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The Bastard of Istanbul

The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak I'm really in two minds about this book. On the one hand, the writing in it is, for the most part, pretentious and overambitious: it's as if Shafak has no concept of a coherent linguistic register in English, mixing semi-academic narrative style with misplaced colloquialisms (but that is perhaps to be expected from a novel written originally in Turkish). But on the other hand, it's an extremely endearing book, which I would probably have liked more were it slightly... different. The atmosphere it produces is wonderful, exuberant, and strikingly real, so the actual writing is all the more disappointing. But the story never collapses because of it - it's undoubtedly weak, and would benefit from re-writes, but the entire novel is salvaged by its bookends - its first and last chapters, which are quite amazing. Again, the writing leaves much to be desired, but it's considerably better than in the middle chapters.

And thematically as well, these middle chapters are probably the main reason for my low rating of the book. They just seem - out of place. The entire Armenian twist to it feels like something that was tacked on - it's set up as an enormous issue of personal and collective trauma, overshadowing almost everything else, to the extent that the two central characters' attitude to it ostensibly defines their entire personalities and national identities... but then it fizzles into nothingness. It does not become 'marginal' or non-important - it is not resolved as a non-issue; it simply fades into the background, as if the writer forgot about it, or just felt dealing with it (in whatever way) would not work with the way the novel was set up. Which is simply lazy.

Which leads me to my final point. Ultimately, this is a dissatisfying book, because it is either too long or too short. It is too short for a magical realist novel in the style of Salman Rushdie, which always seems to lurk in the background somewhere - perhaps as a model that Shafak never quite manages to emulate, primarily because of the middle (majority) part of the book. Most of the descriptive passages are especially inept - they invoke the way an academic or literary critic would write, not the way novels should be written. Forgoing characterization through events, or at least narration colored by the internal viewpoint of narration, at the expense of what amounts to the writing style of a junior lecturer is simply unacceptable for quality literature. Elaborating this middle part in this way would also allow more space to deal with the Armenian issue - either fully 'traumatizing' it, or demonstrating it as something that can ultimately be shouldered in the face of Real Things, or at least acknowledging an ultimate incompatibility of viewpoints of people colored by it. Anything, in fact, would be better than what the novel actually does - which is letting the issue resurface as simply an external catalyst of events, and leaving it at that. As if its role in characters' internal lives are inevitably flattened, and nobody can feel anything about it anymore. It's all the more frustrating because the book appears to be setting up a resolution of feeling in the middle part - but it never actually materializes.

This is because it is finally overshadowed by the other theme - the "bastardization" theme - which would make for an amazing short story if it included the first and last chapters, and perhaps some episodes in between. This would, of course, forgo any possibility for dealing with the Armenian issue - but since this appears "tacked on" anyway, it wouldn't be that much of a loss. In this way, it would be very reminiscent of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things - which is, inevitably, what The Bastard of Istanbul evokes as well, but also fails to match, particularly in terms of writing (both stylistically and structurally), although it is definitely comparable in terms of the underlying issues.

So: this is a novel that should have either been expanded into a sprawling mess of exuberant magical realism, or trimmed down into a hard-hitting short story (which could then be re-worked into a novel again, maybe, but with expansions in different places). Its schizophrenic character makes it ultimately unsatisfying; but it is still very real and very charming. It is a novel to talk and think about, and to wallow in, but preferably away from the context of actually reading it - which, at times, actually feels painful, since the style can be so awfully incoherent.