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Star Tribune: Ghosts of Turkey's past

 
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 PostPosted: Mon Feb 05, 2007 2:54 am    Post subject: Star Tribune: Ghosts of Turkey's past Reply with quote Back to top

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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
February 4, 2007 Sunday
by John Freeman, Star Tribune, Minneapolis


Ghosts of Turkey's past


Feb. 4--It is unfortunate that the first thing readers might know
about this bold and raggedly beautiful new novel is that writing it
nearly cost Elif Shafak her freedom. Like fellow countryman and Nobel
laureate Orhan Pamuk, Shafak was charged under Article 301 of the
Turkish criminal code for "public denigration" of Turkishness, the
punishment for which is up to three years in prison. (A Turkish
journalist guilty of the same "crime" recently paid with his life.)
Shafak was acquitted, however, and now U.S. readers can pick up this
still vibrating book with newfound appreciation.


As with Pamuk, Shafak's true crime wasn't insulting Turkishness, but
rather daring to speak about what is known ultra-euphemistically as
the "Armenian question." In many other corners of the world, it is
referred to as the Armenian genocide -- the forced evacuation and
deaths of more than 1 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917, the
waning years of the Ottoman Empire. While the Turkish government
argues that these deaths resulted from the chaos of World War I,
there is mounting evidence that it was a state-sponsored plan of
ethnic cleansing. The novel filters the anguish of this event through
the lives of an Armenian family in San Francisco and Arizona, and a
Turkish family in Istanbul. Following them over the course of a year,
it meditates on the power of memory and the way time tends to bend
the rules about killing. What happens when grief and suffering are
denied? Do historical grudges grow more powerful when one leaves a
country, or do they wash away?

Not surprisingly, rain is one of the recurring metaphors Shafak
employs effectively. It sluices through the action, whisking scenes
away. In the opening pages, Zeliha, one of four headstrong Turkish
sisters (known as the Kazanci women), walks to an abortion clinic in
a downpour. "Rain, for us, isn't necessarily about getting wet,"
Shafak writes. "It's not about getting dirty even. If anything, it's
about getting angry. It's mud and chaos and rage."

Zeliha doesn't go through with the abortion, and the result is Asya,
the bastard of the book's title. Asya has three aunts: Feride, a
hypochondriac who collects arcane knowledge about the ozone layer and
medicine; Banu, who believes she is a clairvoyant, and Cevriye, a
widowed high-school teacher. The one Kazanci man, Mustafa, has moved
to Arizona and lives with a woman named Rose. A daughter from Rose's
previous marriage to an Armenian man, Amanoush, splits her time
between San Francisco and Tucson, until she decides she needs to
explore her Turkishness. So she's off to Istanbul, where she
eventually encounters and befriends Asya.

This development sets up a certain bit of ambiguity to the book's
title. Is the real bastard of Istanbul Asya, the girl with no father?
Or is it Amanoush, the girl with no past? Round and round we go, with
Shafak pushing the action along with a variety of devices. Each
chapter is titled after an ingredient, from sugar to cinnamon and
dried figs.

Throughout the story, Shafak gives the reader a guided tour of her
native city. "March is most unbalanced in Instanbul," she writes,
"both psychologically and physically. March might decide she belongs
to the spring season ... only to change her mind the very next day."

Although this book is crowded with characters, its most vivid one is
not one of the Kazanci matriarchs but Istanbul itself. It is a city
plagued by ghosts, talkative and thronged to the extreme but notable
for what it is silent about. As Shafak sketches it, Istanbul also is
a bastard city. The past has abandoned it -- or it has abandoned the
past. So, like all bastards, Istanbul lives slightly adrift under the
pretense that only the present matters when in truth history is its
mother and father -- something it will have to confront when the past
comes to claim it again.

John Freeman, president of National Book Critics Circle, lives in New
York City.

THE BASTARD OF ISTANBUL

By: Elif Shafak.

Publisher: Viking, 360 pages, $24.95.

Review: Shafak boldly and beautifully explores sensitive issues of
Turkish identity and history -- at the risk of her own freedom.

Event: Because of recent events in Turkey, the author is not
traveling, and an event scheduled for Thursday at Minneapolis Public
Library has been cancelled.
 
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