Book Review: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

elif shafak

Whenever you pick a book you never know exactly what are you going to get. Same happened to me with ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’.

Background of buying Bastard of Istanbul: I would not have read this novel if the author was not Elif Shafak. My love for Shafak started after reading Forty Rules of Love (FROL). It was a story about a desperate housewife who was not happy in her married life. She worked at a literary agency where she was given a book to review name as Sweet Blasphemy written by Aziz Zahra. The book is about a wandering dervish Shams of Tarbaiz who is a mystic Sufi and he sees the vision of his death and he need to find someone to whom he can deliver his knowledge to. For this purpose, Shams travelled to Konya where he met Jalaluddin Rumi, a famous Islamic scholar and a Sufi. After meeting Shams, a drastic change was observed in Rumi due to which people including Rumi’s family start hating him.

I know I have deviated from my review but the reason to include synopsis of FROL was to make you people understand my preference for this novel 🙂

I remembered I bought this book during last year’s book fair that held at Expo Center, Karachi. Before this fair, I had already finished FROL so when I reached liberty book stall and start searching for some good novels, I got hold of this novel ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’. I only saw the spine of the novel as it was in between other novels on the rack. Reading Shafak’s name raised my guard and as soon as I took it out I was just in love with the cover of the paperback. I decided instantly to buy this novel.

For one whole year I thought to read but due to job and so many other books in my reading list, it took me a while to start with this novel (and probably that’s why I am dragging it over here too) Jokes apart…

Précis: Let me trudge through the story which showcases three cultures in one story-Turkey, Aremina and America. The story is set in the United States and Turkey, concerns two families-one Turkish, living one in Istanbul and other is Armenian, living between Arizona and San Francisco

A young girl Armanoush, an Armenian- American, had a split family as her parents were divorced. Her mother married to a Turkish man, Mustafa whereas his father who was an Armenian, never remarried.  Armanoush decided to go to Turkey and stay with her step-father’s family.

Mustafa’s family based in Istanbul is a house of five women where Asya Kazanci is the youngest of all. Asya’s beautiful and a rebellious mother, Zeliha run a tattoo parlor. Asya never got to know about his father and her mother never mentioned to her of course at the end of the story.

Both Armanoush and Asya were young and didn’t know much about their past however, the former who came for a search of her identity, the latter didn’t even attempt to find about her father. According to Asiya, “Memories are too much of a burden” whereas Armanoush had different opinion and following lines might be easy to understand her perception. “Despite all the grief that it embodies, history is what keeps us alive and united.”

Review: I was really shocked when I got to know that Shafak was prisoned for three years for writing this novel. The story talks about Armenian genocide that happened in 1915. Shafak kept a neutral approach for this genocide. Armanoush tried to reason with her cousin Asya about Armenian genocide as she was appalled to find a city and a country in denial about the genocide, and she attempted to make her cousin understand how much the past conditioned the present.

What I found troubling is Mustafa’s character, whose actions are central to the plot, remains an enigma. It was quite a revelation when I got to know that Asya’ on whom the title is based, was a daughter of her uncle Mustafa and he was the culprit who raped his own sister. I think nothing justifies rape and putting on the complexities in the past is not enough reason to do such horrendous act. But then the brought up of the family do matter in the development of the personality.

Overall there’s plenty of plot in this novel however, there is no doubt that the book is clever, thick with ideas, themes and politics. But then reading through the pages I realized that it would be more interesting with fewer characters and rather less quirky description.

On the positive side, the highlight of the novel is some of the beautiful lines which really hook you to the novel till the end. Some of the lines I am sharing below in this post.

Excerpts from the Novel

Life is coincidence, though sometimes it takes djinni to fathom that.

-Language was only a reeking carcass of hollow words long rotten inside

-Literature needs freedom to thrive. For Asya, fiction was her main connection with the entire world

-Mourning is like virginity, Aunty Zeliha heaved a sigh. You should give it to the one who deserves it most.

-When women survive an awful marriage or love affair, and all that, they generally avoid another relationship for quite some time. With men, however, it’s just the opposite, the moment they finish a catastrophe they start looking for another one. Men are incapable of being alone.

-Family stories intermingle in such ways that what happened generation ago can have an impact on seemingly irrelevant developments of the present day. The past is anything but by gone. If Levent Kazanci hadn’t grown up to be such a bitter and abusive man, would his only son, Mustafa, have ended up being a different person? If generations ago in 1915 Shushan hadn’t been left an orphan, would Asya today still be a bastard

-“All these rich people! Huh! They stockpile money all through their life, what for? How foolish! Do shrouds have pockets? It’s a cotton shroud that we are all going to wear in the end. That’s it. No chic clothes. No jewelry. Can you wear a tuxedo to the grave or a ball gown? Who holds the skies for the people?”

-Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.

-For the Armenians, time was a cycle in which the past incarnated in the present and the present birthed the future. For the Turks, time was a multi-hypenated line, where the past ended at some definite point and the present started anew from scratch, and there was nothing but rupture in between

-Collectivities are capable of manipulating their individual members’ beliefs, thoughts, and even bodily reactions. You keep hearing a certain story over and over again, and the next thing you know you have internalized the narrative. From that moment on it ceases to be someone else’s story. It is not even a story anymore, but reality, your reality!

Happy Reading Everyone!

 

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