The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The version I got was a beautiful paperback edition, with the colors and art a lovely rendition of the unique architecture of the region. That in itself made me want to like this book, but the story within is strong enough to do that on its own. The only Turkish author I had read up till now was Orhan Pamuk, but it’s obvious there are other worthy wordsmiths too from the region.
It opens with a vibrant and rebellious young woman, not yet out of her teens, traversing her way across Istanbul in search of an abortion clinic. The journey to the clinic itself is filled with quite a few social observations and reflections on her state and her idiosyncratic family (where men seemed to be cursed and don’t live beyond a certain age). By the time this almost prologue is closed, we know quite a bit about the place and family the book will be mostly about.
The book then shifts mostly to the point of view of two young protagonists at a later time. Asya, a Turkish woman (the titular ‘bastard’) lives in a family of women, each of whom she calls Aunty (including her mother Zeliha). The aunties and her grandmother are also identified by their pining for the sole male heir of the family, Mustafa, who after leaving for the United States does not come back to Istanbul. It is through Mustafa that we are connected to Armanoush, his Armenian-American step-daughter, whose mother he marries. And it is through Armanoush that we touch upon and explore the most controversial aspect of the book, the Armenian genocide in the early part of the twentieth century, particularly 1915. This is an aspect of Turkish history that the authorities have constantly tried to either brush over or not acknowledge happened. However, in order to understand her roots and her sense of belonging, Armanoush under takes a trip to her step-father’s family in Istanbul, without informing either of her parents of her risky idea. In Istanbul, she finds compassion and sympathy from Mustapha’s family, but comes to understand that this is borne out of a disconnect the current generations seem to have with their history, a history which they have all decided to move on from while she and other Armenians retain a sense of continuity of this anguish from their ancestors.
Asya, on the other hand, harbors a skeptical approach to life bordering on cynicism including being constantly fed up with her weird family and their antics. Her regular haunt, a conclave of similarly disillusioned urban folks, at the Café Kundera (mysteriously named so) gives rise to several discussions on understanding Turkish identity but usually lead nowhere. Finally Armanoush’s parents and step father get wind of her whereabouts and Mustafa decides it’s time to end his exile from his home. This comes with its own set of complications, as long simmering issues come to the fore in his family.
Elif Shafak faced a lot of hullabaloo from right wing agitators over her supposed insulting of Turkishness based on the lines uttered by characters in this book and had to face court cases filed against her. These were, of course, primarily related to the explicit mention of the Armenian genocide in the story. Ultimately, and mercifully, she was acquitted of charges, but the episode served as a good indicator of the real life confusion of identity the current generation faces as the country attempts to move towards a more open and democratic society.
A slow and delicately crafted book recommended for the patient reader.