June 22, 2007

Elif Shafak's "The Bastard of Istanbul" A Search for Identity.

"The Bastard of Istanbul", an interesting read, no doubt! A title that intrigues and a setting that is of contemporary interest were perhaps two reasons for picking up the book. Turkey has been in the news for various reasons in the past few years. It is a country trying to establish it's real identity amid the market furore of globalization and the fast build up of religious fervor around the world. While the EU beckoned with the lure of a promising economy, Turkey was battling with a sudden growth of Islamization within the country. "On the one hand there are the ones who want Turkey to join the EU, democratise further and become an open society," says Shafak, but on the other "are the ones who want to keep Turkey as an insular, xenophobic, nationalistic, enclosed society". It wasn't surprising then that writers such as Pamuk and Shafak began spinning tales around this turmoil, and thus "The Bastard of Istanbul" was born.

The story of two young lives: one a Turkish Muslim living in Istanbul who is clueless about the identity of her father, a 'bastard' in a social sense, and the other an Armenian American who has travelled to Istanbul from San Francisco to trace her roots, a bastard in terms of her national identity. Both carry a painful past that they want to confront and resolve, and this leads to the touchy subject of the "Armenian qustion" that many in Turkey are still not ready to discuss. Shafak in an interview said, "They can't talk about 1915... ours is a society with collective amnesia. We haven't come to grips with our past, nor have we recognized how bitter the Armenians are because their grief goes unacknowledged. I would like Armenians to forgive and forget one day, too, but we Turks need to remember first".

This novel got Elif Shafak into some real hot waters and she became yet another writer to join sixty others, including Orhan Pamuk, who have been charged for defamation and misrepresentation under Turkey's Criminal Code. Shafak was shocked and "didn't think a work of fiction would get me branded a traitor to my country". Why is Art under so much pressure? Since when did a work of fiction come under such scrutiny for historical legitimacy and be charged for ethical or criminal misconduct? A baffled Shafak claims, " I am a novelist. When I write, I don't calculate the consequences of what I'm writing. I just surround myself with the story." Apparently the charges have cited defamatory language used by one of the characters, such as 'Turkish butchers' that 'slaughtered the Armenians like sheep', as a prime reason for the charges. How this character's expostulations translate into Shafak being charged as a traitor is beyond logic!

The female characters that abound in this novel are varied, complex, and often shocking; they shatter some stereotypes that we have built about women residing in Muslim countries. Along with a gripping story, and enticing charcterization, the novel offers an inside view of Turkish culture with a focus on the aromas and recipes of Turkey's ancient cuisine. The reader feels like he's returning from Istanbul after turning that last page.


Lotus Reads said...

You read some wonderful books, Id! I have had my eye on this book ever since the Turkish government charged Shafak for "insulting Turkishness", but it sure took its time to make it over the Atlantic.

I had a cursory look at it at the bookstore the other day and I love how the chapter titles are named after various foods and was delighted to find that the author had included recipes too, but more than that I really do want to read what she has to say about the Armenian genocide.

Thanks very much for this wonderful review, I will be picking up this book soon.

Id it is said...

lotus reads,
I have to admit that it was a fellow blogger, 'khakra', who recommended I read this book, and I'm so glad I did.
You too have some interesting reads like that last one you posted on; a novel about Bangladesh. I plan toread it over the summer.

Raza Rumi said...

Many thanks for introducting us to this book. I have to read it..

Also, thanks for stopping by at Jahane Rumi. All your comments have been posted now

cheers, R

Sharique said...

I somehow feel that whole world is going through a transition phase, a phase of unacceptability of iconoclastic expressions of thoughts. One has to be really careful not to offend someone's culture..this is one thing I am learning my by association with the Indian govt. (not being in the government but external agency consulting them). Govts. have to take so much into consideration while invoking such a ban, even though it may not be personally unacceptable to him/her...you know the whole country is at stake and plus the votes!!

Dr. Deb said...

I think any book that can redefine a woman is a must read for me.