Review 1752: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Elif Shafak is one of the most widely read Turkish women writers. I have only read one of her books so far, so when I saw 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World on my Booker prize list, I was interested to revisit her. However, I’m not entirely sure what I think of this unusual novel.

The convention of the first part of the novel is that Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul, has been murdered. Her brain is active for 10 minutes and 38 seconds while she revisits scenes from her life, each chapter representing a minute of brain activity. These chapters are separated by short sections about the lives of her five friends, who all in some way live on the fringes of society.

My first reaction was an impatience with this idea, that 10 minutes was to be represented by nearly 200 pages of text. I have a real problem with attempts like this in fiction to represent a short amount of time with several hours worth of reading. In this case, though, I got used to the idea but felt that the sections introducing the friends are an inelegant solution to our barely seeing them in the first part of the novel while the second part deals with how they handle the aftermath of Leila’s death.

And the change of tone in the second part is what bothered me most. For, we go abruptly from an elegiac tone in the first part while we learn about Leila’s difficult life to one of almost madcap comedy as a bunch of lovable misfits try to give Leila an ending she deserves. To me, this felt like a grinding change of gears.

It is brave of Shafak in her country to write about violence against women, especially since I understand she is being investigated by the Turkish authorities for it (or was when I read this months ago), but her supporting characters seem almost like caricatures to me, possibly because we don’t see that much of them in the first part. I felt like the second part of the novel almost undercuts the first part.

The Bastard of Istanbul

The Towers of Trebizond

Dance with Death

Day 506: The Bastard of Istanbul

Cover for The Bastard of IstanbulTwo 19-year-old girls are the focus of The Bastard of Istanbul, which is full of colorful characters. First, though, we meet Zeliha Kazancı, twenty years before most of the action of the novel. She is notable on the streets of Istanbul during the 80’s for her miniskirts and incredibly high heels, her colorful outfits and jangly jewelry. She is defiant of convention, and bitingly invents rules of prudence for Istanbulite women as she makes her way to have an abortion. But fate intervenes.

In Arizona, Zeliha’s brother Mustafa is a student when he meets an American woman and her baby in the supermarket. Rose is newly divorced from an Armenian American, and she thinks nothing would enrage her husband’s family more than her dating a Turk.

Nineteen years later, Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian loves her father’s Armenian family, but because her parents have been at loggerheads her entire life, she does not feel totally at home on the Armenian side. She decides to visit her stepfather Mustafa’s family in Istanbul so that she can see the house her Armenian grandmother used to live in before they had to flee and try to learn more about her heritage.

In Istanbul, Asya Kazancı is even more of a rebel than her mother Zeliha. She is an angry girl who hates being a bastard and thinks of herself as a nihilist. She hangs out with a group of rather effete intellectuals at the Café Kundera. She is not pleased to learn her four aunties expect her to act as a hostess to her uncle Mustafa’s American stepdaughter.

Eccentric women dominate the Kazancı household. Asya’s great-grandmother Petite-Ma is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her grandmother Gűlsűm is a bitter woman who spoiled her son Mustafa rotten only to have him go to America and never return. Her oldest auntie Banu is the only observant Muslim in the house, but she also is a soothsayer, who learns the future from two djinnis that sit on her shoulders. Cevriya is a rather didactic schoolteacher, and Feride toys with different types of mental illness. Zeliha, whom Asya also calls auntie, is as colorful as ever and owns a tattoo parlor.

Shafak writes in a light-hearted style that mixes in folk tales, superstitions, and family legends and is often comic. Yet it deals with some serious subjects, one being modern Turkish identity and another the Armenian diaspora. Armanoush finds when she arrives that most of the people she meets have never heard of this latter subject that has her American-Armenian friends so angry. The subject matter is an odd contrast with the light tone, for Armanoush’s visit brings old family secrets out into the open, and they are dark ones.

This novel is well written and interesting, but I can’t decide how much I like it. I feel that the narrative style somehow keeps the reader aloof from the characters so that they remain unknowable. Still, the novel gives glimpses into life in a fascinating country and informs us on historical events of which many people still are unaware. And it includes a recipe.


