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This is one of the best novels I have read from Elif Safak, Safak is a female novelist in Turkey and is quite successful, some of her novels and stories have been translated into English and The Bastard of Istanbul is one of them. It tells the story of a family which is dominated by females. The novel is quite entertaining, the characters are all different from each other, 3 generations of women are living in the same household, mother, daughters and the grand child.
The end of the book is definetely the best part, from the events that are developing throughtout the book, some readers can guess what will happen at the end.
As well as descibing the difference between middle aged women and a young teenager, it also draws a portrait of modern Istanbul and how people communicate with each other, how they dress, where they hang out, the religious involvement and of course I shouldn't miss the main part of the novel which is the Armenian Turkish relatinships.
You'll enjoy this novel if you like Turkish literature.
Are we the end product of our familial history or the beginning of something new?
Armanush has no doubt that only the first assumption can be true, Asya doesn't really care, but if she were forced to have a standpoint, she'd opt for the latter. Why should she care for past generations if she doesn't even know who her father is? She's the youngest of an all female household in Istanbul composed of her great-grandmother, her grandmother, three aunts and her mother Zeliha whose illegitimate child (bastard) she is and who she also calls 'aunt'.
There is a brother, the child before Zeliha, but because all men in the family die a premature death, he's sent to America to study so that he's out of the way of the evil fate waiting for him in Turkey. He's the link between Asya's and Armanush's families as he marries an American woman divorced from an Armenian with whom she's had a daughter, Armanush.
The older the girl becomes, the more she's torn between her American and her Armenian roots; especially the stories about the past of the Armenian people, the genocide committed by the Turks in 1915, in which more than a million Armenians were killed, and their enforced exile trouble her deeply. In order to learn where her place in life is she decides to travel to Istanbul and live for a while with her step-father's family lying to father and mother by telling them that she's staying with the other parent.
The two young women, both 19 years old, couldn't be more different, Asya, the world-weary, sex-crazy, dope smoking, nihilistic student of philosophy and Armanoush, the gentle bookworm who frightens potential boyfriends away with her intellect. Asya is dead set against liking the American girl, but they soon become close friends against all odds.
I'm surprised about some negative reviews I've found on the net. The author is accused of cramming the novel with characters and themes. One reviewer confesses to be befuddled by the many names and misses a family-tree in the book to help him along. I think that with a bit of concentration it's not so difficult to keep in mind who's who in whose family. Salman Rushdie gets away with more chaotic families and more complex themes, but who dares criticise him?
The Bastard of Istanbul is Elif Shafak's (born in 1971) sixth novel, the second written in English before being translated into Turkish. To write, "...It's clear that although Shafak may be a writer of moral compunction, she has yet to become - in English, at any rate - a good novelist" is patronising and condescending. I've read novels whose authors have received the Booker Prize for them but can't hold the candle to Elif Shafak. Turkey wasn't a British colony, so it doesn't belong to the British culture area, obviously an author from outside must work extra hard before they're allowed a foot in.
I'm not bothered if I mix up names occasionally, I enjoy the description of the characters as such. Especially the women of the all-female Turkish family are a real freak show: the eldest sister is a clairvoyant with a good djin on one shoulder and a bad one on the other, she always wears a bright red headscarf and long skirts. The youngest, Zeliha, mother of Asya, sports a nose-ring, wears mini-skirts and high heels and runs a tattoo parlour. Between them is a sister that thrives on the most horrendous accidents she finds on TV and in the press and one that ticks off all known mental diseases, when we get to know her, she's a hebephrenic schizophrenic.
The overprotective Armenian family is frighteningly funny; when Armanoush has a date after a long dateless spell, they all happen to be in the house when the poor young man comes to get her to give him an eye-over.
The subject proper of the novel, however, is the fate of the Armenians and the refusal of the Turks to acknowledge the genocide of 1915. This subject is so hot that when the novel was published in Turkey, Elif Sharik was accused of 'denegrating Turkishness', a crime which can mean three years in prison. The case was later dismissed.
You may think, "What is the fate of the Armenians, who were massacred more than 100 years ago, to me?" Apart from the fact that it never hurts to look beyond the garden fence and broaden one's horizon, the book transcends the Turkish/Armenian conflict. Genocide is denied also in other parts of the world; the Sudanese government, for example, calls the butchers of Darfur 'self-defence militias'. Or think of Rwanda; once a genocide is over, how can people go on living together as a people? What helps to heal the wounds? Apologies? Revenge?
Reading The Bastard of Istanbul gave me great pleasure and I recommend the novel whole-heartedly. It has a top place in my top ten 2009 novels! My enthusiasm may have been fuelled by the fact that we know an Armenian family and have Turkish neighbours and, moreover, that I read it in my hols in Turkey. Not in Istanbul, but while reading about Istanbul, I remembered our visit there. Elif Sharik evokes the many facets of the city. (from the net) "Istanbul makes one comprehend, perhaps not intellectually but intuitively, that East and West are ultimately imaginary concepts, and can thereby be de-imagined and re-imagined. . . . "East and West is no water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, amazingly".
Should you ever plan to visit Istanbul, this is the reading matter to take with you. Should you never go to Istanbul, this is the perfect ersatz trip.
First published in the USA in 2007
RRP 7,99 GBP
11th October, 2009: Zurich, Switzerland: Turkey and Armenia signed an agreement establishing diplomatic relations after nearly a century of animosity.