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Books: Bugged by the past amid Istanbul's flights of fancy

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  • Books: Bugged by the past amid Istanbul's flights of fancy

    The Independent, UK
    June 25, 2004


    by Alev Adil

    The Flea Palace
    By Elif Shafak
    trans Muge Gocek
    MARION BOYARS pounds 9.99 (444pp) pounds 9.99 (free p&p) from 0870
    079 8897

    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

    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 emigre 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

    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.

    Alev Adil's latest collection of poems is Venus Infers' (NE Publications)
    From: Baghdasarian