The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak | Book Review

“The path of fiction could easily misled you into the cosmos of stories where everything was fluid, quixotic, and as open to surprises as a moonless night in the desert”

Shafak, E., The Bastard of Istanbul, Penguin Random House UK, 2015, pp. 96 – 97

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak is a beautiful, rich and evocative tale of the Turkish and Armenian families coming to terms with their painful past, rooted in the Armenian genocide committed in the early 20th century.

The novel grapples with Turkey’s dark legacies but writing is so compassionate, spirited and, at the same time, exuberant and life-affirming.

The questions posed by the author are numerous, but the answers are left to the reader to find. One of the main topics in the book is the way in which the past conditions the present and especially the impact the history and past atrocities have on the future generations. Historic trauma can often be passed on from one generation to the next which might significantly influence an individual life.

“Was it really better for human beings to discover more of their past? And then more and more …? Or was it simply better to know as little of the past as possible and even to forget what small amount was remembered?”

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 243

“Family stories intermingle in such ways that what happened generations ago can have an impact on seemingly irrelevant developments of the present day. The past is anything but bygone. If Levent Kazanci hadn’t grown up to be such a bitter and abusive man, would his only son, Mustafa, have ended up being a different person? If generations ago in 1915 Shushan hadn’t been left an orphan, would Asya today still be a bastard?” 

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 356

Depicting the bygone multicultural – cosmopolitan nature of Istanbul and showing its mixed European and Middle Eastern heritage is truly a treat for the soul. Reading this book one can imagine being in the city of Istanbul, immersed in its colours, smells, sounds and history. The incorporation of recipes and anecdotes associated with the traditions and the culture of Istanbul allows the readers to understand a broader reality, or one should say, multiple realities of the inhabitants of this magical city.

“This city as a jumble of aromas, some of them strong and rancid, others sweet and stimulating. Almost every smell made Armanoush recall some sort of food, so much so that she had started to perceive Istanbul as something edible. She had been here for eight days now and the longer she stayed, the more twisted and multifaceted Istanbul grew to be. “

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 246

“This city was so cosmopolitan once. (…) We had Jewish neighbours, lots of them. We also had Greek fishermen. My mother’s tailor was Armenian. My father’s boss was Jewish. You know, we were all intermingled.

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 246

The numerous literary references will warm the heart of every bibliophile. The importance of storytelling is so beautifully presented in The Bastard of Istanbul. Often books can be the only anchor for some people especially for the ones who struggle to find a meaningful connection among fellow human beings.

Books. Oh yeah, they saved my life (…) I read philosophy, political philosophy especially, you know, Benjamin, Adorno, Gramsci, a bit of Zizek … especially Deleuze. (…) I like abstractions (…) – I love philosophy. Especially existential philosophy.”

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 177

“As they walked up and down on the undulating street, every neighbourhood looked so different that Armanoush began to think Istanbul was an urban maze, cities within a city. She wondered if James Baldwin had felt the same way when he was here. “

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 180

This is also a tale about the importance of multiple identities when one feels torn between different sides, unable to belong to one place, unable to choose just one identity. In some sense, this novel is an ode to the plurality of identities which should be cherished and be an integral part of every society, every community. This is so relevant, especially in the current times when the movements of one certainty, of only one outlook, gain popularity in many countries, especially in Europe.

This tale reflects the importance of having more than just one belonging, more than just one identity. To have a physical or an emotional anchor is crucial for our well-being, but it should not prevent us from enriching our lives through seeking new homes, new connections.

“I do know how it feels to be torn between opposite sides, unable to fully belong anywhere, constantly fluctuating between two states of existence.

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 116

The title of every chapter is named after an ingredient of a Turkish dessert called ashure …. so, cinnamon, garbanzo beans, sugar, dried apricots, almonds, wheat, pine nuts, vanilla, roasted hazelnuts, rosewater, dried figs, pomegranate seeds, orange peels, water, golden raisin and white rice …. which has a symbolic meaning in the book.

“Ashure was the symbol of continuity and stability, the epitome of the good days to come after each storm, no matter how frightening the storm had been.”

Shafak, E., 2015, p. 272

If you are interested in the subjects of the historic trauma, its connection to the future, multiple identities, the consequences of losing cosmopolitan heritage on social norms and attitudes, I would highly recommend you to read The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak.

Other books by Elif Shafak that I would highly recommend are: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World , Three Daughters of Eve and The Architect ‘s Apprentice

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  1. You reviewed beautifully. I just finished reading the book and then your review only to realize that it was not only about the ‘historic trauma’ that you should mention significantly but also the ‘patriarch grudge’ men are holding against the women till now from generations after generations that lead them to adopt abuse and crime.

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