Book Reviews

The Novel Behind a Turkish Controversy

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The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel by Elif Shafak, straddles two families — one in modern Istanbul, the other in modern America. Last year, a Turkish court charged Shafak with denigrating Turkishness, for a remark made by one of the characters in her novel.


Last year, a Turkish court charged novelist Elif Shafak with denigrating Turkishness. The reason, a remark about the Armenian genocide made by one of the characters in her novel "The Bastard of Istanbul." Eventually, the charges were dropped.

Now, the novel is about to come out in an English language version written by the author herself.

Here's our reviewer Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE: The story straddles two worlds, that of modern Istanbul and contemporary America, and two families and two visions of history and reality. In Istanbul, we meet the Kazanci clan. This family is made up almost completely of women, including a bunch of sisters, a grandmother, Asya, the bastard of the book's title, who's the illegitimate child of one of the sisters, and an unnamed and until almost the novel's end unknown father.

In Tucson resides the beautiful Armanoush, otherwise known as Aimee, and her American mother whose current husband is a Turkish engineer who happens to be the last surviving male of the Kazanci clan. Aimee's father is an Armenian man whose family escaped the Turkish genocide against the country's Armenian Christian citizens and now lives in San Francisco. It's Aimee's father who in a conversation refers to that national violence whose mention recently got this book called into a Turkish court.

But it is as much family history as national history that drives this vital and entertaining novel with powerful and idiosyncratic characters and vibrant language that drives the characters. The book overflows with hilarity and anger, with anguish and redemption. Food and food and more food gets heaped up on the Kazanci table, as does love and hope and despair and dreams and life, as well.

One of the sisters finds her truth in Tarot cards and communicates with a couple of genies who live on her shoulders, while another, runs a successful tattoo parlor. And, Asya, the bastard, finds affection amidst the group of westernize intellectuals at an Istanbul café called the Kondura(ph). And for young and beautiful and questing Aimee, she finds herself addicted to novels.

Novels were dangerous we hear. Before you knew it, you could be so carried away that you could lose touch with reality. That's what happened to me as soon as I began reading this deep and delightful novel. It carried me away, and reality was a little different when I returned.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Shafak. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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