A protestor reacts in front of a poster of Turkish novelist Elif Shafak during a demonstartion outside the court during Shafak's trial 21 September 2006, in Istanbul. Photo: Mustafa Ozer / AFP

Elif Şafak is perhaps Turkey’s most famous writer.

Her most famous novel, The Forty Rules of Love (Penguin Random House, 2009) on Sufi poet Jalal-ad-Din Rumi and his spiritual teacher Shams Tabrizi catapulted her into literary stardom and was translated into more than twenty languages.

All in all, Şafak has published 11 novels in Turkish and English, all of which address highly sensitive political subjects. Her novel Honor (2012) tackled the crime of the same name, while The Bastard of Istanbul (2006) touched on the Armenian genocide, prompting a nationalist lawyer to sue the author for “insulting Turkishness.” Şafak was later acquitted by the court of criminal charges.

Over the summer, Turkish police visited her publisher in Turkey and her books were taken to the prosecutor’s office for investigation.

Since the failed attempted coup of 2016 against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, freedom of speech has been seriously undermined by his regime. About 135,000 books have been banned from public libraries, dozens of publishing houses have been closed by decree, and thousands of academics and teachers have been dismissed.

Şafak has likewise received thousands of abusive messages on social media, particularly after her newest novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, was published. 

On Monday, it was named as UK publisher Blackwell’s Fiction Book of the Year.

Death of a prostitute

The novel begins with the murder of a prostitute, Leila, dumped in a narrow street. In the 10 minutes and 38 seconds before her brain ceases to function, her life flashes back in front of her: from her birth and upbringing in the 1950s in the conservative eastern city of Van, to her relationship with her parents and her ill aunt.

At the beginning of the book, Şafak masterfully describes the web of guilt and shame that engulfed six-year-old Leila after she repeatedly fell victim to sexual assault by a close relative.

Şafak’s writing style is lucid and fresh. Her pace picks up steadily, as she does not burden the reader with abundant details. Thus, the reader may initially turn a blind eye to the clichéd depiction of Leila’s parents.

The father, for example, is a typical misogynist and religious fanatic who belittles his two wives and daughter. Leila’s two “mothers” are in turn passive and complacent housewives.

The more the reader delves into the novel, the more it becomes difficult to ward off the impression that this is a scenario that has been played out too many times before, and that Şafak has nothing very new to offer.

Once Leila flees early on in the novel to Istanbul and becomes entrapped in a brothel, the story becomes as clichéd as can be.

It only gets worse when Şafak interweaves a naive and romantic love story between Leila and an unrealistic romantic communist revolutionary who wants to rescue her from the brothel.

Even the many bizarre and comical secondary characters which Şafak rushes to the side of Leila cannot prevent the novel from falling apart at the seams. Leila’s most intimate friends –  a Somali sex worker, a Lebanese midget, a Turkish transvestite, a depressed female singer, and her most loyal male friend from Van, are as flat and unreal as all of the characters in this novel.

One of the many problems of the novel is that Şafak tends to go to extremes when drafting a character, like the Turkish transvestite who is either extremely sassy or goodhearted, the religious but cartoonishly naive Lebanese woman Zeinab, or the loyal childhood friend Sinan, who is secretly in love with Leila but never comes to life.

The misfit characters are as goofy as the nicknames they are endowed with, like Tequila Leila or Zeinab 122 or D/Ali. The characters are reminiscent of those in children’s detective books, particularly as they take it upon themselves to investigate what happened to their friend. Yet the major obstruction we faced in striking any sympathy with them is that Şafak simply refuses to take her protagonists seriously.

Political interference

The sudden transition in Leila’s life from a shy young woman to a professional and sassy sex worker in her 40s was not coherent. Even the murder mystery at the heart of the novel strikes the reader as utterly unconvincing. 

Unfortunately, Şafak’s political agenda seems to have taken the forehand in this novel, coming before the writing. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World comes off preachy and lecturing. The women are too easily and eagerly defined as victims.

It is likely Şafak was seeking to put her finger on many things that are wrong in Turkish society today, and at the same time glorify its underdogs and pariahs. Yet her undertaking went terribly wrong. A writer should give her characters space and liberty to breathe, grow and evolve, instead of putting words in their mouths and endowing them with fixed und predetermined roles.


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