Book Review by Dmetri Kakmi
When Elif Safak’s latest novel was released in her home country, she was arraigned and accused of insulting Turkish identity. The charges were fortunately withdrawn; had she been charged, she could have faced up to three years incarceration, this in the latter stages of pregnancy. Safak escaped imprisonment, but the death threats keep coming from ultra-nationalists and they are to be taken seriously. These people are, after all, the ones who killed Armenian journalist Hrank Dink last year. The consequences of this unwarranted kerfuffle in a supposedly democratic nation is that one of Turkey’s most prominent and liveliest voices is too afraid to venture out. She is so stressed, she is finding it difficult to breast feed her baby. On a positive note, it’s worth noting that the Turkish edition of the book was, nevertheless, a bestseller.
But what is the fuss about? For the answer we must examine the novel itself.
First and foremost, The Bastard of Istanbul is a cross-continental family saga. It examines in loving detail and with much humour the lives of two families: one living in contemporary Istanbul and Turkish, the other residing in San Francisco and Armenian. They are the Kazanci and Tchakhmakhchian families, respectively. It appears initially that the two have nothing in common. But don’t be fooled. Turkey is the classic metaphoric haunted house, sitting astride the continental divide; consequently, from inside its many rooms the past and present are still largely at war, while from unexplored corners voices are trying to be heard, come what may. In other words, every ethnic and religious group that has traversed Anatolian soil has at one time or another shared a bed with the opposition. It’s called sleeping with the enemy. Often not only does the right hand not know what the left hand is doing, but there are two or more sides to every story. The consequences of this incessant kvetching is that no one is unsullied. This is where the Kazanci and the Tchakhmakhchian s are implicated. They do not know it, but long fingers are reaching from the blighted past to inextricably bind them together for all time. The conduits that will bridge the gap, that privilege, belongs to the young. And they are a spunky crew.
The first is the bastard of the title, nineteen-year-old Asya Kazanci. She is a modern Turk, rebellious, outspoken, and belligerently without a past, in more ways than one. She is also the youngest of a household of several generations of women, the men having died mysteriously at a young age. The second conduit is Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian. She is sensitive and searching for her Armenian roots in, of all places, the American desert. Her curiosity about the ‘genocide’ of the Armenians compels her to finally meet the enemy on their own turf. Thus she deceives her family and flies to Istanbul to learn more about her beloved grandmother’s past. She cannot know what a Pandora’s box she is opening, and what a hidden blessing she will find.
It’s an intriguing premise that allows the horrors of what took place in 1915 to slowly rise to the surface. I won’t go into more detail because the scenario Safak creates, the intrigues, the agonies, the loops and connections, the surprising revelations, ought to be discovered on ones own. I will say, though, that I was so captivated that I swallowed the book whole in two days and when I finished, I read it over again. I didn’t want to part with the characters. They are so alive and so familiar to anyone who has grown up in that part of the world. And the contradictory face of modern Istanbul is so beautifully evoked.
What I can say is this. This is a smart and brave book, by a smart and brave author. Firstly because it attempts something that is quite difficult to pull off in literary terms. The Bastard of Istanbul is an absorbing and artfully composed meditation on Turkey’s changing face. The trick is that it is posing as an easily digestible popular entertainment, complete with lashing of scrumptious Turkish food (there’s a recipe), transgressive (for Turkey) gestures, and illicit encounters.
Second, by using the Kacanci household as a metaphor for her country (the women are split right down the middle: half are conservative, while the others move with the times), Safak explores Turkey’s amnesiac brain with a deftness and compassion that ought to be applauded. She is, when one reads carefully, being fair to both sides. Despite what I said above, Asya Kazanci is not the bastard of the story. Turkey is. This is because, as Safak suggests, the country exists almost purely in the present, with a steady eye on the future. Sure, it embraced the glories of the Ottoman past, but it has almost entirely divorces itself from the more painful elements of that imperial glory. The pangs of nation building might as well have happened in another country, not merely in the near past. In this regard, Turkey is shown to us as a bastard afloat in time. And what Safak suggests is that a country without a full knowledge of its past is not a country at all, just as a person without a past feels less than human. With one particular plot permutation, Safak goes on to suggest that the country might even have an unhealthy or even unnatural relationship with its sense of self. It must first embrace both the good and bad in its history before it can begin to even dream about moving forward.
If the book is hard on Turks, it does not go easy on Armenians either. Those with victim complexes to nurture, beware. You will find little or no solace here. Safak deftly avoids mentioning the word ‘genocide’. Instead she uses the noun ‘massacre’. There is, after all, no proof that the Ottomans sanctioned a systemic annihilation of the Armenian people along the lines of what the Nazis did to the Jews and other ‘undesirables’. There is, however, ample evidence to show that Armenian legionaries inside and outside Turkey fought for the Russians and the French against the Ottomans during World War One. In an effort to safeguard the interests of the country, the Ottomans forcefully deported a very large number of Armenians (the figure is disputed) in the July heat from the northeast of the country to the far southeast. Many cruelly perished along the way.
The beauty of Safak’s book is that it is not a political diatribe. Rather, it is a humanist plea to recognise the past, to commemorate the dead, and to finally move on. Far from seeming glib, it is a sensible solution.
*This review is officially published in Istanbul Literary Review, visit http://www.ilrmagazine.net/article/article3.php