Any review of Elif Shafak's latest novel, THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL, is sure to mention the surrounding controversy. When the book was published last year in Turkey, Shafak ended up facing a prison sentence because of what her fictional characters say about the massacre of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, a tragedy not officially recognized by the Turkish government. This drama could overshadow the book itself, but instead it should contribute to the poignancy of the story.
The titular bastard is Asya Kazanci, a young woman living in Istanbul in a house of eccentric and loving women. Asya is rebellious, even though her "aunties" are fairly tolerant. She is obsessed with the music of Johnny Cash, smokes cigarettes behind her family's back, and ditches the ballet lessons they pay for so that she can sit and drink in a cafe with a bunch of world-weary existentialists. Asya's rebellion is inherited from her mother, the stunning "auntie" Zeliha who had Asya when she was just 19 and now runs a tattoo parlor catering to the artistic and secular of Istanbul. Shafak suggests that Asya's rebellion is part of being an Istanbulite, and the city itself is a major character in the novel. Zeliha has never revealed the name of Asya's father, and much of Asya's identity is tied up in her being a "bastard." But her identity as a woman, as a Turk and as a daughter of Istanbul will be challenged when a bold Armenian American woman arrives on her doorstep.
Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian is a college student in Arizona. Raised between her Armenian family in San Francisco and her mother and Turkish stepfather in Tucson, she, like Asya, struggles with identity. She feels deeply connected to her Armenian ancestry and is often ashamed of the fact that her mother married a Turk, Mustafa, after she and Armanoush's father divorced. She decides that a trip to Istanbul, to explore her family's past and to reconcile her feelings for Turkey, will allow her to move on with her life and sort through some of her confusion. She decides to stay with Mustafa's family in Istanbul, and Mustafa's niece happens to be Asya.
When Asya and Armanoush meet, they each begin to sort out their personal, national and ethnic identities, and uncover several family secrets.
THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL is both funny and sad. Shafak's prose, although sometimes heavy-handed, conveys the spirit of both young women and the city that connects them. Readers feel for the characters who, often kooky, seem quite real (and mostly likable). The violence against the Armenians is addressed with respect and without being preachy. It is only sentences such as this that can slow the story down: "If there is an eye in the seventh sky, a Celestial Gaze watching each and every one from way up high, He would have had to keep Istanbul under surveillance for quite some time to get a sense of who did what behind closed doors and who, if any, uttered profanities."
Shafak nicely blends realism with a touch of the supernatural and mystical for an enjoyable and subtly thought-provoking read. She evokes the sights, sounds, smells and especially the tastes of Istanbul; her portrait of the city is at once romantic and brutally honest. It soon becomes clear that, despite the title, Asya is not really the central character. The story focuses on the relationship between Asya and Armanoush as each tries to negotiate a partially concealed past and an unknown future. This allows the unfolding of the stories of the two families, the Tchakmakhchains and the Kazancis, and how they are deeply connected. By the end of the novel, family secrets are revealed, and while the characters learn much, Shafak allows them to maintain certain notions and prejudices even as she attempts to strip them from her readers.
In the end, despite some problems with the prose, THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL is an interesting book from a young novelist who already has made her mark in world literature and deserves to be read apart from the surrounding controversy.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 11, 2011
The Bastard of Istanbul