cast of female characters this books seems to have!

Sanjay said...

Hey Lotus, Thank you for your wonderful comment and kind words about the post! Yes the cover is indeed gorgeous. The jacket is designed by Jesse Reyes and the ornament on the front is taken from a Turkish design. And I only know about this because you asked, thank you for helping me look at something that I would have just ignored otherwise.

The furor was over one of the characters in the book referring to the killing of Armenians as a genocide. As per Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code she was charged with insulting “Turkishness”. And although there are not a lot of references to the genocide, it is a central theme in a way that the events of those years continue to tie the two families together in a way that they are not always aware of.

The novel does include folklore and mysticism and yes I did find out a lot about Turkish culture and history thru this book and I just loved the rich fascinating cast of female characters. The author is quite prolific. She is barely 36 and already has about 6 books. I am looking forward to reading the "Saint of Incipient Insanities" which my library should have available soon. "The Mirrors of City" seems hard to find online. I too would love to read it.

Thank you again for your wonderful comment and have a great week ahead.

starry nights said...

Was watching a show on world heritage and saw some beautiful mosques in Istanbul, I think one is the blue mosque.had tiles like the one on the cover.facinating book.have to add it to my long list of books to read.

Anali said...

I don't remember the book, but I think I read a book that was a ghost story and the term "jin" was used for ghosts. Sounds kind of similar...

ML said...

I agree with Lotus, that is a gorgeous cover!

Your reviews are always so good! It's as if I read the book/saw the movie, or if I'm actually there.

Great review!

Keshi said...

My best friend lives in Istanbul :)


moegirl said...

Interesting. I will ad this to my book list. I've read a lot about the Armenian genocide, the most compelling book is "Black Dog of Fate" by Peter Balkanian (sp?)

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