The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak **********SPOILER ALERT**********

The “Bastard of Istanbul” has been on my to-read radar for a while now partly owing to the review of a fellow gr friend who’s read it and to my own curiosity of how these characters are going to come together to tell the story of the Armenian genocide, and how I will react to the telling and the intersection of these peoples lives- the Turkish Muslim Kazancis and the Armenian American Tchakhmakhchians.

From the first few pages itself the author managed to capture my full attention with two of the main characters in this story, Zeliha and the city of Istanbul. One of the Kazanci women, she echoed certain character traits I fully sympathized with. And having been to Istanbul a couple of times, the imagery evoked just made me want to get on the 1st flight out armed with my backpack and trusty camera. But alas, that not being possible, I’m left to finish reading the rest of The Bastard to find out what the author has in store for me. Expecting only to have my reader’s spirit sustained, I’m not disappointed.

The rest of the Kazanci women are as unique as I’ve seen in a while. Without giving anything away, let me just say you will be entertained as they go about their existence in a once opulent konak in the middle of Istanbul, each so diametrically opposite to the next it’s a wonder they exist unscathed. They along with Pasha the Fifth, the family feline set the stage for the arrival of Armanoush or Amy Tchakhmakhchians as she’s known part of the time.

The Tchakhmakhchians make up the 2nd third of this story, a part of the Armenian diaspora they exist united within the larger Armenian community in their continued rememberance of their tragic past, the expulsion and genocide of their family in early 20th century Ottoman Turkey. Through the character Amy, the two families past intersect in Istanbul. Amy finds it in herself to discover more of her Armenian past mostly as relates to her beloved grandmother Shushan’s experiences during the genocide and it is her curiosity which highlights the general lack of awareness among the Kazanci family of their collective past and slowly brings forth the family’s own secrets to be revealed.

While the Kazanci women were amusing and could be irritating at times, the Tchakhmakhchian clan were frustrating and got my temper up. Their love for Armanoush felt suffocating and their behavior towards Rose, Turkish people in general and Mustafa in particular put me off early in the book. This passage I’ve taken from a conversation in a chat room between members of the Armenian diaspora, Armanoush and Asya the youngest of the Kazanci clan sums it up nicely:

“Well, the truth is, dear Madame My-Exiled-Soul and dear A Girl Named Turk ….some among the Armenians in the diaspora would never want the Turks to recognize the genocide. If they do so, they’ll put the rug out from under our feet and take the strongest bond that unites us. Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savouring the cocoon of victimhood. Apparently, there are some old habits that need to be changed on both sides.”

This feeling didn’t last long though as I read the chapters tracing back Shushan’s past poignantly told through her father Hovhannes Stamboulian. The abrupt break to their lives as they know it tears the family apart and as you get to know Hovhannes and little Shushan you can’t help but feel the senselessness of the whole mess.

I feel for victims of any wrongdoing and recognize that the effects of a genocide especially can reverberate down through the generations but to hold on to so much pain and suffering, to perpetuate the sentiment down the generations in the name of unity feels just as wrong as the Turkish government’s denials of this part of their history. The public’s lack of awareness, as I see it, can be excused by 2 reasons: willful ignorance during the atrocities with consequent amnesia, or partial awareness amidst government cover-ups and consequent amnesia, much like similar atrocities perpetuated since … well, forever probably. Either way, it happened and though I wish it were otherwise the pessimist in me can’t help but say it will probably happen again, if not to the Armenians or the Greeks then to someone else especially if the pain and anger of the past is carried so close to the heart.

Nevertheless, I can fully recommend this novel as an entertaining and insightful read with Istanbul completing the third of the story. As for myself, I’ll continue to read more about the Armenian and Greek expulsions and genocide during this time and look forward to trying out another book written by this author.