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April 15, 2024

Review in Haiku: The Bastard of Istanbul

By Katrina Stonoff

Dark secrets cannot
quench girl's flair, a gift from her
fam'ly of women.

My local bookseller handsold The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak, to me. I was flattered. I've never before had a bookseller who paid attention to what kinds of books I liked and made a point of recommending ones I hadn't noticed, and I can understand now the power that gives a seller. But the very fact that she noted my preference was a point in favor of the book.

She hadn't actually read it yet, but she'd heard a segment about it on NPR's Fresh Air. Point Number Two for the book. By then, I was holding it and skimming the jacket.

Then she mentioned the author had been charged for daring to criticize her country, that she was put on trial for "public denigration of Turkishness." Point Number Three. I was sold.

It took a while to percolate up my stack of books to be read, but once I got through Page 1, I was hooked, and I didn't go anywhere without it for days.

In the first scene, a girl makes her way across the city in the rain for an appointment: cursing at cobblestones, splashing muddy water on her skirt, providing amusement for the street vendors. She's wearing a miniskirt in glaring color, high heels, a nose ring (she pierced herself), and a tight-fitting blouse the rain plasters against her ample breasts. Not the character I expected in Chapter 1 of a book set in a 94-percent Muslim country, but (like everyone who populates this book) sparkling, original and fresh.

This is a story of Turkish women: three generations of Kazanci sisters, all that's left of the family in Istanbul. Unfortunately, Kazanci men die young and unexpectedly. In fact, in an attempt to dodge his hereditary fate, the only Kazanci brother is sent early to America, where he marries a white woman with a half-Armenian daughter.

Bastard is exquisitely crafted. I especially love that the chapter headings have scent and flavor: Cinnamon, Garbanzo Beans, Roasted Hazelnuts, Vanilla, Orange Peels. All cooking ingredients that Shafak manages to bring into the chapter in a natural and unobtrusive way.

While the story is straightforward and easy to follow, the themes that weave in and out are rich and complex, much like the culture of Istanbul itself (formerly Constantinople, and Byzantium before that). There is the question of Turks actively forgetting the past. Of the Armenian need, not to "Forgive and Forget," but to Remember, to Be Remembered and Forgive. The question of intra-family tension. Of secrets kept and shared. Of the rights of women in a patriarchal society. Of individual expression versus conformity, the individual herself versus society. Of choice and consequence, and how one person's choice may lead to another's consequence.

I have only two, very minor, quibbles. First, the pacing is a little slow, once the first couple of chapters zip past. Second, the primary conflict appears to be a visit from America, but it's 100 pages before the visitor even decides to go. I've complained before (here, for instance) about books starting too soon, but my whine here is pretty mild because the information was fascinating. But still. Most of it was backstory, and I don't think we needed everyone's backstory.

But these small details detracted so little from the tale, which was elegant, profound, and soaring.

Take this passage, from a funeral at which a woman wails in pain:

"So did all the women (wail) in an endless chain. All were interconnected in a sequence of reaction and rhythm, each and every story woven into those of others, whether their owners recognized it or not. There was a lull in every wail -- or perhaps, in every communal grief there was someone who could not mourn with others."

After reading the book, I searched the Internet for more information about the author, and found this articulate, first-person description of the struggle with her government. Her case actually went to trial, a trial she missed because she sat in a hospital nursing her newborn daughter. Though a crowd of Ultra-Nationalist Turks attended the trial in support of her conviction, many more people attended to support freedom of speech, and she was acquitted.

What a gift it must be to participate, at once, in the birth of a new life and hopefully the rebirth of a old nation.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-08-04
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