There are very few countries in the world that have had to straddle diametrically opposite realities like Turkey has. Tradition and modernity are starkly juxtaposed here, and there is very little middle ground. From the great empires—Byzantine, Latin and, most significantly, the Ottoman—the country was thrown into Ataturk’s coercive secularization regime, with no solid bridge to pave the way. Geographically, it straddles Asia and Europe.
Culturally, too, it is wedged between the grand artistic traditions patronized by the Ottoman empire and western imports. A testimony to this polarization is the city of Istanbul, one of the backdrops for Elif Shafak’s novel, The Bastard of Istanbul.
The extreme polarization is captured in a moment at Cafe Kundera (many hypothetical stories about Milan Kundera explain the history of that name), where Asya Kazanci, Shafak’s protagonist, spends time with her friends—the Exceptionally Untalented Poet, the Dipsomaniac Columnist, the Closeted-Gay Columnist and the Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranational Movies. In a moment of heated debate, the Exceptionally Untalented Poet says: “Sandwiched between the two sides, we march two steps forward and one step backward, just like the Ottoman army band did!…I wish we were an ethnic minority or an indigenous people under the protection of the UN charter. But nihilists, pessimists and anarchists are not regarded as minority, although we are an extinct species.”
Asya is the youngest member of a family of four women living in an old mansion in the city. Zeliha, her beautiful, feisty mother, who defies every convention of a traditional Muslim woman. Her aunt, Feride, a depressive hypochondriac, and Banu, her other aunt, who is a self-proclaimed clairvoyant. The narrative moves between this family’s tribulations and another family in San Francisco that’s part of the Armenian diaspora, and then shifts to Arizona. Through the interactions between the two families, Shafak explores the history of hatred, denial and blame that has characterized the relations between the Armenian and Turkish people ever since the ethnic cleansing of Armenians by the Turkish in 1915.
This is 36-year-old Shafak’s third novel, and the first in English. Born and raised in Strasbourg, France, she is Turkey’s new literary whodunnit. She was recently under threat from the country’s government for “insulting Turkishness” in this book and she even cancelled her American tour with the book. The Economist recently proclaimed her the rival to the great Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk.
The comparison is exaggerated because, besides the fact that the backdrop of both the authors’ works is the same country, they are, literally, worlds apart. In Pamuk’s fiction, dead men speak and trees tell tales. Through his gifted craft, both the other-worldliness of the Ottoman empire and the reality of modern Turkey become journeys into the human soul. Shafak’s writing doesn’t have such literary ingenuity.
Choosing to write in English (her two earlier novels, The Saint of Incipient Insanities and The Flea Palace, were written in Turkish) has given her instant exposure to the West, but it is a decision she could have avoided. In parts, her use of the English language is nothing short of atrocious—“lustrous earrings”, “astringent and stolid truth”, “listen to your Middle Eastern roots”.
But her humour and wit make up for the shortcomings of language. The characters of the Kazanci women are funny and poignant and so are some musings on Turkey.
At the cafe, the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist says the only proof of real progress in Turkey is the bottle of beer he is holding in his hands—“It is this very bottle that differentiates Turkey from all other Muslim countries. This bottle here…is the symbol of freedom and civil society.”