Wednesday, September 18, 2013


The Wrong Way to End: Squeamish About
The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak

First of all, Elif Shafak is a woman writer and to all intents and purposes a feminist, so I want to like her book. She’s also a good writer, and it shows in The Bastard of Istanbul; the first chapter alone is a tour de force: a page-turner with a twist-in-the-tail ending. The shape of the first chapter in essence resembles the shape of the novel, which is, like its opening chapter, a compelling story about the value of a human life, of human lives. Microcosm, macrocosm.

Endings do matter. They matter a lot. In fact it is difficult to impossible to overlook the negative impact – no, let me say what I mean here – the emotional damage that can be inflicted by an adverse ending. By ‘adverse ending’ I don’t mean a bad ending. Hamlet has a bad ending that feels right. That pile of dead bodies on the stage belongs there. No, I’m talking about a bad ending that’s just so wrong. And how do I know when an ending is wrong? The same way you do.

You know it in your gut.

 Olive Comes to a Bad End

Take, for example, the end of Series Two of the British Television show “The Cut.” Watched it months ago, and still have fantasies of avenging the murder of Olive – by doing something equally murderous to whoever – screenwriter, director, producer – decided to kill off my favorite character, and in such a cruel way. 

Murderous feelings: that sounds a bit intense, doesn’t it? But you should know that Olive, screen-age fifteen, is the deep-pondering, deep-feeling, winsome heroine of the story, beautifully acted by Billie North. A loyal friend, a stalwart of the working class in a neighborhood undergoing rapid gentrification, Olive is an orphan. We’re talking heavy-duty Dickensian depiction here. You’d better think twice before you dispatch an orphan.

And there’s more. Olive is the romantic heroine of the piece: love-object of the brooding Stephen, whose parents are embroiled in a multi-generational feud with Olive’s people – and, oh! the obstacles to the love of Stephen for Olive and Olive for Stephen! It was breaking all the rules to kill off such a heroine in such a way. Without regard for the tender-hearted feelings of the audience. You just do not do that.

I suppose they thought it was possible to ignore unwritten rules like: “Thou shalt not, in the instance of a truly good character who suffers great adversity, kill off that character for no good reason, especially in a sadistic manner.” You can tell I’m still mad about this, can’t you? Olive’s friends on “The Cut” may have finished grieving for her (what choice do they have?) but my grief is not done. For Olive didn’t take poison like Juliet. She wasn’t killed by some other character onto whom we might have shifted our anger. No, true to her nature, Olive was simply trying to do a good deed when she slipped and fell from the roof of a three-story building. The lovely Olive.

Talking about Endings: Taboo!
I seem to be preoccupied these days with endings. And of course there is a taboo about talking about the ends of stories, whether these are in books or films. To speak is a sin. We even have the term “spoiler,” not so much to designate the person who gives away the secret, the climactic revelation, as to activate a noisy alert system: bells! whistles! to protect the unsuspecting reader. Protect from what? Presumably, from having one’s experience of absorption, of suspense, modified by foreknowledge. Surely that foreknowledge doesn’t interfere with an appreciation of the writer’s skill in unraveling the plot? Well no (upholders of the taboo concede), but it interferes with our enjoyment, with the pleasure we take in predicting outcomes. Indeed, we want our first reading to be virgin.

Not to speak, to be silent about endings, would be difficult enough regarding most modern novels given their complexity. Recently though, authors treating the novel like a short story, perhaps one by Maupassant, have given it a turnabout ending: a surprise, a verbal whiplash that changes everything that went before. Moreover, in some instances the surprise of the ending goes beyond technical mastery, and has a truly transformative impact on the novel’s themes and on our understanding of the novel as a whole. To refrain from discussing the ending then, in the interest of suspense, means not really being free to talk fully about the meaning of the book.

 Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

OK, a few specific examples are in order (may as well be caught for a sheep as for a lamb.) Salman Rushdie’s hung showdown at the end of Shalimar the Clown––a duel between Shalimar and Kashmira––symbolically places the Indian subcontinent in perfect equipoise between Hindu and Muslim, sacred and secular, terror and justice. Zoë Wicomb’s surprise ending in Playing in the Light causes the reader to reconsider the relative importance of two characters: Marion and Brenda.[1] In Nick Laird’s novel, Glover’s Mistake, romantic lead Glover is prodded by his jealous roommate into making a fatal mistake. Glover strikes his fiancée, Ruth, and we are reminded of a conversation in a bar, early in the novel, that turns out to be prophetic. There is a double surprise in store at the end of A.B. Yehoshua’s The Retrospective.[2] Turnabouts in style and plot wholly transform the novel. In what story writer Grace Paley would call Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Yehoshua’s narrative makes a precipitous leap from Realism into Fantasy, as an aging filmmaker finds unexpected redemption in a meeting with Don Quixote.

All of these endings––endings that must be talked about if one is to talk about the novel––are right, in some cases, surpassingly so.

What about nasty surprises? What about endings that feel wrong?

I knew the end of Series Two of “The Cut” was wrong by the strong emotions – primarily anger and indignation – that were aroused at the time of viewing it and when thinking about it retrospectively. The ending of Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul did not arouse feelings of outrage; rather it stimulated a kind of discomfort that I can best describe as squeamishness.

What's Cooking?

The Bastard of Istanbul is one of those novels by women––I think the trend began with Like Water for Chocolate––that is full of food and often the recipes to make it. In Shafak’s novel there is a tantalizing Turkish or Armenian dish in nearly every chapter. This of course arouses in the reader a festive, sybaritic state of mind, an expectation of enjoying the narrative as much as, and in the same way as, the characters enjoy their food. If you enjoy our food, the characters seem to promise, you will enjoy our story! And who would not enjoy such food?

