After Christmas the gallimaufry entourage nipped over to England for a few days, to foist themselves on my unfortunate family. Now I am not a fan of shopping – I find it boring, fatiguing and requiring too many decisions – but I do miss bookshops, and I was looking forward to paying a visit to my local Waterstone’s, the last bookshop left in a town which once boasted three (plus several second-hand bookshops).
(Ahem, this is not really me in Waterstone’s but my near-doppelgänger, Dovima from Funny Face; from here)
As it happened, I had precisely seven minutes to devote to this visit so was unable to savour the great pleasure of bookshops: examining the books. However, I did have time to look at its selection of the work of Elif Shafak, whose Black Milk I read last year, as I wanted to weigh up which of her novels to buy. Only two of her novels were in stock, The Bastard of Istanbul (for which she was prosecuted by conservatives in Turkey; the case was thrown out of court by the judge) and The Forty Rules of Love. With no time to ponder, I seized The Bastard for the very simple reason that I could not bring myself to buy a book with a cover so soppy as The Forty Rules, and rushed to the till, oops a copy of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child fell into my hand as I ran, well it was half price which as we all know is practically the same as free.
In that same moment they both slowed down. There, half a mile away from them out on the sea, was a man standing up in a small motorboat with several other passengers, holding a newly lit cigarette in one hand and in the other a fantastic tree of balloons in glowing yellows, oranges, and purples. Perhaps e was a fatigued balloon vendor, the father of many children, taking a shortcut from one coast to another on his way back from work, without knowing how breathtaking a pose he struck, as he dragged along a rain of colors and a plume of smoke over the blue waves.
Caught utterly unprepared by the exquisiteness of the scene, Armanoush and Asya stood silently watching the motorboat until it disappeared into the horizon.
Elif Shafak chose the Armenian genocide by the Ottomans in 1915–17 and its consequences for both Armenians and Turks as the focus of The Bastard of Istanbul . Asya Kazancı is the daughter of a single mother, brought up by three generations of Turkish women in Istanbul, nihilistic and besotted by the music of Johnny Cash. Her four ‘aunties’ are all formidable characters: mad Feride, disappointed Cevriye, Zeliha the tattooist – who is also Asya’s mother – and Banu, the clairvoyant with two dijinni on her shoulders. Armanoush lives part-time with her Armenian father’s family in San Francisco and part-time with her American mother Rose, who is estranged from Armanoush’s family and remarried to a Turk. Feeling suffocated by both sides of her family, Armanoush confides to other Armenian-Americans in a cybercafé and they are the only people she tells of her bold plan to lie to everyone and travel to Istanbul, where she feels certain she can learn more about her Armenian identity. Her intention is to stay with the family of her Turkish stepfather, who just happen to be the Kazancıs.
While the novel’s discussion of the genocide is in itself extremely important, it is also the means for exploring what the point of history is, and whether knowledge always better than ignorance, remembrance than forgetting. On the one hand, Armanoush and her fellow Armenians in diaspora are steeped in the past, the terrible events of 1915–17 are still very real to them all and a fundamental part of their identity. This cannot be otherwise, it has shaped all their lives and psyches, and yet Shafak seems to suggest that their constant dwelling on the past can be constricting too. While staying with the Kazancıs, Armanoush introduces Asya to her friends at the cybercafé. The Armenians are quite hostile. Asya asks: ‘Tell me, what can I as an ordinary Turk in this age do to ease your pain?’ and they are baffled. Ultimately, even the apology they crave cannot wipe away the tragedy. In the end one of them writes:
Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood. Apparently, there are some old habits that need to be changed on both sides.
In contrast, for most of the Turkish characters in Istanbul, the genocide is sad, terrible, but not important to their lives. Is this indifference better, or worse?
Asya, on the other hand, takes up an extreme position in the opposite direction. She does not know who her father is, hates the past and even claims she’d like to have Alzheimer’s, like her great-grandmother:
The past is nothing but a shackle we need to get rid of. Such an excruciating burden. If only I could have no past – you know, if only I could be a nobody, start from point zero and remain there forever. As light as a feather. No family, no memories and all that shit …
At the end of the novel Asya has learned the truth of her parentage, but to what advantage? And the person who committed a crime against a member of the Kazancı family (I don’t want to spoil the plot!) is punished, but whether this has brought peace to the victims or nothing more than sorrow to everyone else is not yet clear. It is also perhaps, not the point: I think Shafak is arguing that it’s what we do with history now which is important, and acknowledgement of it (but not domination by it) is a step towards this. But there are no easy answers. Banu’s clairvoyance reveals truths to her, but if she cannot act on those truths they just become a terrible burden to her. Knowledge can be a curse.
If there is an ideal position with regards to a terrible past, it is surely that of Aman, the Armenian who has remained in Istanbul and chosen to accept the genocide’s place in history and to distinguish his neighbours from his family’s oppressors.
This city is my city. I was born and raised in Istanbul. My family’s history in this city goes back at least five hundred years. Armenian Istanbulites belong to Istanbul, just like the Turkish, Kurdish, Greek, and Jewish Istanbulites do. We have first managed and then badly failed to live together. We cannot fail again. […] I love strolling these streets in the mornings, in the evenings, and then at night when I am merry and tipsy. I love to have breakfasts with my friends along the Bosphorus on Sundays, I love to walk alone amid the crowds. I am in love with the chaotic beauty of this city, the ferries, the music, the tales, the sadness, the colors, and the black humor …
Does all this make The Bastard of Istanbul seem heavy and depressing? It is not, although there is certainly a lot of working-out of ideas going on. Shafak touches upon great sadness, but lightly. She has an eye for the absurdities of situation and personality, a great sympathy for all her characters but a love of mocking them. The supporting cast is generally eccentric and rather two-dimensional, a fact to which she seems to nod with a smile in her naming of Asya’s intellectual friends: the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist, the Exceptionally Untalented Poet. The writing is energetic, sometimes a bit awkward – no surprise since, impressively, Shafak wrote this in English, her second language. She enjoys including back story and explaining everything in a way which is not currently fashionable in Anglo-American novels, it brings Isabel Allende’s style to mind. If it’s possible to write a ‘beach read’ about genocide, death, rape and illegitimacy, then Shafak has done it, and that is both its strength and its weakness.
The book consists of seventeen chapters, sixteen of which are named after the different ingredients mixed together to make ashure, a traditional dessert also known as Noah’s Pudding because of the story associated with it (that it was first made on the Ark with everyone and every animal bringing something to put in it). The seventeenth ingredient is not normally included in ashure. Shafak explains that ashure is a communal dish; it is made in large batches, ladled into bowls and shared out between your neighbours, colleagues, classmates and friends as a gesture of peace and love. It is also vegan, so no violence, bloodshed or exploitation of another creature goes into its making. As such, ashure is a symbol of peaceful multiculturalism and unity in diversity, both in the mixing together of so many ingredients and in the sharing of the finished pudding. Ashure is the way Shafak is asking us to try to live, and her novel itself is a bowl of ashure, a gift intended to bring people, Turks and Armenians included, together.
(Photograph of ashure from here)