Day 355: Deadly Web

Cover for Deadly WebA naked teenage girl is found dead in the grounds of Yoros Castle in Turkey. She has apparently stabbed herself through the heart, but there is evidence of some strange sexual practices. Someone is convincing young people in Istanbul to participate in what they believe are sex orgies, only to murder them. Inspector Mehmet Suleyman draws this conclusion while investigating another incident involving a teenage boy, although one death seems to be a suicide.

Inspector Çetin İkmen has made several visits to a friend, local magician Max Esterhazy, for information about a strange obscene symbol someone has been painting on the walls of religious sites. His investigation seems to indicate some connection with Suleyman’s case. Then Max disappears, and blood is found splattered around his study.

Suleyman is having his own problems. His wife has left him for a visit to Ireland, taking their infant son. His unfaithfulness has broken them up, and he has been exposed to the HIV virus through an affair with a prostitute.

Soon another girl is killed, and Suleyman and Ikmen find links to the city’s goth clubs and possibly to Satanism.

I find Nadel’s mysteries set in Istanbul interesting because they often provide fascinating insights into the city’s subcultures.

Day 319: Murder on the Orient Express

Cover for Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express is Agatha Christie’s classic mystery featuring Hercule Poirot. Everyone has of course seen the lush 1974 movie featuring a flock of movie stars and Albert Finney as Poirot.

Hercule Poirot is visiting Istanbul when he unexpectedly receives a telegram prompting him to cancel his plans and book a seat on the Orient Express leaving that night. He is able to book a compartment in first class, but only after some difficulty.

Poirot’s fellow passengers include a Russian princess, a Hungarian count and countess, a Swedish missionary, a British colonel, an annoying American widow, and other unusual characters. As always with Christie, her characters are expertly and colorfully drawn.

On board the train, Poirot is approached by the repellent Mr. Ratchett, an American businessman who believes his life is being threatened, asking for protection. Poirot dislikes Ratchett and declines his offer.

After a disturbed night, during which Poirot is awakened by a cry and spies a woman in a lurid silk kimono walking down the hall, Ratchett’s body is found dead in his compartment. He has been stabbed 12 times. The railroad executive traveling on the train begs Poirot to attempt to solve the crime before the train reaches Yugoslavia.

It begins to look as if an intruder disguised in a railway uniform broke into Ratchett’s compartment and murdered him then escaped out into the snow. Poirot’s investigation turns up a suggestion that Ratchett was the leader of a gang who kidnapped and killed the child Daisy Armstrong (a crime based upon that of the Lindbergh kidnapping), resulting in much tragedy for the family. He also begins finding links between some of the passengers and the Armstrongs.

This particular mystery is famous not only for its exotic locales but also for the unusual solution to the murder. Despite my familiarity with the plot, it made enjoyable reading.

Day 271: The Abyssinian Proof

Cover for The Abyssinian ProofIn 19th century Istanbul, the magistrate Kamil Pasha  is assigned to find out who is stealing valuable relics throughout the city and selling them to London. He is instructed to find the relics and bring them back to where they belong. One of the relics is contained in a reliquary that has been guarded since the last days of the Byzantine Empire by a sect of Abyssinian descent called the Melisites. The relic is called the Proof of God.

Kamil is an upright and dedicated civil servant. While he is investigating, he learns about the history and beliefs of an odd group of people, the descendents of Abyssinian slaves who live in an abandoned cistern and are part of the city’s underworld.

In pursuit of the relic thieves and in investigation of some apparently related murders, we follow Kamil through the subterranean passages under Istanbul.

Kamil is also attracted to Elia, a refugee artist who lives in his sister’s house. Elia has suffered terribly, though, and is not really prepared to pursue more than friendship.

As with Barbara Nadel’s more modern Turkish mysteries, I find novels set in this exotic locale interesting, and the history presented in The Abyssinian Proof is fascinating. Sometimes, I wish that Kamil Pasha wasn’t quite such a serious man, however.