A Novel Indictment
THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL
By Elif Shafak
Viking. 360 pp. $24.95
Two extended families, one Turkish living in Istanbul, the other in San Francisco, part of the Armenian diaspora. Through the interactions among and between them, we trace the tragic patterns of blame, denial, suppression of memory that have characterized relations between the two peoples since the massacres and deportations suffered by the Armenians at Turkish hands in the early months of 1915, perhaps the first example in the 20th century of what has come to be called ethnic cleansing, and systematic enough to be regarded as a policy of genocide -- two out of three Armenians living under Ottoman rule were done to death. The Turkish state has yet to acknowledge these atrocities, in spite of ample historical documentation.
Elif Shafak has chosen to write The Bastard of Istanbul in English, a decision to be applauded, though with mixed feelings. The novel deserves to reach a wide readership, for reasons not entirely literary. By putting into the mouths of her characters explicit reference to these events, for using the word "genocide," Shafak fell afoul of Article 301 of the Turkish penal code and was tried on a charge of "insulting Turkishness," which carries a prison sentence. It is only a few months since this charge was finally dropped. The case received wide press coverage both in the United States and in Europe and has served as a highly public -- and highly salutary -- example of the lengths to which an insensate nationalism can go in the suppression of elementary freedoms. It has also, of course, acted as an extreme example of the denial that is a central theme of the novel.
However, a novel is first of all a structure of words, and it has to be said that the structure is sometimes shaky in this one. Certainly we British must be on our guard against looking upon the English language as the last of our colonial possessions, quite failing to notice that it was lost long ago under the combined assault of a billion or so people all over the globe who regard it as theirs too, and often use it more vividly and inventively than we do. There is also the risk of being regarded as an inmate of a Home for Aged Pedants who has been let out for the day. All the same . . . "A tortuous moment," what can that be? How can a person's nose be called "blatantly aquiline"? How can you "listen to your Middle Eastern roots"? What does it mean to say that "sex is far more sensual than physical" or to describe a truth as "stringent and stolid"? These perplexities intensify at times to outright rebellion. No, no, no, a person cannot, at one and the same time, be "almost paralyzed" and "wallowing" in something. A gaze of mutual love cannot be called, in the same breath, "a prurient moment."
These are just a few random samples. I am pretty sure Shafak would not write things like this in her native Turkish. Should it matter? Too large a question to deal with here. Irritation at the way the author seems sometimes to muffle up or undermine her own meanings is compounded with regret by the fact that a lot of the time the writing is very good, eloquent, bold, full of shrewd insights, with veins of satire and poetry and fantasy running through it, and turns of phrase that are witty and aphoristic, like the description of the way her family deals with the extremely difficult Auntie Feride: "They had figured out one way of dealing with insanity, and that was to confuse it with a lack of credibility."
The narrative mode most resembles that of a storyteller in the oral tradition, leisurely and digressive and entirely arbitrary, moving from the horrors of the past to the pathologies of the present, through four generations, from Istanbul to San Francisco to Tucson, Ariz. Information is withheld from us until the moment is deemed ripe. Everything comes together finally in a resolution both powerful and moving, but this device of long-delayed information, which is employed throughout, can sometimes put a strain on our belief -- and on our patience. Early in the novel, the unmarried Zeliha, one of the Turkish contingent, announces to the assembled family that she is pregnant. Rage, consternation, abuse, tears. But not one of these five women thinks of asking her who the father is. A natural enough question, surely. We have to wait 300 pages to find out. Two-thirds of the way through the book and 19 years later, we are told quite casually that her daughter Asya has been having an extremely variegated and crowded sex life, going to bed with all and sundry. We have seen her grow up, we have been told all manner of things about her; why has this been kept from us? It is hard to see what purpose is served by these implausibilities of narrative.
One of the great strengths of the novel is the sometimes caustic but always humorously tolerant treatment of the various family members, especially those in Istanbul. A relish for the quirks and eccentricities of character runs through and irradiates the whole book. Auntie Feride, who changes her hair color and style "at each stage of her journey to insanity," so that in the end the doctors, in order to understand her illness, start keeping a hair chart; Auntie Banu, who comes into her own as a clairvoyant and believes that she has a djinn on either shoulder, one wicked and one good; Auntie Zeliha, audacious and independent, the woman of the future.
Recurrent throughout is the theme of past trauma and its effects in the present, the feeling of exile, the rooted sense of injustice, the rage at silence, the longing for a firm identity. Gradually the elements come together: the discussions online with fellow Armenians, the conversation of the strangely disembodied characters at the Café Kundera, the revelations of the evil djinn on Auntie Banu's left shoulder, and, above all, the friendship that develops between two girls from the different families. And we come to see that this need to confront the past, with all its load of error and guilt, is something that concerns not just Turks and Armenians but all of us, and that what is true between races and peoples is also true in individual lives. Throughout the novel, passing from one generation to the next, is a gold brooch in the shape of a pomegranate, a memorial to the unoffending victims and a symbol of continuity and reconciliation.
It is this last word that one keeps coming back to. But there is no reconciliation without justice. Elif Shafak's novel brings the possibility of it a step closer, and we are all in her debt for this. ·
Barry Unsworth's most recent novel is "The Ruby in Her Navel."