Elif Shafak‘s novel The Bastard of Istanbul (Turkish title: Baba ve Piç) tells the captivating story of a Turkish and an American-Armenian-Turkish patchwork family, both female dominated. Paradoxically, it is easy to identify with all of them, even though they come from very different cultural backgrounds and their mentalities often seem incompatible. The religious Banu lives under the same roof as her atheist sister Zeliha and their Kemalist mother Gülsüm… and yet they somehow get along. There is even love in this household full of contradictory characters – more love than we could possibly imagine.
The Bastard of Istanbul deals with serious issues: the Armenian genocide, the role of collective amnesia and individual memory, patriarchy and women’s rights, incest, identity and much more. However, the characters of this book also make you smile a lot, by reacting to difficult situations in very original ways as in this case: “[Zeliha] was the only woman in the whole family who used such foul language so unreservedly, vociferously, and knowledgeably; thus, whenever she started swearing, she kept going as if to compensate for the rest. This time was no different.”
Especially at the dinner table, the characters’ exchange of ideas sometimes has a funny side to it. And that’s another of the essential topics discussed in this wonderful novel: the power of food. As trivial as it might seem, eating habits tell us a lot about other cultures. And certain dishes make us smell and taste the beauty of traditions (as is, by the way, also the case in Mario Levi‘s Size Pandispanya Yaptım). In The Bastard of Istanbul, you get to know many delicious Turkish and Armenian dishes which always stand for diversity. Shafak’s characters sit down together for dinner – bringing their contradictory mentalities and ideas with them. Food here builds a bridge between all their differences and helps them understand the Other’s views without feeling threatened. This highly emotional act of eating together opens new perspectives on society, history, identity and religion. In the end, the dessert aşure beautifully shows that we can be local and cosmopolitan at the same time. If you are curious about the novel now, my work is done here. Enjoy this unique book that is at least as colourful as Istanbul! I hope it will have as great an impact on your life as it had (and still has) on mine.
Paris, 12.11.2013 Mine Krause