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)