Each book we read takes us on a journey. For me, one of the most memorable journeys was the one that carried me through the Istanbul of Elif Shafak.Photo: The Sunday Times
“The Bastard of Istanbul” is the sixth novel of the acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak and her second novel written in English. It might not be her best work, but it’s the perfect book to get to know (and love) Elif and get familiar (and in love) with her style. First of all, it is worth mentioning that Elif Shafak almost went to jail because of this book. Apparently, the historical truth is considered an offence to the Turkish identity, as the subject of the mass murder of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 is still very sensitive.
But, despite all of this controversy – or, perhaps, because of it – the Bastard of Istanbul was the bestselling novel in Turkey, in 2006. A well deserved first place in the sales charts, in my opinion, since the Bastard proved to be a captivating reading experience.
Long story short: two families, one Turkish, living in Istanbul, and the other one Armenian, living in Arizona and, respectively, in San Francisco, reunite 19 years after the events presented in the first chapters. Armanoush, a beautiful American-Armenian, with a passion for reading, raised in the heart of a broken home, decides to go to Istanbul on her own, without telling anything to her parents (convinced that they will be completely against the idea). Her curiosity towards Turkish culture has to do with the fact that her stepfather is a Turk, so, instead of hating the nation that slaughtered her people, she is keen on getting to know it better. She arranges to stay in the house of her stepfather’s relatives and it is at this point that the story gets really interesting.
The novel is filled with unforgettable female character, such as Asya, the “bastard” of the title, a nineteen-year-old woman who loves Johnny Cash and the French Existentialists, and the four sisters of the Kazanci family: Zehila, the youngest sister who runs a tattoo parlor and is Asya’s mother, Banu, the clairvoyant, Cevriye, a widowed high school teacher, and Feride, a hypochondriac.
Above all that, the novel is a vivid portrait of Istanbul, presented in contrasting colors – Johnny Cash’s music competes with religious songs that echo from the mosques and the Turkish version of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” finds a way to cohabit in harmony with the djinns (genies) and outdated superstitions. The book is not only full of symbols, but also of… delicious food, so you should mind your appetite. Expect to become a huge fan of Elif Shafak (if you aren’t already) by the end of this powerful story about freedom and oppression, remembrance and forgetfulness and, most important, about family. Also, expect not to be able to let go of the story for a long time. I didn’t, and it’s been three years since I’ve read the book. Enjoy!
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