By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BERLIN — For many Germans, the centenary commemorations provided the impetus to learn more about the Armenian genocide. Fortunately, several new books have appeared in German which will supply not only basic background information but new historical discoveries. The book Death in the Desert: The Armenian Genocide by Rolf Hosfeld, director of the Lepsiushaus, has been received as a well-written rendition of the events. A more in-depth historical study, based on heretofore unpublished official documents, is Accessory to Genocide: Germany’s Role in the Elimination of the Armenians, by Jürgen Gottschlich. This work represents the most thorough treatment of Germany’s role thus far, with ample discussion of the activity of the military as well. Michael Hesemann’s book, The Armenian Genocide, draws on documents from the Vatican archives.
If publication of such historical documents continue to be instrumental in breaking through the denialism on the part of Turkey’s officialdom, what has opened the minds and hearts of ordinary citizens to confront the past has been literature. Elif Shafak, a prolific young author, is certainly the best known such writer from Turkey. Now, another of her bestseller, prize-winning novels, The Bastard of Istanbul, has appeared in a German translation. Though in this work she was accused of “Insulting Turkishness” according to Article 301 of the penal code, the case was eventually dropped. But the importance of her novel extends beyond this. As she writes in a foreword to the German translation, after learning about the genocide she decided to write a novel about “generations of Armenian and Turkish women, women who resembled each other so much that one might describe them as sisters in spirit.”
Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian and Asye Kazanci are two such young women, and through their encounter, the interconnected story of their families unfolds, all against the backdrop of the massacres and deportations. Armanoush is the daughter of Armenian Barsam Tchakmakhchian and his American wife Rose. The cultural clash between the all-American Rose from Arizona and Barsam’s extended family, whose compatriots had “a surname she couldn’t spell and secrets she couldn’t decipher,” and who made her feel an outsider — odar — lead to divorce at a time when her daughter (whom she calls Amy) is still a baby. Rose enters a new relationship with a Turkish man Mustafa Kazanci, and delights in the thought of how his ethnicity will annoy Barsam’s family.
Asye is the bastard daughter of Zeliha Kazanci, and lives in Istanbul with her mother and three sisters of Mustafa, as well as their mother and grandmother. The outlandish aunts include Cevriye, who teaches Turkish national history, Feride, a hypochondriac and Banu, a practicing clairvoyant. Her mother Zeliha, whom she calls Auntie, runs a tattoo parlor.
Both Amanoush and Asya, in different ways, are searching for their identities. Amanoush, a bookworm, explores Armenian-ness and American-ness in exchanges with Greek-Americans, Sephardic-Americans and Armenian-Americans through the Café Constantinopolis chat room, all participants being third-generation descendants of Istanbulites, many of them survivors. For her part, Asya, a Johnny Cash devotee who describes herself as a nihilist, engages in discussions with Turkish intellectuals at Café Kundera. Amanoush decides to travel to Istanbul (without informing her parents), and visits the Kazanci home. She explains that she hopes to understand her family history by visiting the city of her grandmother, and to grasp the meaning of being Armenian by meeting Turks.
Shafak depicts the cultural confrontation with masterful insight. If Armanoush’s chat room interlocutors, full of prejudices, fret about her contact with Turks, Asya’s aunts display blissful ignorance of any of the historical facts and her intellectual buddies at the Café dismiss references to the genocide with blithe comments that it “didn’t happen” or “people have been brainwashed,” etc. What makes it possible for the reader to digest such typically denialist arguments is the author’s artful use of irony, including exaggeration bordering on the burlesque. Thus the names given the participants at Café Kundera whom Armanoush meets are chat room style labels: there is the Nonnationalist Scenarist of Ultranationalist Movies and the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist, alongside the Closeted-Gay Columnist and the Exceptionally Untalented Poet. Then Armanoush takes Asya along with her (by computer) to her chat room, introducing her as A Girl Named Turk. Here the ideological parody unfolds from the opposite standpoint. The chatters pepper Asya with facts about the genocide, heavily dosed with sarcasm, and when she responds with candid admission of ignorance about her past, both personal and national, they are taken aback. Heretofore, writes Shafak, “the Café Constantinopolis’s encounter with the Turks had basically been a fuming exchange of slander and soliloquy. This time the tone was radically different.”
When Armanoush’s grandmother Shushan dies suddenly in America and her divorced parents try to reach her by phone, the truth of her whereabouts emerges and Rose, in panic, demands Mustafa fly with her immediately to safely pick up her Amy. She screams in horror that her only daughter should be in Istanbul, Shafak writes, “as if it meant that Armanoush had been taken hostage.” The arrival of Mustafa and Rose (who has purchased kitschy souvenirs for the female relatives) in Istanbul provides the dramatic juncture for the separate but intertwined family narratives to be played out.
The detailed histories of the Kazancis and Tchakhmakhchians come to light significantly with the aid of what some might call magic. Aunt Banu’s two djinn, Mrs. Sweet and Mr. Bitter, are the agencies who provide her knowledge of past events, family secrets and other mysteries, which she uses not only in her fortune-telling, but in unearthing the true events that the ancestors of both families had experienced in 1915. Shafak invokes this fairy-tale quality in a brief frontispiece to her novel, which reads:
“Once there was; there wasn’t.
God’s creatures were as plentiful as grains
And talking too much was a sin….
–The preamble to a Turkish tale … and to an Armenian one”
Incorporating this genre, she joins other writers who have explored the Armenian tragedy in literature, like Edgar Hilsenrath in The Story of the Last Thought and Turkish German author Dogan Akhanli in The Judges of the Final Judgment with the aid of fantasy. Both these works in German have had a profound impact. As Shafak explains in her Foreword, she seeks a “profound change in political language and literary style. A voice full of emotional empathy, intellectual curiosity and, yes, also modesty. Instead of shouting, I whisper,” she writes. What she whispers in this novel is loaded with meaning.
(Note: Quotes from the Foreword have been translated from the German into English and may not correspond to the author’s original.)