Turkey: mystic union


You could be forgiven for thinking that Turkey has only produced one writer in recent years: bestseller and Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk. He was certainly the top tip in the Turkish recommendations I got for this blog and, never having read him before, I was very tempted to join the party.

Then I stumbled upon a copy of Elif Shafak’s latest novel in Foyles and, intrigued by the biog’s claim that she is the most widely read woman writer in Turkey, I decided to leave Pamuk to his adoring public (at least for this year) and give Shafak a go instead.

It cost me a bit of googling to be sure that Strasbourg-born Shafak qualified as my Turkish entry. Having lived in the US, UK and Turkey, the feminist-leaning writer — whose second English-language novel The Bastard of Istanbul led to her being charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’ (the case was dropped before trial) — seems more of a citizen of the world than of any particular country. According to her website, she prides herself on writing that feeds off ‘journeys and commutes between cultures and cities’.

Shafak’s latest book reflects this. Weaving together the story of non-practising Jew Ella, a housewife-turned literary agent’s assistant in Massachusetts, and a novel about the friendship between Sufi poet Rumi and wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz in 13th century Anatolia that she is given to assess, the narrative tests modern Western culture against medieval Muslim mysticism and finds it wanting. As Ella becomes engrossed in the text and in a correspondence with its author, she finds herself forced to re-evaluate her assumptions and priorities, with dramatic results.

There’s a lot to like about the book: it’s well-written, it’s insightful, and it’s painstakingly researched. It raises some interesting points about the fundamental commonality of world religions — religious wars, the novel-within-the-novel’s author Aziz suggests at one point, may arise from nothing more than ‘mistranslation’.

But there is an uneasiness at the narrative’s heart that is hard to ignore. As Ella and, especially, the 13th century mystics become increasingly absorbed in their quest for spiritual perfection and the true, muscular love of the title, there is insufficient weight given to the sacrifices their quest entails — the child bride left to curl up and die in a corner, the son whose loyalty is curdled into bitterness by neglect.

In addition, the perspective leaps between characters, particularly inside Aziz’s novel, necessitate some awkward repetition of events. This can be irritating, as can the character of Shams of Tabriz, who trots out one parable too many on occasion.

Nonetheless this is an enjoyable read and — judging by the sales figures and rave reviews elsewhere — clearly one that has struck a chord with many readers. Drop me a line if you’re one of them. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. Publisher (this edition): Penguin (2011)

17 responses

  1. Thank you for the post. I have read almost all Orhan Pamuk books—6 novels, 1 essay collection, and his memoir—available in English; and believe me, he’s a genius. He’s undoubtedly one of the world’s topmost novelists alive. Though I’ve heard a lot about Elif Shafak, her books are not available in India. I’m meaning to read her works though.

  2. I am happy to see the names of my favourite writers here. I also love reading books from different cultures and so far I have read Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan and some others. Your blog is unique in that I have discovered many writers and I now have a big list here.
    Thanks a lot and love from Turkey 🙂

  3. I think that Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak were the worst choices made to read. They have been made popular, that is all. They are not unique and original at all. They do not reflect real Turkey and demonstrate very poor philosophy. They are balloons without context. To comprehend Turkey, you should absolutely read Orhan Kemal, Halide Edip Adıvar, Reşat Nuri Güntekin, Refik Halit Karay,Sabahattin Ali, Yaşar Kemal, Kemal Tahir, Fakir Baykurt, Sait Faik. Then you can feel the smell of Turkey. 🙂

  4. I agree with the Elif Safak comment above. She is very much a pop writer. I read The Forty Rules of Love and its not a bad book but it really has nothing to do with Turkey, Turkish culture or life in Turkey.

    It struck me more as a middle eastern spin of a Paulo Coelho type of book.

    I would really like to know if you read something else besides her book.

      • I would also agree that Elif Safak is more of a pop-writer. I had read 40 Ways of Love, and it is not a bad book but the parables were the only thing that made the book passable. She uses a fancy language to cover up for the lack of the intricacy of the story line but that is as far her narrative skills go.

        There are some books I would highly recommend. One of them was on your list, “The Time Regulation Center” by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. He is brilliant. The translation seems to have made justice to the story from the goodreads comments I just read.

        “Memed, My Hawk” by Yasar Kemal. He is a legend and if one asked to name one Turkish author that could represent Turkish literature, that would be him.

        There are some others I would like to recommend, though they are not yet translated into English. I will write the names regardless so maybe they will be available in English by the time you actually have the time:)

        Murat Uyurkulak: “Tol” and “Har” (two novels)

        Oguz Atay – “Dangerous Games”

        Sabahattin Ali – “Fur Coated Madonna”

        And thanks for compiling such a list of books from all over the world. I am at awe. And I now know where to come when I am in need of recommendations:)

  5. Hi Ann,
    I have just watched your tedtalk and i congrats and support you with my deepest feelings. You are doing something great. Although i believe that “translations” cannot reflect the same idea, they mostly give the general idea. Because i believe every language has its own soul and you will be affected when you read it in its languages. Let me come to the point,

    I have checked your list and looked for the books from Turkey and i definitely agree with the comment above about reading the “real” turkish writers such as “Sebahattin Ali” , “Yaşar Kemal”, “Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar”….

    I want to suggest a book that every time i read it, i can get different meanings from it and somehow i can connect those words with my own life. A book that made many people cry not just because of its sad story but also because people found themselves in the story. A book that has been written by “Sabahattin Ali” when he was in the army in 1940 and continued to writing his book even his writing arm was injured ..

    “The Fur-Coated Madonna”-“Kürk Mantolu Madonna”

    It is not translated in English yet but Penguin announced it will be published early in 2016. I found a little translation of the book translated by some college students as link is given below.


    and the upcoming book: http://www.amazon.com/Madonna-Fur-Coat-Sabahattin-Ali/dp/0241206197

    I am looking forward to read your comments about this book. I wish you my best regards.

    Sincerely Fatih,

  6. I find it interesting that Yaşar Kemal is named as THE author that represents Turkey the best – since he’s Kurdish. Makes me think.

  7. Hi Ann,
    Seeing Elif Şafak doesn’t surprise me at all as she’s quite famous in Europe. However, I have to agree with my fellow Turkish readers that she’s actually not that good. (Her first books were better though). You have been recommended Abasıyanık and Tanpınar, whom I think are the masters of Turkish language, I would also like to suggest Mehmet Eroğlu, Melih Cevdet Anday, Oğuz Atay and Peride Celal. Hope you’ll enjoy your adventure in Turkish literature.

    By the by, I show your TED Talk to my freshman students for their Academic Writing classes.

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