The human memory can either be a blessing or a curse; a blessing because it allows you to hold onto moments in time that you cherish and a curse because it won't let you forget things you'd rather not remember. No matter how hard you try, once something has been observed and recorded by your brain it's stored there permanently unless you have that piece of your brain killed – and even that isn't foolproof because nobody's quite sure which parts of the brain do what. Memories thought isolated to one part of the mind can migrate of their own volition and show up again somewhere else completely unexpected and unwanted.
History is a recording of past events that sometimes has nothing to do with what actually happened, but unlike memories, history has a way of surviving unchallenged. Somehow because it is written down, or recorded officially, it is considered much more accurate than anything the human brain is capable of remembering. The fact that histories are sometimes written by people with vested interests in how they read and years after the events recounted took place doesn't seem to change anyone's opinion of their veracity. Only in the face of irrefutable evidence can history be re-written, and even then there will always be resistance.
All of us have a history; we were all born, we all were children, adolescents (a time a lot of would choose to forget if we could, I'm sure), young adults, and so on down the line until we die. As we age we formulate our own histories based on the memories we have of the days we've lived. Yet like any history there are points in time that are beyond the reach of our own memories, and we have to rely on what other people claim has happened.
The Bastard Of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, first published in Turkish and now available in English through Penguin Canada's Viking imprint, is about both personal memories, history and how they both can deny the past. Unfortunately for Elif Shafak, Turkey is in such denial of its own past that she faced three years imprisonment for the crime of besmirching Turkey's good name for something one of her characters said in the book. The best thing you can say about the Turkish government is that they probably not only helped boost sales of the book, but also nicely proved the point it makes about history and memory being precarious and easily falsified.
In the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the rulers of Turkey took it into their heads that the Armenian population of the country was a threat. So it began the first mass extermination of a people during the 20th century. As the world turned a blind eye (as it continues to do so today when it comes to Turkish treatment of its minority Kurdish population, and the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq which they relentlessly bomb and harass), first Armenian intellectuals were rounded up and shot for sedition; then as many Armenians as they could find were rounded up in Istanbul and force-marched across the country with no food or water and shipped into exile.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, died of malnutrition during the march and subsequent confinement. Children who survived were placed into orphanages where they had their names, language, and culture stolen from them so that they could be raised as good Turkish citizens and the Armenian culture would be eliminated. Thankfully the Ottoman Empire was nowhere near as efficient as Nazi Germany in their methods, and thankfully a good many regular citizens interceded to protect their friends and neighbours, so Armenians survived both in Istanbul and to flee the country to start new lives abroad.
The memory and history of what happened has never left them, and each generation of Armenians living abroad is weaned on tales of those whose lives were lost and the dispossession of their homes. Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian is the daughter of an Armenian-American and an American. Her mother and father divorced when Armanoush was only two, because her mother Rose couldn't take the pressure of so many people judging her every move while always treating her as an outsider. Her revenge against her former in-laws was swift and merciless — her second marriage was to Mustafa Kazanci, a Turkish man whose family still lived in Istanbul.
While Armanoush is growing up spending half of her time with her father's family in San Francisco learning the horror of her family's past, Mustafa's niece is growing up in Istanbul without even a past of her own. Asya is the daughter of the youngest of the Kazanci sisters, four in total, who live with their mother and grandmother in the family's ancestral home. Men have a habit of dying young in the family – so his mother had sent Mustafa off to the United States in the hope that he would beat the curse that had deprived the family of their precious men.
Asya is the bastard of the title and not only does she not live with her father, she has no idea who her father is. That's a secret known only to three people; her mother, the man who is her father, and her oldest aunt Banu. Banu is blessed and cursed with the ability to read people's futures in a small way, and can find out the answers to any questions about the past that she cares to if she is brave enough. Ever since the two djinni came to live on her shoulders, Miss Sweet and Mr. Bitter, she hadn't known a moment's peace from the past.
It's her own fault, she knows, but she has to ask, and Mr. Bitter has lived longer than long and has borne witness to everything, and his bitterness is the truth. With her grandmother's memory lost to Alzheimer's, her mother wrapped up in worshipping a son she hadn't seen in twenty years, her middle sisters lost to reality, her youngest sister running from the past as hard as she can, and her nineteen-year-old niece asking why she should care about history if she doesn't even know who her father is, who else is there but her to bear the burden of the family's and Turkey's histories?
When Armanoush (or Amy as her mother calls her) is nineteen she decides that she has to go to Turkey and see her past for herself. Going to Istanbul to find the places her grandmother's family once lived will be the only way she feels that she can understand who she truly is. Of course who else would she stay with but her stepfather's family? Telling her mother she's spending spring break with her father, and her father that she's decided to spend spring break with her mother, she flies to Istanbul to uncover her past, and inadvertently sets off a sequence of events that brings all of their pasts home to roost.
It's all very well and good to write a novel where actual history and fictional history intersect, and the attitudes of a country are reflected in the microcosm of the characters, but the trick is to make it worth reading beyond the political or social points that the author wishes to make. Elif Shafak has succeeded in this task because her primary concerns are the people in the book and telling their stories. Initially it seems like the book is populated by extras from one of Hollywood's "ethnic" movies, two-dimensional characters whose only personality stems from their ethnicity.
On one side there are the happy, eccentric, doting Armenians, where everything has a double meaning and there is an underlying sorrow to almost everything they do. On the other side are the happy, eccentric Turks, where everything has a double meaning and there is an underlying sorrow to almost everything they do. Yet Elif doesn't leave her people stranded, and with the help of her two nineteen-year-old protagonists, Armanoush and Asya, we quickly move beyond the realm of superficial and cliched.
This not only makes it a far more interesting and entertaining book to read, it also takes a subject, genocide, which is next to impossible for most of us to understand, and personalizes it in such a way that we can understand why the Armenians feel the way they do. Why doesn't the Turkish government admit it happened? They can easily blame it on the autocratic Ottoman Empire that was overthrown in favour of a secular government in the early 1920s, yet to this day there is a steadfast refusal to acknowledge what the rest of the world knows took place; it's only in Turkey that the past is denied.
As long as one person remembers the past there will always be the danger the secret you've hidden, the secret you hide from, will come out in the open. The longer it remains hidden, the longer it takes to recover from and the worse the damage that is caused when it's revealed. Memory and pain are part of the same nervous system in the human body; it's how we are conditioned to know not to stick our hand in an open flame, the memory of the pain tells us not to do it again. If we are smart we learn our lesson and remember the pain; The Bastard Of Istanbul is about what happens when the pain is ignored and the wound of memory is allowed to fester until the damage is irreversible.