These last couple of days I have had an adventurous craving for food I don’t know how to pronounce, and basically don’t know what is. It is due to my latest gobble of world literature that this passion has taken a hold of me so strong I am inclined to postpone this semesters’ uni start and go to Istanbul and sit in a café, sipping strong coffee and eating little treats while watching the loud, bustling city roam by.
Elif Shafak‘s ‘Bastard of Istanbul’ has had that effect on me. It is a story of two families, one Turkish and one Armenian, who become intertwined by fate and a little human exploratory curiousness. For the novel Safak almost ended up in jail for insulting Turkishness, by raising criticism, and dealing with the painful past of pre-modern Turkish state, that of the Armenian Genocide.
The story is pushed forward by a female Weltschmerz. All the men die young in Turkish family, so they play a minuscule role in this matriarchal narrative. But the women none the less become a miniature of the diversity and complexity that forms the young Turkish modern state. There is so much anger bundled up and exploding on the pages and it is mystified by a touch of myth and tales. There is the question of Diaspora in the Armenian Americans – a young woman who is so aware of how her whole identity is tied up with the horrible events that is being inherited down generation by generation, but at the same time it is so foreign to the younger generation who have never had a real life experience with the country where the Armenians faced so much adversity. And then there is the Turkish modern female, who wishes no past at all, and in effect (as she is the bastard of the title) can deny having a past, at least on her father’s side. These two women, Armanoush the Armenian and Asya the Turk, meet in Istanbul and together they start on a healing journey. In itself it is enough to initially activate your gag reflex, but aside from the prophetic mission to mend the gap between Armenian and Turkish affairs there is a lot of positive things to be said about the novel. First of all, there is obviously (a writer facing jailtime is always a good indication) some things that need to be said and dealt with. And not just between the Armenians and the Turks, but the East and West too. The sense of deprived ancestry can both work for you to keep peddling forward, but it can also hinder your (e)motions. And second, the tonality in the novel is very aesthetically beautiful – there are sections that are a bit too blatantly cut out into bits for the reader to follow, which could be a weak spot of the author who feels the need to get a specific point across – and I love that the story in the novel can be interlaced with something so homely and sustainable as food. It is like a spin off of Isabel Allende’s ‘Aphrodite’ where food becomes the link in her narrative and acts as (surprise, surprise) an aphrodisiac. What I am clumsily trying to get at here is that food connects people, and it does too in this novel. When Armanoush meets Asya’s family she instantly recognizes the foods that are served because she knows them from her Armenian grandmother, and this acts as a connection between them and a safe starting-point for Armanoush to introduce her past and self to Asya’s family.
As a little titbit there is a recipe in the book, and there is a reason all the chapters are titled after something edible. And underneath this seemingly innocent layer lies so much more that can awaken an adventurous spirit.