This year’s “Austrian Book Trade Honorary Award for Tolerance in Thought and Action” (Ehrenpreis des Österreichischen Buchhandels für Toleranz in Denken und Handeln) will be presented during the European Literature Days to the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak (*1971). The name of the accolade already hints at the reason for this choice. Elif Shafak is a writer who has a passionate and clear voice. In The Guardian, she wrote in July 2017, “Intellectuals should be bold and loud and yes, offensive. It is high time to stop denigrating the term. At least out of respect for those who pay a heavy price in other parts of the world just to be a public intellectual.”
But this is only one side of her work – her books are important, and probably preferable to her. Elif Shafak is a remarkable writer who – a rare occurrence – is also a bilingual author in English and Turkish. Her works comprise about two dozen titles, mainly novels, of which one third are written in English and two-thirds in Turkish. Her books have been translated into about 40 languages, including German. So, Elif Shafak has a readership far beyond her Turkish homeland.
She was a rising star in the German-speaking world about ten years ago, when Orhan Pamuk received the Nobel Prize for Literature (2006) and Turkey was guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair (2008). Her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul (2006) set its sights, without any digressions, on those discursive blind spots that even now continue to poison Turkish-Armenian relations. She passionately documents historical events, although she skilfully embeds them in a family context. Elif Shafak narrates with turbulence, humour and delight in storytelling; she gives equally direct as well as differentiated accounts of victims, guilt and harsh forgetting. The book was a bestseller in Turkey, and perhaps this is why the public prosecutor’s case failed to produce any results.
The exuberant and bubbly narrative style is characteristic of Elif Shafak, and this is also true of her novel The Flea Palace (2007). The house featuring in the title is on the edge of the Turkish-Armenian cemetery. Inside, a colourful social cosmos is unveiled in its ten apartments which Elif Shafak skilfully brings together to a tightly knit whole. The superficially cheerful palaver and chitter-chatter cannot hide that a personal drama is ongoing in each one of the ten apartments.
This pattern continues in her subsequent books. They are set at the intersections between East and West, family and politics, modernism and myth. Sometimes, they are set in the present-day such as her most recent Three Daughters of Eve (2016); and at other times, they involve retrospectives into the realm of histories such as the previous The Architect’s Apprentice (2014). Elif Shafak’s books are a mirror of Turkey’s cultural and social wealth that is in danger of being gambled away under President Erdogan’s rule.
The magnificent reign of Sultan Suleiman I (Suleiman the Magnificent), which she recounts in The Architect’s Apprentice, sheds light on the contemporary monarch who sits alone in his “white palace” with 1,001 rooms and feels threatened from all sides. But Elif Shafak’s interest in this historical novel is less focused on the powerful elite entourage and more on the “architect’s apprentice” whose social elevation she documents in her majestically styled prose.
In Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Shafak once again refers to the discourse on religious extremism and political repression. Peri, a woman in her prime, senses how she is stuck and confused somehow “in-between”. She is a moderate religious woman and neither subservient nor provocatively sensuous. As the Confused, she is more like Eva’s third daughter and is in-between the Sinner and the Believer.
Elif Shafak’s books are published in English by Viking Press and Penguin Books.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright