Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, also known as Amy, likes to spend her evenings in an Internet chat room called Café Constantinopolis, “designed by a bunch of Greek Americans, Sephardim Americans, and Armenian Americans who…all were the grandchildren of families once based in Istanbul.” It’s here that she first learns, from one Baron Baghdassarian, about the Janissary’s Paradox, the choice that faced young Christian boys taken by the Ottoman state and given the chance to rise in the imperial capital so long as they forgot their history and their faith. “You the child of expatriates!” admonishes Baron. “You need to ask yourself this age-old question time and again: What will your position be with regards to this paradox; are you going to accept the role of the Janissary?”
The question, posed in Elif Shafak’s new novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, will be familiar to every child of immigrants; for the expatriate writer it brings a particular set of literary choices. The imperial capital offers some preferment for intimate stories in English about one’s community of origin: David Bezmozgis, Aleksandar Hemon, Bharati Mukherjee, Panos Karnezis and recently Yiyun Li have all been successful in this way. But the greatest prizes are still reserved for the descendants of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: big novels where the characters represent some aspect of the history of a people or the experience of migration, and where the tricks and mirrors of postmodernism reflect the writer’s cultural ambivalence. As Ömer, a Turkish student, says in Shafak’s previous book, The Saint of Incipient Insanities, “When you are a foreigner, you can’t be your humble self any more. I am my nation, my place of birth. I am everything except me.”
Shafak knows what it is to be impaled on the Janissary’s Paradox. Born in France to Turkish parents and raised in Spain by her diplomat mother, she now divides her time between Istanbul and the University of Arizona, where she teaches in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Her first four novels, written in Turkish, were highly praised in her home country; her switch to English for The Saint of Incipient Insanities was viewed by some as a cultural betrayal. The Bastard of Istanbul, also written in English but published first in Turkey, takes on the most bitterly contested moment in her country’s history: the deportation and systematic massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman state during World War I. The Armenian genocide is still officially denied in Turkey; the subject has become a battleground in the culture war between liberal intellectuals and the nationalist right. The novel led to Shafak’s indictment for “insulting Turkishness” under a recent law that was also used against Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. She was acquitted, but the war is not only symbolic. Since the assassination this January of Hrant Dink, a liberal Armenian-Turkish editor convicted under the law, Shafak has lived under police protection in Turkey and all but canceled her American book tour.
Shafak has always been drawn to the margins and hidden pockets of Turkey’s history. Her first two (untranslated) novels were about Sufi mystics and Sephardic Jews. The Flea Palace explores the life of a run-down Istanbul apartment building; The Gaze is a baroque extravaganza spanning several centuries, theoretically tied together by the idea of the female body seen through men’s eyes. Though full of startling images and wild invention, these books are heavy going, at least in translation. Like Pamuk, whose influence is evident in her formal games and cool, authoritative storyteller’s voice, Shafak makes few concessions to the reader’s wish for emotionally engaging characters or narrative momentum. The metaphors and fables and digressions pile up endlessly, as if the writer were afraid of silence, nervously twirling and performing on the page to dazzle and impress.