Posted by: Corri van de Stege | January 6, 2009

A Book Review: The Bastard of Istanbul

This review was written yesterday in order to be able to post before going off on my Paris trip – will be away for the rest of the week and will catch up over the weekend.  But before leaving I must mention the honour bestowed by Oh – yes, I’ve been awarded the Inspiration Award – and the picture is….. Marie Antoinette: would you believe it?  How appropriate.  Go and have a look here – and I’ll blog some more on it on my return!

Now to:

The Bastard of Istanbul – by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish writer, born in France who lived in Spain, Jordan and Germany, studied in Ankara, taught at Istanbul University and since 2002 teaches at American universities.  I had not come across her until I received The Bastard of Istanbul as a Christmas present, but apparently she has already had six novels published.  This particular novel led to a court case in Turkey, because it was alleged that she insulted ‘Turkishness’.  The accusation was based on the discussion by one of her characters of mass deportations and deaths of Armenians in 1915.  The case was later withdrawn.  (The Independent, July 27, 2007: Interview: Elif Shafak has survived a court case and renewed her love for Turkey’s multi-ethnic heritage.)

the-bastard-of-istanbulElif Shafak is clearly an acclaimed and outspoken novelist and The Bastard of Istanbul provides a wonderful gallop from the first chapter which introduces us to Zeliha who is walking through the pouring rain in Istanbul to her appointment in the hospital to have an abortion, to the very last chapters with the unravelling of all the connections between two families, one living in Istanbul, the other in America.  But in this first chapter Shafak is not talking of just any old rain, oh no, this is rain in Istanbul:

Rain for us isn’t necessarily about getting wet.  It’s not about getting dirty even.  If anything, it’s about getting angry.  It’s mud and chaos and rage, as if we didn’t have enough of each already.  And struggle.  It’s always about struggle.  Like kittens thrown into a bucketful of water, all ten million of us put up a futile fight against the drops.

What a wonderful evocative description of rain.  You can just imagine Zeliha trying to cope, without an umbrella, sopping wet:

Rain dripped from her dark curls onto her broad shoulders.  Like all women in the Kazanci family, Zeliha had been born with frizzy raven-black hair, but unlike the others, she liked to keep it that way.

And so we are introduced not only to Zeliha but also her family and soon we know that Zeliha puts up such an unconscious fight, once sedated in the hospital, that the doctor decides not to carry out the abortion procedure but rather, to let her come to from her anaesthetic and give her another chance to consider whether in fact she wants an abortion.

Thus, Asya is born, the bastard of Istanbul and the next thing we know is that she is 19 years old and a rebel like her mother; she has no idea who her father is, in fact is a girl without a past, without history.  Asya finds herself in a household with aunties and a grandmother and a great grandmother, all the men in the family appear to meet their untimely end at a young age, and Asya even calls her mother ‘aunty Zeliha’:

Now Asya averted her eyes so as not to have to stare any longer at her mother, the mother whom she never called ‘mom’ and had perhaps hoped to keep at a distance by ‘auntifying’.  A surge of self-pity engulfed her.  What an imponderable injustice of the part of Allah to create a daughter far less beautiful than her own mother.

We get the picture.  One brother of the sisters (Asya’s uncle Mustafa) went to America at an early age, to avoid the calamity of an early death that befalls all the male members of this family?

Asya’s friends are introduced as caricatures of themselves: there’s the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist who falls in love with Asya and who joins Alcoholics Anonymous without much avail, there’s the Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies

A short, gaunt man with a beard dyed ash gray ever since the day he concluded young women preferred mature men

And the Closeted-Gay Columnist is secretly attracted to the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist and therefore grins and bears the smell of smoke in the Café Kundera where they meet.  And so on.

This group of friends talks about the woes of life, of being, of time and mortality and back again to the question of when they are going to die and whether there is an afterlife.

The book takes you from one surprise to another; the core is about the relationship between the Kazanci family in Istanbul and the Armenian family, the Tchakhmakhachians who live in America after the Turkish persecution of Armenians in 1905 during the Ottoman Empire.  The American woman called Rose is divorced from her first Armenian husband Barsam, and they have a daughter Armanoush, who is brought up by and between the two (warring) sides.  

But I’m not going to tell you anymore, the story is just too much fun to read and is wonderfully exuberant even if it touches on some very serious issues.  It is full of surprises and the chapters, all headed by names of ingredients, spices, nuts, etc are woven together like the stories in Arabian Nights, the stories that kept Zhahrazad alive for the sheer incompleteness of each chapter, rolling forward into the next and then the one after that. 

I knew little neither about the Armenian Diaspora, nor about the Turkish link to this and the novel provides a most wonderful (fictional) introduction.  Wait until you get to the end, which is heartbreaking, and at the same time breath taking, you cannot quite believe it, but there is the historical link between the two families, slowly unravelled, all because of the existence of Asya, the Bastard of Istanbul!  It is one of those books that I could not put down and picked up at every opportunity.  I even surprised myself.  I will go and get some more by this writer.  It is a wonderful read, and it’s all about showing, you can hear, smell, see and taste everything that goes on. Definitely ten out of ten.  Thanks so very much father christmas!



  1. Congratulations on the award, Seachange. That’s a real achievement!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: