A Turk in Progress

That the rich literary culture of contemporary Turkey is largely known to an American audience through Orhan Pamuk means it is largely unknown: Like many Nobel laureates, Pamuk can be as tedious as he is impressive, and few readers, I strongly suspect, actually finish his highly cerebral books. That makes it all the more welcome that Elif Shafak’s new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, her sixth and the second she has written in English, may well break Pamuk’s monopoly on the American imagination. If it does, it will largely be thanks to the advance publicity it received recently when Shafak–– like Pamuk and many of their compatriots––was sued in Turkey for, in this very book, “insulting Turkishness” under the notorious Article 301.

It’s a great platform for a book launch, since the lawsuit was really more an annoyance than an outrage: Brought not by a repressive government but rather by ultranationalist private citizens, this ludicrous charge was quickly dismissed by the Turkish courts. At issue was the novel’s frank treatment of the Armenian genocide, the 1915 deportation and slaughter of a million Armenians by the Ottoman Army, which Turkey has long refused to acknowledge. But in fact, this is only a portion of a long, complex novel.

The Bastard of Istanbul is the story of the meeting, in contemporary Istanbul, of two girls: Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, an Armenian-American living in San Francisco, and Asya Kazanci, a Turk. The first, born of an American woman and an Armenian man from a survivor family, has grown up in the atmosphere of anguished righteousness that defines survivor communities, an anguish rendered all the more poignant by the fact that following her parents’ divorce, her mother has taken up with a Turkish expatriate, Mustafa Kazanci, Asya’s uncle. Asya is a nihilistic, eccentric girl––the “bastard of Istanbul”––who lives with her unwed mother and a bevy of mad aunts in a rambling Istanbul mansion. When, midway through the book, Armanoush decides that she can only come to terms with the overriding pall her tragic heritage has cast over her by traveling to Istanbul, it is only natural that she should search out her stepfather’s family. So the two girls confront together the weight of history.

The premise is wonderful, the clarity of purpose admirable. But the novel is a roller coaster. There are breathtaking highs of enthralling writing, but during too many of the long climbs there is nothing to do but listen to the wheels grind. Shafak seems to feel obliged to showcase all the material of character development; experimentation with place, time, and scene; and the working out of ideas, all the essentially private processes that should be anterior to the public performance of the finished book. There’s a huge amount of repetition and redundancy, as if the author were inventing characters as she goes. The resulting people are too thinly invented to feel anything like real, and key plot elements—such as the mystery of Asya’s missing father and the strangely symmetrical coincidence of her mother’s Armenian Istanbulite boyfriend–– are injected into the novel with a feeling of pure factitiousness. The analysis of Turkish identity relies too heavily on familiar opinions voiced by the characters, such as that “Americans have mostly been brainwashed by the Greeks and the Armenians . . . into believing that Turkey is the country of the Midnight Express.” The narration keeps reverting to a discourse that is sociological rather than fictional: We do not want to be told of a character’s change “at a time when Turkish women were going through a radical transformation in the public sphere thanks to a series of social reforms”; what we want is to see that transformation with the radical insight of the novelist. Finally, and in some ways most painfully, the tessellated mysteries and beauties of Istanbul are consigned to cliché, such as the description of the environs of the Galata Tower in Pera, one of the most enticing urban landscapes in history, “where the streets never slept and the cobblestones knew many secrets.” It’s simply not good enough, nowhere near.

What’s so frustrating about this is that Shafak is an original thinker of huge courage––if we didn’t know this from her earlier novels and editorials, we would from her wonderful NPR piece, last year in October, about the 1955 nationalist riots on Istanbul’s Kazanci Yokushu, in which not a single word is out of place. She’s perceptive, intensely intelligent, unusually free of her country’s self-righteous nationalism. And she can write: We see this when she turns to the situational, intuitive, deeply perspicacious portraits of Asya’s family. Witness Asya’s grandmother’s growing confused at prayer: “The words of the prayer she had to utter had all of a sudden fastened together into an elongated chain of letters, and walked away in tandem like a black, hairy caterpillar with too many feet to count.”

The result is that the book is at once more than the sum of its inadequacies and less than that of its strengths; but like its flaws, its strengths are significant. At the story’s heart is an act of enormous imaginative empathy––Shafak switches time frames to describe an episode from Armanoush’s heritage, the deportation of her great-grandfather. It cannot be coincidental that in these scenes the shift in technique is dramatic: The descriptions become believable, the authenticating detail convincing, the emotions heartbreaking, and the actual prose word-for-word perfect: “The only sign of life was a tan kitten painfully meowing next to a filthy gutter, licking its tiny belly where the flesh was cut open and the blood had caked around a swollen wound.”

This is a brave book, but in the end, it’s hard to measure exactly to what degree Shafak has freed herself from the debilitating compromises of Turkish nationalism. Both of the current defenses against the charge of genocide in Turkey––which can be broadly characterized as being the more and the less nationalistic––are represented. The extreme view holds that the massacre of Armenians was a legitimate act of war by the Turkish state against domestic terrorists who had sided with the enemy as early as the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 and harbored seditious, nationalistic aims ever after. So Shafak introduces us into an Armenian Internet chat room where a Turkish nationalist maintains not only that “the Turks had done nothing wrong to the Armenians, but if anything, it was the Armenians who had rebelled against the Ottoman regime and killed the Turks.” It’s a laughable argument, beneath contempt, and its refutation is more than adequately posed by Shafak in her description of the genocide’s horrors, beyond any justification, disproportionate to any crime.

The more moderate response, however, expressed by Asya herself, stands without correction. This is the argument that the genocide, if it was really genocide, was the fault not of modern Turks but of Ottomans, from the other side of the divide across which Atatürkist Turkey lies from its imperial forebears. “Genocide is a heavily loaded term” writes Asya in the same chat. “It implies a systematic, well-organized, and philosophized extermination. Honestly, I am not sure the Ottoman state at the time was of such a nature.” Will that do? Well, whether the same state that orchestrated the world shaking victory over the British Army and its allies at Galipoli was capable of exterminating a million defenseless citizens is one question. But a greater issue is whether the final Ottoman administrations were in fact the last gasp of the moribund Ottoman Empire or, rather, the first breath of the nascent modern state. There is great ideological continuity between the Young Turks––the secular reformists (including Atatürk) who effectively ran Turkey under the final Ottoman administrations through both Galipoli and the Armenian genocide until Turkey’s defeat as a German ally in World War I––and those nationalists who seized control back from the European allies in 1919 to establish the Turkish state. Indeed, the same nationalism continues to inspire human rights abuses in the country today.

Shafak comes to the doorway of this acknowledgment, and if she does not quite step through, she nonetheless explores another dimension, arguably more important, of the Turkish legacy of guilt. Her most convincing character is neither Turkish nor Armenian, but both: Asya’s mother’s lover, Aram. In him, the forced oppositions and rapprochements between characters fade before the reality of his affection for the country in which he has survived. “This city is my city. . . . 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.”

The Bastard of Istanbul is innovative and ambitious. But the gap between its high purpose and its hasty writing is untenable. Shafak has a voice and a vision far too important to lose, and she owes us more.

Neil Gordon is the literary editor of the Boston Review, chair of the Writing Program at Eugene Lang College of the New School, and author, most recently, of the novel The Company You Keep (Viking, 2003).