The Bastard of Istanbul
By: Elif Shafak
Paige’s Rating: (4) of 5 Stars
Recommended for: Fiction/ Culture Readers
When The Bastard of Istanbul was published in Turkey, Elif Shafak was accused by nationalist lawyers of insulting Turkish identity. The charges were later dropped, and now readers in America can discover for themselves this bold and powerful tale. Populated with vibrant characters, The Bastard of Istanbul is the story of two families, one Turkish and one Armenian American, and their struggle to forge their unique identities against the backdrop of Turkey’s violent history.
Within the first pages of this book, I was captured at the amazing accuracy that the author had of depicting life in Istanbul. Of course, the author is Turkish and lives in Istanbul, but I couldn’t believe that she had the same viewpoints and the same thoughts about life here as I did, a foreign American. Nationalities aside, she confirmed everything I have always thought about Turkey, but never dared mention. Obviously her truth hurt enough for her to get into some trouble after publishing the book, because in Turkey, freedom of speech is limited and anyone who paints Turkey in a less-than-lovely light can find themselves in trouble.
The characters are interesting and well developed. In the Turkish family, the characters seem so dynamically different from each other. In this way, the author really emphasizes the dramatic differences of all Istanbulites, related only in the sense of the place they live. The young Turkish daughter was interesting in the sense that like other outwardly “bad-ass” Turkish girls, you realize that its just an image. I have yet to met an actual Turkish bad-ass woman. The Armenian-American family seemed stereotypical, dull actually, and the daughter was a character that was hard to attach to. Her personality doesn’t quite fit with that of a young woman.
The plot was good, but lost its appeal as the book dragged on. The Turkish family was spot on to what I have seen of Turkish families in Istanbul, and yet there were elements of mysticism that I considered saçma (ridiculous). In the end, the reader finds out about a dark secret surrounding the Turkish family, and while it may seem shocking and impossible to some, I figured it out before reading it. The plot surrounding the American-Armenian family was less than interesting, and the way they over-hyped the genocide was a bit nauseating. The cluelessness of Americans of Turkish culture; however, was accurate and I applaud Shafak’s ability to weave in the still poignant hatred of many Armenians towards Turkish people, and the indifferent attitude of Turkish people towards the Armenian genocide. She couldn’t have been more precise.
The translation was also well done, and the imagery of the book was wonderful, as readers could grasp the sights and sounds of a city as diverse as Istanbul.
While not the best book I have ever read, it certainly was enjoyable and would benefit anyone who was interested in understanding modern Turkish culture. As one of the characters asserts in the book, “Western politicians presume there is a cultural gap between Eastern Civilization and Western Civilization. If it were that simple! The real civilization gap is between the Turks and the Turks…God save me from my own people!”