The Bastard of Istanbul is the sixth novel and the second one written directly in English by Elif Shafak. She is loved as much as her co-national Orhan Pamuk, the famous Turkish writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. They have two more things in common: they have been accused of “insulting Turkishness” and both were pardoned with excuses from lack of incriminatory proof.
The reason for her being prosecuted is this very book, The Bastard of Istanbul, published in 2006, the year Pamuk received his Nobel.
The book seems ardently feminist, all characters are women, except one, who is a man, a brother. I’m not fond of calling “genocide” the Armenian massacre, this doesn’t meaning that I approve of it. It’s just exaggerated. People died in those years, but there were war times, and the Armenians who were living in Turkey, enrolled in the Czarist army, which is not quite politically correct. Women, old people and children were deported than as a result of what men did.
The great mistake of Turkish nationalists is their gratuitously claim that Pamuk’s Nobel and Shafak’s place in the spotlight have had more to do with their persecution than with the merits of their work. This may not be true in Orhan Pamuk’s case, but on Shafak’s far less substantial. Most of her novels have not been reviewed in the “free world”, and with the “Armenian Genocide” uproar she has become more discussed than read. In this book, she choose a subject of deep moral consequence, but is the work worthy of its subject?
The Bastard of Istanbul – Plot without Spoilers
Let’s see. The action of “The bastard of Istanbul” takes place in Istanbul and United States. The family in Istanbul is a bewildered swirl of four generations of women: a great-grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, a distant and angry grandmother, her four daughters and one great-granddaughter. The eldest daughter, Banu, is a self-styled Muslim mystic, another, Cevriye, is a high-school teacher, and yet another, Feride, a schizophrenic who lives in a fantasy world. The youngest, Zeliha, runs a tattoo parlor and has an illegitimate daughter, Asya, the bastard of the novel’s title. The daughters have a brother, Mustafa, who lives in the United States. Mustafa marries a young American who has recently divorced her Armenian husband. She enjoys offending her Armenian in-laws with a Turkish spouse and she relishes the idea that her baby daughter, Armanoush, will have a Turkish stepfather.
Armanoush, being taught by her in-laws that “Turks are bad”, joined an online chat group of English speaking Armenians. Their main discussion subject was combating the Turkish denials of the Armenian Massacres. She decided to visit Istanbul, where she secretly lodged in his stepfather house. There, she rapidly befriends Asya, an admirer of French Existentialists and an ardent fan of Johnny Cash.
A better read than any of Pamuk’s novels (except “Istanbul”, maybe, a non-fiction), is just sometimes boring when these girls (Asya and Armanoush) are overwhelmed by the book’s political intent. They talk like in an essay. Don’t think that I believe Elif Shafak is a better writer than Pamuk, it’s just that he is too twisted and complicated for my taste.
This book’s outcome is nothing less than fantastic, you won’t feel cheated. It was a best seller in Turkey, and I hope they also read it.
The guy who accused Pamuk and Shafak of “insulting”, was himself sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiracy against the state, but released in less than one year.
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