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Elif Shafak: Baba ve Piç (The Bastard of Istanbul)

The Kazanci family live in Istanbul. They tend to be mainly female as the men, if they are born at all, tend to die off at an early age. When we first meet them, the matriarch is still alive with her five children, four women and one man. The one man, Mustafa, is, not surprisingly, spoilt. The four sisters had each grown up feeling like unwelcome visitors. As for Mustafa, a king in his house, the boy seemed to refuse to be one among many in the classroom. So unpopular had he become over time that when Gulsum wanted to throw a party for Mustafa and his friends to celebrate their graduation, there was no one to invite.. His younger sister, Zeliha, calls him a precious phallus. He will later go to the the United States to study. Money was available for the son’s education, of course.

Zeliha, the youngest and most rebellious, is the one we first meet. At the time she is nineteen and heading out in the pouring rain to an abortion clinic. The journey does not go well and nor does her experience at the clinic. Indeed, because of her mental state, the clinic declines to carry out the abortion. She will go on to have the child, Asya, the eponymous Bastard of Istanbul.

We jump a a few years and we follow Asya as much as her mother and her aunts. Indeed, though Zeliha is, of course, her mother (there is never any mention of a father, though, of course, all will be revealed later on), Asya calls her Aunt Zeliha, as she is so used to addressing the older women in the family as aunt – they all live together in the family home. Asya does not entirely fit in. Indeed, at one point she attempts suicide. She uncovered respectively three other truths about her life: that other families weren’t like hers and some families could be normal; that in her ancestry there were too many women and too many secrets about men who disappeared too early and too peculiarly; and that no matter how hard she strived, she was never going to be a beautiful woman.

Asya clashes with her aunts and mother though she hated to see that with the passing of each year she more and more resembled them but, as she says to them: This is a nuthouse! We are all nuts, each and every one of us. However, she finds solace with a group of people she regularly meets in the Café Kundera. (The origin of the name is something of a running joke. It may or may not be connected to the Czech novelist). The other people are all known by various nicknames: Dipsomaniac Cartoonist (who is in love with Asya), Closeted Gay Columnist, Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies and so on. Among them Asya Kazanci found inner peace. Cafe Kundera was her sanctuary. They talk about politics, literature, love and life. They also talk about Asya’s relationship with her family: All I want is to be free and to be myself and all that shit…. If only I could be left on my own…

While Asya is doing her ballet, studying, reading lots of books, listening to Johnny Cash and clashing with her aunts, we also follow another story. Asya has never met her uncle Mustafa. He never returned from the United States, not even to visit his family. While there, he met and subsequently married a divorced woman, Rose. She had one daughter from her previous marriage: Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, generally known as Amy by her mother and her friends, though always as Armanoush by her father’s family. She spends her time between her mother and Mustafa in Arizona and her father (never remarried) and his family in San Francisco.

Amy is very well aware of her Armenian roots and, if she had not been, her father’s family would have reminded her frequently. The topic comes up all the time, particularly the Armenian Genocide, not least because most of the family was killed in the Genocide. Indeed, we follow the story of what exactly happened to Hovhannes Stamboulian and his family at that time, leaving only Shushan, Amy’s grandmother, as the survivor.

Amy has her equivalent of Asya’s Café Kundera club, an online Armenian chat room, where the participants discuss in some detail the Armenian Genocide and what it means to be an Armenian in today’s world. They also discuss the vexed issue of the Janissary paradox which, basically, means choosing between fighting for one’s past but paying a price for it or giving up one’s past for a better future. Amy’s Armenian family can be seen, in many ways, to be similar to Asya’s Turkish ones, though Amy gets on better with her family than Asya does with hers.

The two women have to meet and it happens when Amy decides that she must go to Istanbul and trace her family’s roots and she takes advantage of her uncle Mustafa’s connection and invites herself to stay with Asya and her family. She tells neither of her two families, each of which thinks that she is with the other one. She is warmly welcomed, as they know her as Amy and have no idea of her Armenian antecedents. Even when she does arrive and they learn of her Armenian antecedents, it soon becomes clear that, for the Turks, the Armenian Genocide is completely unknown, not least because Turkey has always denied it and it is not discussed at school or in history books. This airbrushing of history becomes a key theme of this book, not least because it is a crime in Turkey to say there was such a thing as an Armenian Genocide. Amy discusses it with the aunts and the Café Kundera group, while Asya discusses it with Amy’s online group. For the Turks, it really is not an issue.

When Rose finds out that Amy is in Istanbul, she and Mustafa hurry there, leading to the inevitable grand denouement.

The key issue in this book is the Armenian issue, a topic that is normally taboo in turkey and Turkish literature. Indeed, it has been taboo elsewhere. Those from the US may recall Senator Bob Dole, hardly a traditional leftie, getting defeated over a proposed National Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide. Shafak herself was prosecuted for insulting Turkishness in this book.

The issue is raised from both sides. In other words we hear the Armenian point of view, the one generally accepted in the West, and the Turkish views, which range from the view that it never happened to the view that it was minor to the view that there were bad deeds on both sides. The Turks have succeeded to a certain degree. Hitler famously said Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians? and while it is more remembered today (outside Turkey), various governments, including the British one and the US one, have tried to downplay it.

Of course, this is not all that goes on in this book. There is the issue of feminism, the relations between the various women members of the two families (the men are often there but play a relatively small role, though play a much larger role in Aysa’s and Amy’s groups) and the usual story of individuals trying to find out who they are and where they belong. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this is a fine book but it will be remembered for the the discussion of Armenia.

Publishing history

First published by Metis in 2006
First published in English by Viking, in 2007