Secrets and lies
The Bastard of Istanbul
Elif Shafak Viking, 368pp, £16.99
Elif Shafak, like Orhan Pamuk, is a writer who tells uncomfortable truths about her country - a country that does not always welcome being talked about by writers.
The similarity between Shafak and Pamuk lies in their relation to "Turkishness" - both take a bipolar view of Turkey, as if, while living in the centre of a maelstrom, they are able to fly above it. Pamuk was recently accused of making Turkey sexy, "dumbing down" the country in his novels to make them more accessible to western readers. More serious charges followed, including "insulting Turkishness" when he, unlike his country's government, admitted that Turkey had committed genocide against the Armenians in 1915. Shafak suffered similar attacks after the publication of the Turkish edition of The Bastard of Istanbul. Because of the opinions expressed by the Armenian characters in her book, criminal charges were brought against her by a group of right-wing lawyers, only to be dropped after three months. Shafak has also set herself up for accusations concerning her literary sincerity. Is she not trading on this tragic episode in Turkish-Armenian history?
However, The Bastard of Istanbul is not so much about the events of 1915 as it is about the points at which Turkish and Armenian cultures meet. The skill and attention to detail with which Shafak weaves this literary tapestry lift the novel above a simple vehicle for the exposition of the Turkish-Armenian question.
In Istanbul, an unmarried, 19-year-old woman plans to have an abortion, but as she is going under the anaesthetic she becomes hysterical and the doctor does not go through with the operation. Precisely why she goes on to have the baby we are not told, and this, given the circumstances of the baby's conception, is perhaps the one weakness in the story. A daughter, Asya, is born and brought up in a traditional Istanbul home among her extended family, which consists exclusively of women - Asya's uncle Mustafa was sent to live in America to save him from the fate that befalls all the men in the family: death before the age of 42.
Around the time that Asya is born, an extended Armenian family living in San Francisco is in crisis. The son, Barsam, and his American wife, Rose, are divorcing. Rose returns to her native Arizona with their daughter Armanoush and there meets Mustafa, recently arrived from Istanbul. Motivated in part by the desire to take revenge on her ex-husband's family - "there existed on the face of the earth only one thing that could annoy the Tchakhmakhchian family more than an odar: a Turk!" - Rose marries Mustafa and together they bring up Armanoush.
Both Armanoush and Asya face a difficult journey of self-discovery. Armanoush is confident and proud of her Armenian roots. But she is caught between her attachment to her father's family and her mother's antipathy to all things "Armenian". The burden of her illegitimacy leads the teenage Asya to attempt suicide. Strong-willed and uncompromising like her mother, she seeks an escape from her "mad" family for whom she still feels affection. "The problem with us Turks," says Auntie Cevriye, "is that we are constantly being misinterpreted and misunderstood. The westerners need to see that we are not like Arabs at all. This is a modern secular state. The Americans have mostly been brainwashed by the Greeks and the Armenians, who unfortunately arrived in the United States before the Turks did. So they are misled into believing that Turkey is the country of the Midnight Express."
Asya's opportunity to find herself comes when Armanoush visits Istanbul to see the country from which her Armenian family was deported many years before.
The Bastard of Istanbul juxtaposes traditional Turkish culture with life in contemporary Istanbul. At home, Asya takes part in ancient ceremonies to ward off the evil eye; outside the home, she is part of a cafe subculture in which she mixes with intellectuals whose vacillations between westernness, nationalism and nihilism are sometimes comical, sometimes surprising. For many readers this view of Turkish life will be a discovery. Shafak's talent and subtle humour have made her descriptions of Turkish and Armenian domestic life so vivid that readers feel they have experienced it for themselves.