Saturday, March 01, 2008

A funny book about Turks and Armenians

Two of my stereotypes were destroyed in the last couple of days - Turks can write funny books (my main knowledge is Orhan Pamuk, though he grows on me more and more), and they can write sympathetic and funny books at the same time about the Armenian question.

Just as well though, that Elif Shafak's book 'The Bastard of Istanbul' is a fast read; as I was flying to Istanbul I began to realise that it might not be the best book to read in public here. I guess the suggestive photo of the pomegranate on the front of the German version should have given me a clue.....Ms Shafak herself grew up in Spain and only returned to Turkey when she was 20, but by now she will be well steeped in all the controversy, what with having had to face a court case on this book.

The book ultimately connects two nineteen-year-old girls, both from large families. One grew up partly in a large Armenian family in the US (though her mother divorced her Armenian father early on and married a Turk out of spite), and the other, totally fatherless (she only finds out about him aged 19 - I know how it feels, though in her case the situation is terrible) grows up in a family of women in Turkey, where the men have always had a habit of dying early. Then the semi-Armenian girl decides she needs to find her identity and can only do that by going to Turkey, secretly, though with the help of the Turkish stepfather (who is an escapee from that all-female household). And so it goes on.

The book covers a huge number of topics - not just the Armenian/Turkish issue, but also the situation of illegitimate children, there's a rape-scene, the story of the Armenian tragedy is movingly told and well-reacted to by the Turkish listeners to the tales (though the characters in the book don't see themselves as having a feeling of guilt, unlike, say, my generation of Germans who still feel guilty for something their parents did).

What's so funny about it, then? It's the characterizations of people - less of the Armenians, but in particular of the Turkish end, where each of the women in that house full of women has her own idiosyncracies, and where a group of characters meeting in a cafe are all failures in their own way, like the 'Secretely Gay Columnist', or the 'Particularly Untalented Poet', spelt in a way that I have not seen since reading my friend Pat's book involving a dancer who was 'Not A Nijinksy'.

At the same time the book has some challenging moments, what with the two 19-year-olds both being intellectual heavyweights in their own ways, one as a nihilist (an existential one?) and the other a serious bookworm, and we get quotes from Jean Jacques Rousseau and others.

My main criticism is weight for value for reading time. I bought the hardback version, which is a huge and heavy book. But the print is well spaced out, and so I read the 450 pages in no time at all, including about 70 pages on the tram from the airport into the town. Try doing that with an Orhan Pamuk book (though I've read 100 pages of one of those by 2 pm this afternoon.....). I'm worried about a serious reading material crisis.....

Otherwise it's a brilliant book!