The Bastard of Istanbul Summary

Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul

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The Bastard of Istanbul Summary

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The Bastard of Istanbul is the sixth novel by an author who knows what it means to be persecuted for her political commentary, even if it is fictitious.  Elif Shafak, whose first book The Saint of Incipient Insanities also dealt with a somewhat taboo topic, was tried and nearly imprisoned when the book was accused of “insulting Turkishness”. The charges against Shafak were eventually thrown out, and the author managed to avoid a three-year prison sentence.  Though the book attracted much public opinion, it was overshadowed by the legal scandal that followed its publication. The Bastard of Istanbul is not the first work of fiction to draw attention to national atrocities, yet this narrative illuminates certain events that may have slipped from public memory.

The novel describes a massacre that occurred between 1914 and 1918, when more than a million Armenians were slaughtered at the behest of the Turkish government.  Two families—one Turkish, the other American—are the central focus of the novel. A Turkish man meets and eventually marries an American woman he first sees while in a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona.  Not long before, the woman had divorced her Armenian husband.  The woman revels at the thought of insulting her Armenian in-laws by marrying a Turkish man and, to add insult to injury, her half-Armenian daughter would have a Turkish stepfather. Although the book is densely packed with a myriad of figures that can be difficult to keep track of, it is these two families, distinguished by their national and cultural differences that provide the crux of the conflict.

Despite the dark subject matter that comprises much of the book, Shafak does not hesitate to show her appreciation and love for her native country. The novel is saturated with the sights, sounds and atmosphere of Turkey’s capitol city.  And as much as the author conveys the identity of an ancient city, the novel also deals with the national and cultural identify of its characters. Shafak’s novel focuses heavily on the lives of four generations of women.  In a challenge to the patriarchal society prevalent in Turkey, Shafak decides to infuse the story with the myth that, for some uncanny and undoubtedly supernatural reason, all the men of the family inevitably died young.

The presence of so many women in the narrative has no genuine impact on the plot, save to portray certain controversial ideals undoubtedly shared by the author. The primary example of identity as it relates to theme is vested in the young girl Armanoush, who travels to America to stay with her stepfather’s family.  The visit is nothing more than a spontaneous impulse to indulge in a bit of tourism. Yet, her trip is not without disappointment, as she uncovers the details of her stepfather’s exile. Her adventurous spirit is further dampened by the dark secret that Mustafa, a relative of her stepfather, had raped his younger sister and her child was the unfortunate result of that rape.

Shafak weaves a certain measure of symbolism into the plot as well.  The stepfather’s family is well versed in certain mystical arts, which not only lead to Mustafa’s death, but also aids in revealing his crime to his sister’s child, who is also his daughter.  Even the rape itself is symbolic, meant to shed light on years of Armenian genocide that has been all but denied by the Turkish government.  And while the Armenian atrocity is well documented in certain parts of the west, Shafak’s novel lends a more intimate perspective to those terrible events. The two families at the heart of this novel are undoubtedly still affected by the aftermath of the massacre. In the midst of the national upheaval it caused, the young girl Asya must come to terms with her own internal struggle. Whether in Istanbul or San Francisco, Asya is constantly troubled by the fact that she never knew her father, something she compensates for by learning as much as she can about her roots.

Among the more obvious examples of symbolism in the novel are the profound lack of male presence, and the distinct social ideologies Shafak assigns to her female protagonists.  She defies the societal norms of masculine dominance in Turkish society and gives the women in her novel a voice. By removing overtly male influences from the book, Shafak allows herself to expose the cultural, religious and political oppression created by men. Her female characters are able to set the record straight, in terms of the political narrative in the country that often differed from the true experiences of citizens in the region.

While this novel exposes the often devastating consequences of a society that has been ripped asunder, Shafak’s book also creates an opportunity for discussion about genocide, cultural identity and how profoundly a child can be affected by the sins of her fathers.