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Incredible, imperfect Istanbul

Mentor-and-apprentice period piece a love story to Turkish city

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/4/2015 (1960 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Turkey's most widely read female author refuses to be pigeonholed into only writing stories about Muslim women. Elif Shafak believes stories transcend borders, and that she should be able to use her imagination to write about anything she wants.

In a 2010 TED talk, Shafak argued that the worst thing creative-writing courses teach students is to write what they know. She believes it's unhealthy for humans to stare into the mirror too much. "If we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the ones we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside," says the Strasbourg-born writer, who was raised by a single mother in Turkey and now divides her time between Istanbul and London.

Shafak is a polarizing figure in Turkey. When her second English novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, was published, she was charged with "insulting Turkishness" for writing about the Armenian genocide. The charges were later dropped.

On that book, the New York Times Book Review wrote that Shafak's artistry didn't match her ambition. With The Architect's Apprentice, it appears to have caught up.

This fascinating, multi-layered, epic novel is a tour de force centering around the relationship between Jahan, a young boy from India, and Chota, his albino elephant. Set against the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, the exotic cast includes a beautiful princess, eunuchs, concubines, a dwarf, lion and crocodile tamers, and even a band of altruistic gypsies.

When the sultan wants Chota to travel to Istanbul to serve him, Jahan is unable to bear parting with the tiny white elephant. Fleeing his abusive stepfather, the boy stows away on the ship with Chota. As the pair arrive by sea in the ancient city, Jahan "could not make out whether he was sailing towards Istanbul or away from it. The longer he stared the more the land seemed like an extension of the sea, a molten town perched on the tip of the waves, swaying, dizzying, ever changing."

Istanbul becomes a living, breathing entity in the novel -- a character, with its back alleys as haunting and compelling as those of the city's revered monuments. The dilapidated houses are "arranged in rows like decayed teeth," while mosques feature majestic domes and "minarets that pierce the sky."

Jahan and Chota settle in the menagerie at Topkapi Palace, where the boy works as an animal trainer, in addition to apprenticing under Mimar Sinan, the greatest architect in Turkish history. (Sinan is Turkey's answer to Michelangelo, the sultan's chief architect who lived for nearly 100 years and designed and created more than 360 structures, including major mosques, schools, mausoleums, palaces and hammams.)

Spanning 1546 to 1632, the tale covers the time when Sinan was creating some of the most beautiful buildings in history, including the Suleimaniye and Selimiye mosques.

But Shafak isn't interested in telling stories from the perspective of an elite sultan or even the legendary architect. If the book has a flaw, it's that these two characters occasionally veer into caricature. Shafak's focus is clearly the other, the disenfranchised, or the people whose stories history often ignores. She is at her best when imagining the lives of ethnic and sexual minorities, women and yes, even animals.

As tender as Jahan's affection is for Chota, his love for the princess Mihrimah provides the story's true spark, along with the tales of other apprentices who work together for a half a lifetime and are not above petty rivalries, jealous for the master's attention.

Shafak is critical of Istanbul's official history. The Architect's Apprentice lays bare how the creation of all of this new architecture would not have been possible without the plunders of war. With the sultan's treasury in constant need of replenishment, bloodshed leads to beauty.

The conflict between fundamentalism and science, an issue as relevant then as it is today, comes to a head after the apprentices build an astronomy tower, then are forced to destroy it, as superstitious people fear God will show his wrath for trying to study the heavens too closely. Jahan is disheartened that "what they raised in years, stone upon stone, could be destroyed in an afternoon."

Istanbul has long been a city in flux, one that can turn on a dime. In one passage, Jahan watches a procession wind its way through the city; he "could not believe how suddenly the public mood changed from sorrow to rejoicing, how quickly the river of their tears ran dry."

Like a stroll through Sultanahmet, Istanbul's old centre, Shafak's prose delights at every twist and turn. It's a beguiling blend of historical fact and magic realism. Fans of Khaled Hosseini and Gabriel Garcia M°rquez should find much to enjoy in this book.

By the story's end, Jahan realizes the great architect's raison d'être wasn't just to tutor him, but to heal him. The architectural great has become a divinity to his apprentices. Never buying into his own legend, Sinan left a flaw in each of his buildings, "a tile place the wrong side up, an upended stone or a marble chipped on the edge." These imperfections, visible only to the knowing eye, embodied his philosophy that only God is perfect.

The Architect's Apprentice may not be perfect, but it's close. Reading it is much like the wonder one experiences while inside one of Sinan's mosques, gazing upward into its timeless dome.


Greg Klassen is a Winnipeg writer who thinks Sinan's smallest mosque, Rustem Pasha, may be the most beautiful of them all.


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Updated on Saturday, April 4, 2015 at 9:07 AM CDT: Formatting.

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