Realism Books

Elif Shafak’s ‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’: The martyr of Istanbul

I had been mesmerised by Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul — I couldn’t get over its sassy women who live exactly as they want to, care two hoots for convention, and sail through calamities laughing at everyone and mostly at themselves. Having been introduced to Shafak through The Bastard, I have eagerly read her subsequent novels in the hope of meeting more feisty women and laughter in the dark, but been progressively disappointed.

I couldn’t get past 40 pages of The Forty Rules of Love, littered as it was with Goodreads-worthy sentences like “Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you”. It read like a book of distilled wisdom that made no demands on your intellect. Gone were the fractured and contrary women who urged you to think, not applaud mindlessly. They resurfaced briefly in Three Daughters of Eve, but even that novel was more poignant than brave.

The Elif Shafak of the post-Bastard novels has metamorphosed into a TED Talk-ing diva doling out wellness advice flavoured with dollops of mysticism to her adoring audience. Her latest, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, is so edifying that you might grow a halo of reflected glory reading it.

Familiar faces

The tropes are familiar from Shafak’s earlier novels — the high-heeled rebellious female protagonist; the conflict between belief and atheism; Istanbul with its inherent rifts, slow decay and thieving seagulls; a bunch of characters gathered round the protagonist who are eternal outsiders not just because they are non-Turkish (though most of them are in 10 Minutes) but because of their refusal to play by the norm.

To drive home her point about the injustice women and minorities are subjected to in Turkey, Shafak dunks her characters in

every kind of imaginable trauma — the protagonist, Leila (known as Tequila Leila among her friends), has an oppressed mother whose mind buckles under patriarchal pressure while Leila herself is subjected to child abuse from a family member, becomes a prostitute, suffers abjection of all sort, gets an all-too-brief chance at happiness through marriage, and is finally murdered by a rightist zealot (the book is her recollection of her past in the last 10 minutes 38 seconds of her ebbing life after the murder). You pity Leila as a battered victim of circumstances, but when has pity made for great literature?

By the time Leila is dead, she has become a Sister of Mercy: she posthumously transforms her friends’ broken lives as they lovingly recall her various acts of kindness. Rejected by society, shunned by family, Tequila Leila the ‘fallen woman’ yet lives up to her father-bestowed name, Leyla Afife Kamile, meaning ‘chaste’, ‘perfection’, by refusing to be dehumanised by a savage world (à la Hardy’s Tess, the “pure woman” — hear the slow clap here?).

Holding hands

In this predictable novel, Leila’s group of true friends are predictably her “safety net”. Like Leila, they are all social rejects in some way or the other. Of them, only one, Nostalgia Nalan, the transsexual who transforms from a young man singing to Leila at the window to become her steadfast female friend, stands out.

In Nalan we get a brief glimpse of Shafak’s women of power — this chain-smoking, cussword-spewing, towering woman throws god away like a redundant piece of clothing, fights her abusers like a pro, and takes matters into her own hands instead of wallowing in her marginality.

Once Leila exits the scene, Nalan drives the action. That said, the last section, with Nalan in charge, is even more schmaltzy than the rest, with the friends undertaking an expedition in the night to dig up Leila from the Cemetery of the Companionless where the state had dumped her body.

Too sweet

Since this section is a vindication of the power of friendship, it drips with sweetness, with a lot of hand-holding and charming “You okay?” as the bunch troops through the ghostly graveyard on — what else? — a stormy night. Shafak, of course, is trying to make a meaningful point here about the bond of friendship that is sturdier than family ties (Leila’s family refuses to claim her body), but she does that using such broad brushstrokes that its value is eroded in the telling.

Turkey has recently put Shafak, along with a few other Turkish authors, under investigation for the depiction of child sexual abuse in their novels, insinuating that by doing so, these writers encourage abuse. There is a hint of child abuse in Shafak’s 2016 novel, Three Daughters of Eve, while in 10 Minutes, Leila is just six when her uncle starts sexually molesting her — she is eventually raped by him, and that precipitates all the tragedies she suffers down the years.

Whatever the demerits of 10 Minutes, Shafak is brave in writing about an issue that the state wants thoroughly hushed. But if Shafak is hauled up on the basis of 10 Minutes, it will just confirm the truth that the state is a dunderhead and, as such, should not aspire to be a judge of literature.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World; Elif Shafak, Penguin Random House, ₹699

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 8:57:28 PM |

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