Elif Shafak is a young Turkish novelist with a prodigious output: she is only 33, and The Flea Palace is her fourth novel, with a fifth, written in English, due later this year.
Elif Shafak is a young Turkish novelist with a prodigious output: she is only 33, and The Flea Palace is her fourth novel, with a fifth, written in English, due later this year. Her literary success and journalism mark her out as a figurehead of a new generation of writers, who use literature to reconfigure Turkish identity, and its relationship to the country's history.
Shafak was born in France and educated in Spain before returning to Turkey as a young adult. Thus she has a doubled, and marginalised, Turkish identity. Perhaps this helps enable her to cast a fresh eye on modern Turkey, and to celebrate the contradictions and incoherences that its past has bequeathed to the present. She is free from many of the modernist literary, and political, orthodoxies that are part of Kemal Ataturk's cultural legacy.
Like Georges Perec's Life: a User's Manual, The Flea Palace is a novel constructed around the daily routines of the inhabitants of an apartment building. Bonbon Palace is a microcosm of contemporary Istanbul: a city of contrasts and contestations, where both continents and cultures meet. The old and the new; Orthodox Christianity, secularism and Islam; the rich and the poor; the East and West; the ancient and the postmodern - all co-exist in an urban kaleidoscope.
In a chaotic neighbourhood, on the site of two ancient cemeteries, one Muslim, the other Armenian, the dilapidated, bug-infested apartment building is home to a cast of colourful characters. Built by Pavel Antipov, an aristocratic Russian émigré based in Paris, Bonbon Palace was a gift for his unstable wife Agripina. This grandiloquent gesture of reparation for the tragedies the Antipovs endured during their brief stay in Istanbul in the 1920s failed to restore Agripina's sanity. But the block becomes home to many subsequent tragedies, and comedies too - Shafak's black humour ensures the two usually go hand-in-hand.
The weave of disparate narratives about the residents - from Madam Auntie, the eccentric old lady in the penthouse, down to Musa the ineffectual caretaker in the basement - has a picaresque charm that blends the quotidian with a touch of magic realism. This spiral of stories within stories is organised around a central enigma that haunts all the residents: a mysterious, intensifying stench of rubbish, and the attendant plagues of insects that infest the building.
There are some engaging male inhabitants in Bonbon Palace, including the twin hairdressers whose salon is a social hub, and the drunken philosophy lecturer pining for his ex-wife. But the most complex characters in the novel are women. Despite their strength, they dissipate their energies in fruitless ways.
Hygiene Tijen makes a compulsive bid to expunge her house of all bacteria. Nadia, the Russian scientist, carves lamps out of potatoes to stave off her obsession with her unloving Turkish husband's infidelity. The young and beautiful Blue Mistress spends her time waiting for the olive-oil merchant who keeps her. Jewish Ethel, an outrageous socialite, expresses her greed for love and life by going on drunken binges. Female obsession and thwarted desire are at the heart of the decay that haunts the building - although it is male indiscretion that leads to the tragic denouement.
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