Culture

For novel, a harsh critical reception: threat of jail time

REVIEW

BEIRUT: "The Bastard of Istanbul" is Elif Shafak's sixth novel to date and the second she has written in English. Rather more famously, it is the book that landed her on the docket of an Istanbul court for allegedly insulting Turkishness. Perhaps due to a quirk in Shafak's publishing schedule, "The Bastard of Istanbul" came out in Turkish translation first. By the time her day in court arrived last September, the novel had already sold 60,000 copies in Turkey. The English edition didn't arrive until this year, loaded with the weight of expectation measured against hype.

Shafak was by no means the first writer to be charged with violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, by now well-known as the notorious legislation that makes publicly denigrating Turkish identity, the Turkish Republic or the Grand National Assembly a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Nor is she likely to be the last.

Since Article 301 came into effect in June 2005, more than 60 writers, journalists and professors have been called to account by nationalist prosecutors who seem as eager to scuttle Turkey's bid to join the European Union as they are to apply the letter or spirit of the law.

Most of the cases have ended in a media circus outside the courtroom and a swift acquittal inside. The charges against Shafak were dropped in September due to lack of evidence. Seven months earlier, similar charges against Orhan Pamuk, the most high-profile of the Article 301 cases to date, were also dropped. Only the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, prosecuted three times for insulting Turkishness, received a six-month suspended sentence. He was acquitted the first time, convicted the second time and assassinated outside his newspaper office in January as the third round of charges were pending.

What set Shafak's case apart from the rest, however, was the fact that she was charged not for a newspaper interview she gave or a public statement she made but rather for the words she put into the mouths of her characters in "The Bastard of Istanbul." She was charged, in other words, for her fiction, for the dialogue she invented for a cast populating an imagined world that spins on the axis of magic realism.

To read "The Bastard of Istanbul" now, then, is to realize how absurd the case made against her really was, and how detrimental the ruckus has been to the critical reception of her work. She is no Pamuk, nor is her name likely to appear on a shortlist of likely Nobel laureates anytime soon. But she a forceful and ambitious writer to be reckoned with for her work rather than her scandal quotient.

The supposedly offending passage in "The Bastard of Istanbul" - a conversation among members of an Armenian-American family who speak of a character being "the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915, but I myself have been brainwashed to deny the genocide because I was raised by some Turk named Mustafa" - appears so early in the novel as to suggest that neither the prosecutors nor anyone commenting on the case actually read the book all the way through. Read more than 54 of novel's 360 pages and Shafak not only denigrates Turkish identity but destroys the possibility that national identity anywhere in the world can mean anything useful at all.

"The Bastard of Istanbul" unfurls a story of outrageous complexity that tangles, knots and unravels around two families, one Armenian and one Turkish. Imagine putting Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" in the hands of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a few words of advice on the pivotal role of freaks and misfits from Carson McCullers.

Though Shafak has said in interviews that she doesn't control the text from above as she writes but rather lets her characters lead the story to destinations unknown, one senses an elaborate and highly symmetrical structure has been built into "The Bastard of Istanbul."

One also wishes that Shafak had provided, as Marquez did in "One Hundred Years of Solitude," a detailed family tree as a prelude to the plot. Then again, to map out in advance the intricacies that link the Kazanci family to the Tchakhmakhchian family would wreck Shafak's engine of suspense.

Multigenerational and multinational, the book has numerous twins or foils, including a pair of djinns - Mr. Bitter and Mrs. Sweet - that sit aside the clairvoyant Auntie Banu's opposite shoulders. Arguably the most important pairing, however, is that of the youngest generation - the daughters Asya and Armanoush.

Asya is the bastard of the book's title. Shafak kicks off her story with a rambunctious passage following Asya's mother Zeliha as she struts through the streets of Istanbul in the pouring rain, wearing high heels and an impossibly insubstantial miniskirt, curses flying from her mouth in every direction. She is on her way to see the gynecologist, and when she arrives, she declares loudly to a packed waiting room that she is there to have an abortion. Some force of fate or chance intervenes, however, and three chapters later we meet Asya, now 19 years old, the same age her mother was when she gave birth out of wedlock.

Armanoush, meanwhile, is the only daughter of an American mother (a hopeless hick from Kentucky) and an Armenian father. In a move motivated by a simplistic spark of revenge, Armanoush's mother remarries the Turk named Mustafa shortly after her marriage to Armanoush's father falls apart. What better way to stick it to her Armenian ex-in-laws?

Shuttled between Tuscon and San Francisco, beautiful but bookish, Armanoush is in the last throes of adolescence. In a manner typical to the American descendents of immigrant families, she is desperate to define herself and lay claim to a cultural identity that means something more than being just a complicated kid who is struggling to reconcile the fact that she has a brain and a woman's anatomy. So she does what all 19-year-olds are at some point tempted to do - she takes an impulsive trip to Istanbul, thinking she'll find herself through an act of rebellion, an assertion of independence and a search for some trace her ancestors left behind.

Of course, her grandmother's house is gone. But she stays with her stepfather's family long enough to pull out every fact she knows about the Armenian genocide and slap it down on the dining room table of this decidedly Turkish household.

The Turk named Mustafa happens to be the missing male of the family, the one brother among four sisters who left for America to escape a curse that kills off Kazanci men early. Though generally the novel's glaring nonentity, he is the hinge that makes Armanoush and Asya meet - and then some.

If Armanoush is searching for an identity she lacks, then Asya is suffering from identities she has in excess. She is young, affluent, well-educated, not nearly as beautiful as her mother, sexually experienced to the point of juggling multiple partners, obsessed with Johnny Cash and brimming with rage and fury. She is on the cusp of realizing her suicide attempt a few years back wasn't a shame so much as a stupid stunt, though she hasn't yet grasped that it was the kind of error reserved for teenagers of privilege. At the same time, while Armanoush clings too tightly to history, memory and the past, Asya is too eager to break free from them all.

Certainly, "The Bastard of Istabul" is a novel that captures the conflicting struggle to remember or forget that has locked the Turks and Armenians in cold hostility since 1915. But to read Shafak's novel as an allegory would be forced. It is as much, and more, about the struggle to construct a self (sexual, intellectual and otherwise) only to grasp that it is doomed to fracture like glass, over and over again.

Elif Shafak's "The Bastard of Istanbul" is published by Viking and available in bookstores throughout Beirut

 

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