In addition to food and food preparation, The Bastard of Istanbul features special ingredients, at the rate of one per chapter. Thus we have, in Chapters 1-5, dishes featuring: cinnamon, garbanzo beans, sugar, roasted hazelnuts, and vanilla.

Yet in spite of all this good eating, the two families profiled in Shafak’s novel are not happy families. 

What's Missing?

The Turkish family of nineteen year-old Asya Kazanci, the titular character, is unhappy because there is a curse on the male members of the family, and few have survived. The situation of the women in the family is analogous to that of factory supervisor Anna Akimovna in Chekhov’s story “A Woman’s Kingdom,”  (Babe tsarstvo 1894).

Chekhov’s story too is about the absence of men. It is a story about procreation, or the lack of it. The factory where Anna Akimovna works is a little world that cannot supply her with a suitable mate. Anna’s biological clock is ticking, and so are the clocks all around her. At Christmas, she meets the watchmaker, Pimenov:

She asked Pimenov, her acquaintance of the previous day:
"Why have you so many clocks in your room?"
"I mend clocks," he answered. "I take the work up between times, on holidays, or when I can't sleep."
"So if my watch goes wrong I can bring it to you to be repaired?" Anna Akimovna asked, laughing.
"To be sure, I will do it with pleasure," said Pimenov, and there was an expression of tender devotion in his face, when, not herself knowing why, she unfastened her magnificent watch from its chain and handed it to him; he looked at it in silence and gave it back. "To be sure, I will do it with pleasure," he repeated. "I don't mend watches now. My eyes are weak, and the doctors have forbidden me to do fine work. But for you I can make an exception."

There is something amiss with Time. There is something amiss with the time of her life. Can Pimenov fix it?

Just so the Kazancis. In the absence of fathers, husbands, and brothers, who mysteriously die off, this matriarchal clan has the peaceable autonomy of a little kingdom. Yet within this peaceable kingdom something is amiss. Can the unexplained attrition of men be fixed?

The other profiled family, an Armenian family living in America, is unhappy for other reasons. Like the Chinese in Indonesia, like the Tutsis in Rwanda, like the Jews nearly everywhere, they have been punished for their economic success, for their skill as merchants, for finding and transporting and selling the goods everyone wants to buy. Though the Armenian genocide took place from 1915-1923, this late 20th century Armenian family is still painfully diminished by it.  Yet the Tchakhmakhchian family does manage to produce one lovely daughter, Armanoush.

Lovely Daughters

And Armanoush is the cousin of the Kazanci family’s one lovely daughter, Asya. A child of obscure paternity, Asya is, of course, the “bastard” of Istanbul.

Armanoush and Asya meet up in Turkey, where they share lovingly prepared family dishes and communicate about the hidden Armenian genocide, and  other hidden things.

What is all this cuisine and divulging of secrets leading up to? What nasty surprise awaits these young women?

Did I mention that the one surviving Kazanci male, Asya’s “Uncle Mustafa” and the stepfather of Armanoush, had absented himself from Turkey around the time of Asya’s birth?

 Ending with a Nasty Surprise, or Two

As to the nasty surprise that awaits. Since, roughly, the 1980s, that nasty surprise, that family secret, has been one and the same. In Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991), an incestuous father despoils two of his three daughters. In Jonathan Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), a sister and brother screw around the clock to break their bad habit. In a more nuanced depiction of sibling incest, Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger (1987), the author explains the compulsion as a form of narcissism. In A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani (1989), such a secret haunts several generations. With the exception of thoughtful books like those by Irving and Lively, [and leaving aside French films like Cousin Cousine (Cousin, Cousin, Jean-Charles Tacchella, 1975) and Le Souffle au Coeur (Heart Murmur, Louis Malle, 1971), which made a cousinly obsession and a boy’s sexual initiation by his mother seem like jolly, inconsequential romps] literary incest is most often numbered among the sins of the patriarchy. And retribution awaits.

So when the culpable Mustapha returns to Istanbul, and Asya’s parentage is revealed: a rape, the only question that remains is what form retribution will take. Since we have by now reached Chapter 18, and the special ingredient listed is Potassium Cyanide, you can easily imagine what manner of homecoming feast awaits Mustafa.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Peace or Violence?

Let’s be clear: Mustafa did a very bad thing. It’s not right to rape your sister. It’s also not right to kill somebody. But the wrongness of the ending of this novel goes beyond the parameters of common sense.

In 1984, my husband and I visited a Greek village on the Peloponnese called Kretena. On the ascending road to the village, the word EIRENE and again, EIRENE kept appearing at intervals. EIRENE:  the Greek word for Peace. The words were actually stamped upon the road. Moments later, standing by a window in our hotel room, we listened as the two women who ran the hotel told us, in Greek and broken English, how the village had lost every last one of   its men in the Second World War. During the occupation, the Germans had come and had rounded up every male age fifteen and older. All the men, and even boys of fifteen, were shot and killed.

Genocide targets males in this way.

Beyond Retribution

The Bastard of Istanbul is a novel about two families: one diminished by genocide, the other cursed by an unexplained attrition of males. So what, in this world of unaccountable loss, does the Kazanci clan do? They kill off the one remaining man in the family! Given the context of genocide and male loss of life, could an ending be more perverse?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy feminist retribution as much as the next woman. It’s always pleasant to see the oppressor get his comeuppance.

But genocide is a very bad business, outranking the sins of the patriarchy in wickedness to a significant degree. It is wise to keep all manner of evil in perspective.

That is why I’m squeamish, and even somewhat sickened, by the ending of The Bastard of Istanbul.

[1] See my blogpost:
[2] See my blogpost:

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