Review: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

It's shocking, ambitious and nearly put its author in jail. What a shame, then, that Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul is so hard to read, says Geraldine Bedell

The Bastard of Istanbul

by Elif Shafak

Viking £16.99, pp357

The bastard of Istanbul arrives already weighed down by baggage. Written in English, the novel was published first in Turkey, in translation, where it rapidly became a bestseller. Its author, Elif Shafak, was accused by the Turkish government of 'insulting Turkishness' and could have been the first writer to be jailed in Turkey for fictitious words spoken by an invented person. In the event, the charges were thrown out but Shafak's first pregnancy was overshadowed by the possibility of a three-year prison term. The incident generated international concern.

So much for the brouhaha; what of the book? This is a cluttered carpetbag of a novel, crammed with characters and themes, not unlike Istanbul itself. But what might be invigorating in a city can, in a novel, be a bit bewildering. Towards the end I found myself drawing a family tree of the characters in an attempt to get the convoluted relationships straight in my head. (Shafak and her publishers can't provide this service themselves because the revelation of these relationships is the meat of the novel.)

In the first five chapters, rather like Robert Altman in Short Cuts, Shafak presents a series of disconnected scenes and characters that may, possibly, we hope, eventually cohere. This may work better in film than in a novel: by page 80 or so I was starting to feel frustrated at having to gird myself for the fifth change of focus. Did the young woman in Istanbul who failed to have an abortion have anything to do with the American housewife? Why had we jumped 19 years? Were any of these characters going to step forward and require some sustained emotional input?

Fortunately, around one-third of the way through, the two central figures, 19-year-old cousins Asya and Armanoush, one Turkish, one Armenian-American, finally meet in Istanbul and start talking about memory, identity, the wilful ignorance of the Turks of the massacres of Armenians in 1915, and whether the past can be shaken off, which are evidently the issues that Shafak really wants her readers to think about.

The trouble is that these poor girls are often overwhelmed by the book's political intent. Asya and Armanoush talk unlike any normal 19 year olds; even clever girls surely don't sound quite so relentlessly like an essay. The other characters are typically distinguished by a couple of salient features - sensible history teacher, miniskirted tattooist - as if they are there for a higher purpose, and a sketch will have to do.

Sometimes Shafak caves in completely under the need for symbolic weight, and refers to her characters simply by what they stand for - the Closeted Gay Columnist, the Non-nationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies (which feels a bit like being beaten round the head: we've already spotted that in Istanbul people often have to conceal their true identities). Most troubling of all, Mustapha, Asya's uncle and Armanoush's stepfather, whose actions are central to the plot, remains an enigma.

The magical realist descriptions of Istanbul and Asya's home are powerful: these are places where djinns comfortably coexist with the Turkish version of The Apprentice. And the passages about the deportations and massacres of Armenians are shocking, as Armanoush finds a city and a country in denial about the genocide, and attempts to make her cousins understand how much the past conditions the present.There's plenty of plot, too, even if it does mostly come in the final third. And there's no doubt that the book is clever, thick with ideas and themes and politics. Clogged, even: there were times when I could have done with fewer characters and rather less whimsical description.

The book is important for having drawn attention to the massacres and to the Turks' ambivalence about them, and for what it has exposed about freedom of speech. It's unquestionably an ambitious book, exuberant and teeming. But, perhaps because of the sometimes florid writing, reading it feels like holding a sack from which 20 very angry cats are fighting to escape.


Geraldine Bedell

The GuardianTramp

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