Nouvelles d'Armenie    
Dark history, suffocating love and mouthwatering food

Robert Colvile reviews The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

Over the years, I’ve read a few modern novels that could be described as criminally bad - but The Bastard of Istanbul is the first that’s got its author put on trial. Elif Shafak’s crime was to use, or rather have her characters use, words such as "genocide" in relation to the pogrom against the Armenians that accompanied the dawn of the Turkish state. This, under Turkey’s nationalistic legal code, was tantamount to denigrating Turkishness, although Shafak avoided a three-year jail sentence when the judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence. (Shafak was heavily pregnant during the trial.)

If it is shocking that authors can be put on trial for what they write (as has happened to many other writers and journalists in Turkey, most famously Orhan Pamuk), it is also oddly appropriate, given the subject of this novel. The central question in The Bastard of Istanbul is whether it is best to disinter the past, with all the trauma and pain that entails, or cut ourselves off from it. It is a dilemma personified by two girls just emerging from their teens - Asya, the illegitimate Turkish child of the title, and Armanoush, an Armenian-American whose divorced mother took up with a Turk - Asya’s uncle - mostly to spite her former in-laws.

Both girls are smothered by the suffocating love of their respective clans (Asya’s aunts, especially, are "a pack of female animals forced to live together"). But they differ over their attitude to the past. Armanoush, seeking to explore her Armenian identity and confront the Turkish oppressors, makes a daring trip to Istanbul.

Asya, with a blank space where a father should be, prefers not to explore her roots. Each attitude is reflected more widely : Armanoush is egged on by a crew of embittered Armenian message-board buddies from the US, whereas Asya’s friends in Istanbul’s Café Kundera can offer sympathy but not remorse for the fate of the Armenians.

All this talk of history and identity might suggest that this is a rather po-faced novel. In fact, Shafak is a sprightly author, generous with the comic touches - I particularly liked the San Francisco restaurant in which the dishes are arranged to resemble great Expressionist paintings. Indeed, the narrative is laced with a mouthwatering appreciation of food.

The atmosphere is rich and slightly off-kilter : the story of the Armenians’ expulsion is narrated by Armanoush, but confirmed to Asya’s soothsayer aunt by the djinn who sits on her shoulder. When Armanoush says of her trip to Turkey that she feels "like I am in a Gabriel García Márquez novel", the sensation is familiar.

Towards the end, the novel swings from the political to the personal, as Shafak reveals buried secrets and unexpected ties between the two families, both of which feel rather clichéd. Things aren’t helped by the re-entry into the narrative of Rose, Armanoush’s mother, who is a caricature of the insular American - the kind of woman who will take a cactus-shaped bottle of Mexican sauce to Istanbul in case the food isn’t any good.

But this is still an engrossing novel, and one can only hope that its author’s courage in tackling this subject, and defending herself from an unmerited prosecution, will hasten the abandonment of an unconscionable taboo.

Last Updated : 12:01am BST 02/08/2007 - United Kingdom

mardi 7 août 2007,
Stéphane ©

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