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 Turkmen and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, Shafak was charged under Article 301 of the Turkish criminal code for the dubious crime of 'public denigrationâ?� of Turkishness, the punishment for which was up to three years in prison. Hrant Dink, 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.â?� In many other corners of the world, it is referred to as the Armenian genocide ' the forced evacuation and death of one million Armenians between 1915 and 1917, the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. While the government claims these deaths were the result of 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 two families, an American-Armenian one in San Francisco and Arizona, and a Turkish Muslim one in Istanbul. Following them over the course of a year, it meditates on the power of memory and the way killing in the past tends to bend the rules of time. 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 in this book. It sluices through the action, whisking one scene into the next. 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,â?� Shafak writes. 'It's not about getting dirty even. If anything, it's about getting angry. It's mud and chaos and rage.â?�
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, Amanoush, splits her time between San Francisco and Arizona, until she decides she needs to explore her Turkishness. So Amanoush comes to Istanbul.
This development sets up a certain bit of ambiguity as 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 the two bastards exploring Istanbul together and Shafak pushing the action along with a variety of devices. Each chapter is titled after an ingredient, from sugar to cinnamon to dried figs. Throughout the story, Shafak also gives the reader an almost tour-guide like view of her native city. 'March is most unbalanced in Istanbul,â?� she writes, 'both psychologically and physically. March might decide she belongs to the spring season â?¦ only to change her mind the very next day.â?�
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 ' as all cities are ' for what it is silent about. As Shafak sketches it here, Istanbul is also 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 is president of the National Book Critics Circle.)