“The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Şafak


The Bastard of Istanbul

I enjoyed this book a lot. It is difficult to know where to start, each chapter is headed by an ingredient for Ashure, Mustafa’s favourite dish: “Cinnamon”, “Garbanzo Beans”, “Sugar” etc…

Mustafa is the only male child with four sisters. In the Karanczi family, it would seem males are cursed and tend to die young. The bastard of the title is Asya, who at nineteen has four aunties, one of whom is her mother Zeliha, all the women live in the same extended household in Istanbul.

Mustafa left the family long ago to escape the curse of the males of the dynasty, to find a new home in Arizona, where he marries a divorced Armenian American with a daughter, Armanoush.

Halfway through the book, Armanoush decides to search for her roots in Istanbul, her ancestors fled the city in 1915 during the Armenian Genocide. Armanoush boldly tells her hosts about the forced migration and slaughter of Armenians. She recites what her relatives in the US have told her, and her stories are typical of Armenian refugee narratives. Yet her new friends have never heard about these things. “Did you not hear about the Armenian genocide?” asks Armanoush. To which Asya replies simply “I’m only nineteen.

The author was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” under article 301 of the  Turkish Penal Code. She faced a possible three year sentence but the charges were dropped. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk also had charges brought against him that were later dropped. Death threats have been made against Pamuk and Shafak by extremists of the same ilk that assassinated the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Denk in January 2007. Turkish culture is divided and volatile. Nationalists, Islamists, the Turkish military, and liberals such as Pamuk and Shafak are locked in a battle for the nation’s soul. In the novel Asya frequents a cafe, Cafe Kundera, where one of the regulars described as a Dipsomaniac Cartoonist, also has trouble with the authorities for lampooning the prime minister in a cartoon as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

There are many illusions to other writers, in addition to Kundera, Asya remarks she feels like she is in a Marquez novel living in a house of so many women. There is also an element of magic realism Auntie Banu, a headscarf-wearing clairvoyant, has two djinns (genies) at her command, Mrs Sweet and Mr Bitter.

Tolstoy is dismissed:”It is so easy for Tolstoy to sputter that nonsense,” the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist’s wife shrugged. “The guy had a wife who took care of every little detail, raised the dozens of kids they had, and worked like a dog so that his majesty the great Tolstoy could concentrate and write novels!”

I am reminded most of the style of Paulo Coelho, especially with Zeliha’s rules of prudence for the Istanbulite woman.

The novel highlights the many contradictions in Turkish society, the conflict between the secular and the religious, the alcohol and the headscarves, the cooking and the cursing.

I was thoroughly immersed in the story and am happy to find a new Turkish author I can enjoy having almost exhausted Pamuk’s canon.

Destiny plays a big part in the novel with the religious Auntie Banu telling them the story of a man who decided to travel the entire globe round and round, in an endeavor to escape his mortality. North and south, east and west, he wandered every which way he could. Once, in one of his numerous trips, he unexpectedly ran into Azrail, the angel of death, in Cairo. Azrail’s piercing gaze raked the man with a mysterious expression. He neither said a word nor followed him. The man right away abandoned Cairo, traveling nonstop thereafter until he arrived in a small, sleepy town in China. Thirsty and tired he rushed into the first tavern on his way. There, next to the table to which he was ushered, sat Azrail patiently waiting for him, this time with a relieved expression on his face. “I was so surprised to run into you in Cairo,” he rasped to the man, “for your destiny said it was here in China that we two would meet.” 

At one point, Aram, an Armenian Turk, Asya’s mother’s boyfriend, says to Armanoush:

“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.”


My Rating : 5 out of 5

About jimholroyd365

Hi, my name is Jim, I am an Englishman living in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. I started this blog to share my interests, my photos and to make sense of my world. I take a lot of photographs of various subjects, some of which I intend to share here. I collect diecast cars and get the same thrill at 50 as I did when I was 8, when I find a car I'm searching for, Don't worry, I have a separate blog for this hobby. Please feel free to comment and ask questions on what I blog. I am quite new to this blogging, I was inspired by reading a book, which began as a blog of a London Ambulance Driver: "Blood, Sweat and Tea". I hope my blog will be entertaining and amusing, I did try stand up comedy in the UK and had seven gigs before I left to teach English in Georgia. I love reading and so the blog will include book reviews of books as I finish them.I don't know about which direction this blog will go, I am a great believer in serendipity...let the journey begin...
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7 Responses to “The Bastard of Istanbul” by Elif Şafak

  1. Pingback: “Honor” by Elif Shafak | jimholroyd365b

  2. Finally finished this. Writing my review now (will wait to publish, as I want to compare to another Armenian genocide book). Was thinking about referring to Asya as the “title character” (ie the bastard of Istanbul), but on further thought not sure if I actually agree. I see you decided to call her that. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: “The Architect’s Apprentice” by Elif Shafak | jimholroyd365b

  4. Pingback: Reading Review 2016 | jimholroyd365b

  5. Pingback: Book Review: “The Flea Palace” by Elif Shafak – Blog #2

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