In 2006 the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak faced prosecution after she was accused of “insulting Turkishness”. The “insult” occurs in her bestselling novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, when a character refers to the massacre of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. Under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, this is a criminal act.
In the face of this condemnation of free speech, Shafak, a minority rights activist, essayist and public speaker as well as a fiction writer, has continued to illuminate the injustice of the Turkish government’s anti-feminist, anti-intellectual authoritarianism, which leads to hundreds of authors and journalists being imprisoned. As such, she fills her novels with characters who in real life would be silenced. In the weeks following the publication of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Shafak’s 11th novel, now longlisted for the Booker Prize, police officers showed up at her Turkish publisher’s office, demanding to see her books and taking them away to be “investigated”.
The book’s opening is stark: “Tequila Leila”, a 40-something sex worker, lies murdered in a dustbin on the outskirts of Istanbul. Her mind takes 10 minutes and 38 seconds to fully shut down, in which time her brain enters “into a state of heightened awareness, observing the demise of the body but not ready to accept its own end”. Inspired by a series of lingering aromas – “cardamom coffee” or “spiced goat stew” – Leila’s mind falls back on memories from her past, as Shafak recalls her protagonist’s childhood in prose rich in sensory description.
The patriarchy under which Leila grows up is evident from the beginning. She is born in the city of Van to a mother she will come to know as Auntie, because immediately after her birth her father insists his first wife will raise Leila as her own. “You and I will make more children,” he tells his second. As the dead Leila’s mind continues to whir, more secrets unfurl: when she is six years old, her uncle creeps into her bed and forces her to touch him. He has chosen Leila out of all her cousins, he says, because she is “not selfish like the others”.
In spite of this abuse, the young Leila is charming. She demands truth and speaks her mind, querying traditional practices with a fresh pragmatism and sparkling humour. When her father uses the phrase “in the eyes of Allah”, Leila asks: “How do you manage to see with the eyes of Allah? I’ve always wondered.” Shafak’s intimate depiction of Leila’s love for her younger brother, Tarkan, born with a “rosebud face, doughy cheeks and knees dimpled like soft clay”, introduces the novel’s most tender relationship.
Later, Leila flees for Istanbul, a place Shafak excels in conjuring: “Istanbul was a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters. In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive.”
These contradictions are where Istanbul’s vibrancy – and danger – lies. But Shafak’s flaw is to layer her plot with character after character as she takes in the sights of the city; what could have been a powerful portrait of the harsh realities of Turkey’s patriarchy becomes a loose account of figures who are never fully realised.
We meet Leila’s friends, Sinan, Nalan, Humeyra, Zaynab122 and Jameelah (Shafak refers to them as “the five”), each ostracised in their own way and then fused together as society casts them out. Though Shafak repeatedly insists that they are imperative to Leila’s story, each is given an explanation of just a handful of pages before they are thrown together in a sitcom-like state of affairs. A scene that begins with a thoughtful contemplation of asylum seekers whose boats capsize in Turkish waters becomes farcical, as weedy Sinan drinks too much vodka and falls into a grave, and ridiculous Scooby-Doo-like antics ensue.
Shafak gives voices to those who are often left out of stories, but her characters are too crammed in and overlap too much to make any succinct political statement. A newspaper report of Leila’s death read by a grocer – “the homicide rate for Istanbul’s sex workers is eighteen times higher than for other women” – reinforces the importance of 10 Minutes. But while the first half of the novel presents a complex and emotionally intelligent Leila, in the second half her friends are mere caricatures of transgender people, immigrants and sex workers who deserve a more considered exploration.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Viking, 320pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler