Elif Shafak: The Bastard of Istanbul

Reading this is like walking into the vibrance of the color spectrum and ending up enveloped in its deepest and darkest hues.

But which caused the author to be put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. By lending voice to the Armenian characters in the novel, Elif Shafak risked being sentenced to prison. The charges were eventually dropped, but the incident highlights the fearlessness of a Turkish woman brave enough to write about something which, until now, the Turkish government denies — the Armenian Genocide during World War I. 

The dialogues between the descendants of the oppressed Armenians and modern-day Turks are moving and revealing on equal sides; the characters are relatable and human; historical facts and astonishing twists leave the reader no choice but to gasp; magic realism effectively subtle; all these, interlaced into the breathtaking and bewitching chaos that is Istanbul make it a triumph of unforgettable and disquieting beauty.

And because the two main characters are readers, there are ruminations on the power of the written word: “Though books were potentially harmful, novels were all the more dangerous.  The path of fiction could easily mislead you into the cosmos of stories where everything was fluid, quixotic, and as open to surprises as a moonless night in the desert… Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.”

Orhan Pamuk: A Strangeness in My Mind

February 5, 2021

The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”

For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.

Ever since I read My Name is Red, I have been looking for the Orhan Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. (I even looked for the actual Pamuk in Istanbul, persuading the whole family to visit his Museum of Innocence on the European side of the city in the hope of bumping into him.) I never seemed to find that Pamuk again.

But there is something in common with this book and My Name is Red. It is the way he allows different characters to gain control over the narration, thereby lending the reader a fuller grasp.

There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute.

It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.

Elif Shafak: Three Daughters of Eve

Peri, the Turkish; Shirin, the Iranian; Mona, the Egyptian; and a philosophy professor. Three women and a man whose lives intersect at the University of Oxford.

Deep into this multi-layered novel, it gradually occurred to me that the characters are actually a microcosm of beliefs, sentiments, and nations: Peri’s father and mother represent both the secular and the religious in Turkey, but despite all their irreconcilable arguments they are bound to coexist; Shirin, the atheist, is the Iranian who believes that the veil stands for the religious fundamentalism that sent her and her family to exile; Mona, the Islam believer, is the Egyptian who is convinced that the veil is her choice and her identity; Peri, the confused, the Turk who always felt somewhere in between (very much like her city, that hinge between Europe and Asia) and whose past is a burden; and the dynamic Professor Azur who challenges not only his students’ beliefs but their unbeliefs, too!

There are too many significant passages to iterate that I have resolved to leave it to the next reader to find and treasure those penetrating lines for themselves.  In the acknowledgements, Elif Shafak writes, “My motherland, Turkey, is a river country, neither solid nor settled. During the course of writing this novel that river changed so many times, flowing with a dizzying speed… Motherlands are beloved, no doubt; sometimes they can also be exasperating and maddening. Yet I have also come to learn that for writers and poets for whom national borders and cultural barriers are there to be questioned, again and again, there is, in truth, only one motherland, perpetual and portable. Storyland.”

And yet this is a story that is not merely a story. It is a peephole into politics, stereotypes, philosophy, and life. The dialogues are a source of profound thought and it touches on relevant issues that are painfully ignored by the higher powers in government. But perhaps what I should be saying is that, nevermind my qualms with some metaphors, this is how stories should be — the kind that challenges the idea of what readers should be looking for in a book.

Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle

A re-reading.

My initiation to Pamuk was My Name is Red circa 2006. He opened up a whole new world of literature to me. Scouring bookstores for his other works was a natural aftermath.

It goes without saying that I found the writing spectacular, but fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.

I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”

The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.

Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.

Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.

By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?

On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”

And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!

And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!

Elif Shafak: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

“It happened all the time in this city that encompassed seven hills, two continents, three seas and fifteen million mouths… yet another cry that went unheard in Istanbul… Istanbul was no stranger to sexual abuse.”

These were fleeting lines from Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, but it is what takes center-stage in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

This novel is an act of activism. Beyond the pretty covers, Shafak always lends a voice to those who do not have any, or whose voices are weaker than others — social pariahs, the unwanted, the unworthy, the unidentified, cultural lepers, and women.

This is a difficult read, especially for women. For women to get emotional when reading this is an understatement. Its bitter truths are suffocating; and at the verge of tears, I often felt my heart constricting.

Shafak does not romanticize Istanbul. She shows us the Istanbul that the Ministry of Tourism would not want foreigners to see — a place where sexual assault, psychological abuse, and violence against women often go unpunished. Sure, it happens all over the world, one might reason; but it is worse for women in nations that do not honor their rights.

This is an especially apt read after Turkey’s President Erdoğan officially withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty preventing and combating violence against women, and domestic violence. That is what led me to read this. Erdoğan followed the withdrawal by unveiling an “Action Plan for Combating Violence against Women,” which includes goals such as reviewing judicial processes, improving protection services and gathering data on violence, but Turkish women feel unsafe and remain doubtful.

So, incase you have not read this yet and ask yourself upon reading the summary of this book, “What would I get from a story about a dead prostitute?”
The answer is awareness.
And hopefully, empathy.

Needless to say, it is certainly well-written, too.

Orhan Pamuk

November 2022

My Name is Red was unlike anything I had ever read that it drove a scimitar across my consciousness sixteen years ago. Its literary mischief, its bursts of color, and its contemplations on art and style ushered me into a whole new world of literature.

Since then I have been looking for the Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. I admit that I even looked for the actual Pamuk and visited his Museum of Innocence, on the European side of that wondrous city straddling two continents, with the hope of bumping into him.

I never seemed to encounter that Pamuk again but I would instead go on to discover other aspects of him, other aspects of the city so inextricably entwined with his soul, and other aspects of myself.

As serendipity would have it, his books have been present in life’s significant moments to vivify specific memories. On the way back home from Turkey in 2016 and while inside a cafe waiting for someone, I attempted to finish reading Istanbul in Manila. I soon found out that the book would not exactly become a favorite — the consolation is that the person I waited for would be.

While I cannot say that every single work by Pamuk wholly appeals to me, he bottles the sounds, the smells, the sights, the tastes, the textures, the realities, and the melancholies of Turkey; and allows me to be, as he would say, “In possession of another world”.

Pamuk has, in some measure, shaped my mindscape, and I would have remained a much poorer reader and traveler had I not stumbled across that mass market paperback copy of My Name is Red one fateful day at the Fully Booked branch at Greenhills Promenade. I have since upgraded my editions to two different trade paperbacks and then to hardcover, re-reading it each time a new edition fell into my hands.

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion… open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.” — Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

Nights of Plague

November 2022

Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.

Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?

Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about present-day Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901. 

This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, and revolutions, nationalism, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.

It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.

Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.

Other Colors

“Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps of life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things — the things that make us curious about life, about the world — can be first ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them.”

The White Castle (a re-reading)

June 2021

Fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.

I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”

The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.

Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.

Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.

By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?

On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”

And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!

And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!

A Strangeness in My Mind

February 2021

The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”

For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.

There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute. It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.

Ayse Kulin: Last Train to Istanbul

October 9, 2021

A friend who has been to Turkey and Iran, and who is enamored with these places as much as I am, left this book inserted between the finials of our gate last Monday. “It’s hard to put that book down,” he followed up with a message.

Turkey has always been at the crossroads of history, but this book is a perceptive look into the inner lives of the Turkish people and their nation’s place in the world particularly amid the Second World War.

It calls to mind how, during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II, Turkey provided a refuge for the 250,000 Jews banished by Spain in the 1490s and how a whole district in Istanbul was allocated to them. 

The characters echo this magnanimous era by plotting the escape of a handful of Jews via the “Last Train to Istanbul” from Paris. This musician’s heart fell for its musical passages. It is thrilling and touching in many ways, and I was impressed to learn, by the end of the book, that it is based on the experiences related by Turkish diplomats who were posted in Europe during WWII. 

It’s hard to put this down.

Elif Shafak: The Island of Missing Trees

October 12, 2021

“You don’t fall in love in the midst of a civil war, when you are hemmed in by carnage and by hatred on all sides… You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood. You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974… and yet there they were…”

Yes, this novel is about a love that blossomed in Cyprus. A forbidden love between a Greek boy and a Turkish girl in that island country that cradles Nicosia, the only divided capital in the world — split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

But if you have been reading the author for some time, you know that she transcends her pretty book covers, and usually gives voice to those who do not have any, and calls attention to an abundance of topics and pressing issues; and you get the inkling that it cannot be entirely about love.

Aside from being delighted that a favorite poem of mine, Ithaka by C.P. Cavafy, features significantly in the story, this novel moved me so much more than I thought it would. I feel that this is where Elif Shafak has achieved a balance of the elements: culture, tradition, superstition, history, loss, grief, relationships, home, migrations, nationalism, violence, fear, mental health, feminism, eco-consciousness, intergenerational memory and trauma, inherited pain, the histories and stories in families that affect the next generation… 

Matters seemingly impenetrable to language, and yet they are carried out — narrated by a fig tree! 

Naturally, a fig tree. Can it possibly be Elif Shafak without the whimsy? And yet this is a wise fig tree who might, at length, aid the reader in understanding… what these Ithakas mean.

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad and Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love

October 19, 2021

“Things We Fear” — As soon as I learned about the Ex Libris (book club) theme for this month, I immediately took Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad from my shelf. Not a fan of the horror genre, it is one of the few I own that seems closely related to the theme.

I have this book because it is written by an Iraqi and therefore part of my current reading project.

Set in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad, the novel is a winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and a finalist of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. However, it took me a while to process how I felt about it.

A couple of passages eventually led me to conclude that this walking corpse, stitched up from different body parts of victims of violence, is the author’s grim portrait of what it means to be an Iraqi today: “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds — ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes — I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen, he thinks.”

“The definitive image of him was whatever lurked in people’s heads, fed by fear and despair. It was an image that had as many forms as there were people to conjure it.”

I think the novel is powerful in its own way, and it did give me goosebumps on the last page — but it did not really scare me.

So… If we did not have the power outage today that made me miss the book session, I would have presented The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak instead. 

Because, come on! Love is already scary enough! How much more if you add Forty Rules to it? Haha!

Finished only on the third attempt as a humorous attempt to present something “scary” in a bookclub session, I feel conflicted because it features a lot of what I am currently interested in — a time and place where the Crusades and Mongol conquests intersected, a time of Assassins and Mamluks, and basically the time when Rumi lived! I enjoyed the historical details but not so much the parts where the prose got syrupy and saccharine. It has its own beauty, but I think another reader might fare better.

Elif Shafak: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

October 22, 2021

“It is mostly through stories that we learn to think, perceive, feel and remember the world in a more nuanced and reflective way. As we gain a better understanding of the struggles of people from different backgrounds, and start to imagine lives beyond the one we are living, we recognize the complexity and richness of identities and the damage we do to ourselves and to others when we seek to reduce them to a single defining characteristic.”

“If wanting to be heard is one side of the coin, the other side is being willing to listen.”

“…we have become bad listeners and even worse learners. Whether in public or digital spaces nuanced debates are not welcome anymore. Instead there are clashing certainties… They are not there to listen and they are not there to learn.”

“If and when I am a reluctant listener, I will also become a poor learner. I will interact less and less with theories and opinions that do not agree with mine. And there will come a point when I will simply stop talking to people who are different from me.”

“When coexistence is undermined in this way societies become extremely polarized and bitterly politicized, ever wary of the ‘other side and their intentions’. Democracy, which is essentially about compromise and negotiation, conflict resolution and pluralism, a system of checks and balances, suffers from this constant tension and escalating antagonism… It is not a coincidence that all across the world authoritarian demagogues go to great lengths to incite and inflame polarization. They know they will benefit from it.”

Written by Elif Shafak during the pandemic and reading this amidst the cacophony of the Philippine political menagerie, this little book cannot be more relevant.

What if we can transform this age of division into an age of reading, connecting, engaging, listening, learning, examining our assumptions and stereotypes, expanding our minds, and softening our hearts? Who is willing?