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Soul sisters

The Bastard of Istanbul A Novel Elif Shafak Viking: 360 pp., $24.95

January 21, 2007|Ben Ehrenreich | Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

"WAS it really better for human beings to pine to discover more of their past?" tormented clairvoyant Auntie Banu asks herself in "The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Shafak. "Or was it simply better to know as little of the past as possible and even to forget what small amount was remembered?"

The past is a contested landscape in Shafak's writing, and not only there. As if eager to give a real-world illustration of the themes the novelist explores on paper -- the past's oft-invisible hold on present affairs, memory's tricks and the fragility of identity -- an Istanbul court charged her with violating Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, which outlaws the denigration of a slippery thing called "Turkishness." In this case, she allowed fictional characters in "The Bastard of Istanbul" to refer to the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1917. (The state's official version denies anything so intentional as genocide.)

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk faced similar charges after referring to Ottoman depredations against both Armenians and Kurds in a February 2005 interview. His case was dismissed last January. Shafak was charged six months later. Then at a hearing in September, the prosecutor took the unusual step of requesting Shafak's acquittal. The judges complied. By then, "The Bastard of Istanbul" had sold more than 60,000 copies in Turkey.

The controversy, widely covered in the European and American press, was generally framed in cliches as old as Constantinople: yet another example of Turkey's bifurcated soul, torn -- like Istanbul itself -- between two continents and two worlds, between the enlightened humanism of the West and the ancient despotism of the East. The real battle behind the Article 301 prosecutions of Shafak, Pamuk and several dozen lesser-known writers and editors was over Turkey's bid to join the European Union, hence over the identities of Turkey and of Europe. Both cases were initiated by ultra-nationalist lawyers hoping to scuttle the country's chances of EU admission. And both were hastily dismissed by the government, the media consensus had it, in an effort to save face with the West.

As leftist and nationalist protesters scuffled outside the Istanbul courthouse, Shafak's offending text somehow got lost in the fray. The suspect passages are repeatedly cited (among others: "I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives at the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915"), but their context disappears. No one mentions that those words are spoken by a middle-aged Armenian American who is scathingly imagining how his young niece, whose stepfather is a drably Americanized Turk, will conceptualize her own identity. Suddenly, the picture is not so simple.

If a novel can be reduced to an argument, "The Bastard of Istanbul" is an attack on the very notion underlying the controversy surrounding its publication: the idea of a stable national and cultural identity, of a history that can be neatly comprehended and possessed. Shafak, after all, was born in France and raised in Europe by a Turkish diplomat mother. She spells her surname with an "sh" in the West and a circumflexed "s" in Turkey, and she splits her time between Arizona, where she teaches Near Eastern studies, and Istanbul, where she helped establish a degree program in American literature. And "The Bastard of Istanbul," newly released in the United States, is very much an American novel, written in a chatty English that she translated into her native tongue before its publication in Turkey in March.

It is an odd, not always successful hybrid: a serious novel of ideas with characters that at times seem borrowed from a sitcom soundstage and a plot founded in dark family secrets unearthed in high soap-operatic fashion. Worlds collide and find themselves already interwoven. Young Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, child of an Armenian father (the generically kind-hearted Barsam) and a cartoonish American mother (Rose, who is cheerfully neurotic, blindly consumerist, eternally bustling about her spotless Arizona kitchen, cooking batch after batch of pancakes), takes a secret trip to Istanbul to search out what remains of her paternal ancestors' Armenian roots and to lay claim to an identity she never fully owned. There, she stays with the family of her stepfather, Mustafa Kazanci -- the aforementioned Turk, with whom Rose took up to avenge herself on her ex-husband's extended Turkaphobic family.

In Istanbul, earnest Armanoush befriends her rebellious stepcousin Asya, who is "too young too foolish too furious too intense for the universe in which she lived." The bastard of the novel's title, Asya was born out of wedlock and raised by her mother, grandmother and three eccentric aunts (Banu the psychic, Cevriye the shrew and mad Feride, who changes hairstyles with every shift in her psychiatric diagnosis).

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