Elif Shafak’s “The Bastard of Istanbul” allowed me to break my prejudices against the Turkish novel which I associated with images straight from “The Magnificent Century” soap opera. I highly recommend reading this addictive and thought-provoking book.
Elif Shafak’s books were the first Turkish novels I have read in my life. How it’s possible?
First of all, I have only trusted the non-fiction books about Turkey. It seemed to me that they contain everything I wanted to know about this country. After all, a reportage consists of facts dressed in human stories. So in a good reportage, I get a dose of knowledge, a fast-paced action and flesh and bone heros. Is there anything more you might want? I was also misled by the misconception that a novel is merely fiction and because of that there is very little to learn from it.
Secondly, I was trembling at the thought that, when opening a Turkish novel, I would be stuck in the festival of orientalizing images. I don’t like books that show me “thousands of wonderful flavors and scents of an oriental bazaar”. I roll my eyes seeing the descriptions of “Istanbul’s romantic streets where cats lie bathed in the sunset.” When I read such phrases in a book, I close it quickly.
Reaching for the novel by Elif Shafak, and especially for “The Bastard of Istanbul”, I breathed a sigh of relief.
There is no kitsch in the history of the Turkish Kazanci family. Each of the seven Kazanci ladies has their own voice and escapes the stereotypes about Middle Eastern women. This is already shown in the first scene of the book – 19-year-old Zeliha fiercely enters the clinic to have an abortion. After that, you can’t just stop reading.
It is similar with the history of the Armenian family of Chakhmakhchians. In this part of the story, the reader gets nothing for nothing. Each fragment of the complicated and tragic history of the Armenian family must be discovered piece by piece until a surprising ending.
Patriarchy and “defamation of Turkishness”
I was very impressed with the way the author exposes two controversial plots in the novel. The first is the silent consent to harassment and violence against women resulting from a patriarchal culture. Shafak gives a clear signal that religion is not to blame for a social system in which daughters are treated much worse than sons. Rather, the practice is a deeply ingrained pattern of thought that shapes even the families like the Kazancis – houses where only women have lived for years.
I expected that the author was strongly criticized for this part of the story. I was wrong.
After “The Bastard of Instanbul” was released in Turkey in 2006, Elif Shafak was charged with “defamation of Turkishness”. She was facing the possibility of three years in prison. The accusation was due to the words spoken by the Armenian heros and heroines whose ancestors were violently banished from Ottoman Turkey.
This is the second theme that dominates the novel and the presentation of which impressed me. Shafak presents a whole range of reactions that can be encountered when introducing the topic of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. She provokes the reader to choose which side they take, and then shows them the consequences of that choice.
The power of literature
Today I have already read three novels by Elif Shafak. I read them very quickly, even though they are thick books. And the only thing I regret is that the author has not been giving interviews or contacting the media for years. I would love to read an interview with her about “The Bastard of Istanbul”.
Shafak’s novels allowed me to rediscover the power of fiction and the fact that fiction books do not have to be about fictional problems. Instead, they provide the reader with an insight into all these topics, which are difficult to grasp for a non-fiction writer. Even if the writer has been living in Turkey for several years.
Reading “The Bastard of Istanbul” I had the impression that I was learning not only about what the Turkish inhabitants would want to teach me.Reading this book I felt like instead of staying in the living room, where I would be hosted in a Turkish house, I entered the kitchen, the bedroom, and the storeroom where forgotten stuff has been lying for years. I had the impression that instead of looking only at what was prepared for me, I looked under the rug, where many problems had been swept away for a long time.
I recommend you to read the novel by Elif Shafak “The Bastard of Istanbul” as well as her “10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World”. The books with beautiful covers designed by Ula Pągowska were published in Polish by Wydawnictwo Poznańskie.
This coming Monday, March 29th, 2021, at 8:00 p.m., I will be hosting a live conversation around “The Bastard of Istanbul”. I invite you to join the discussion about this book and other books about Turkey. My guest during this conversation is Marcelina Szumer-Brysz – a journalist, writer, correspondent from Turkey and a long-time resident of this country. Details about this event can be found here.