After ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’ and ‘Forty Rules of Love’, Shafak's new novel is set in sixteenth century Ottoman Istanbul
Elif Shafak, one of Turkey’s best-selling authors, needs little introduction. Her writing is known for its blend of fantasy and significant social and cultural questions. Shafak’s previous books, nine of them novels, several of them award winning, include The Bastard of Istanbul, and Forty Rules of Love.
‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ her latest novel published this year by Penguin Books is set in sixteenth century Ottoman Istanbul and contains its share of fantasy, but it is also about love, peril, betrayal, gypsies, eunuchs, kings and the master architect Sinan and his apprentices, one apprentice in particular.
Shafak has played with history and chronology in this book. She says in the author’s note at the end that she ‘decided to jettison a strict chronological order and create my own time frame, with historical events absorbed into the new time line.’ Perhaps this part of the note would have been better placed at the beginning of the book keeping in mind readers for whom history is not a strong point. Either way, it adds to an appreciation of the author’s imagination and her writing skills because what the heck, history is manipulated all the time…we do it as a matter of course here in Pakistan, albeit for other, less salutary reasons, and no one is warned of the manipulation.
The book goes from Istanbul to … no; I’m not saying where it goes because I believe spoilers should be boiled in oil and served on a bed of nettles, which is actually the sort of stuff the Ottomans used to go in for. In fact the book starts with images of several burlap sacks each containing a dead child, each a prince of the royal court, discovered by ‘a man too nosy for his own good, animal tamer and architect’s apprentice.’
That animal tamer and architect’s apprentice is Jehan, erroneously known as ‘the Indian’, through whose initially twelve year old eyes we get this glimpse of Istanbul. Jehan is good with animals but his great concern is the elephant ‘Chota’ for whom he cares with a tenderness and love that serve as a foil for the cruelty and machinations of the Ottoman royal court.
Jehan is not native to Istanbul. He arrived on board a ship along with the (literally) white elephant Chota and was put in charge of the animal. This was during the reign of Sultan Suleiman, the same Sultan whose harem included the dreadful Hurem, popularised by the popular television series ‘Mera Sultan’.
In addition to being the elephant’s career Jehan is one of four apprentices attached to Mimar Sinan the royal architect under Sultan Suleyman and later under Sultans Selim II and Murad III. Sinan, is said to have built more than 400 structures including 84 major mosques, 51 small mosques, 57 religious schools, 7 seminaries, 22 mausoleums, 17 care facility, 3 asylums, 7 aqueducts, 46 inns, 35 palaces and mansions and 42 public baths under royal commission, but his most famous work was the Suleimanye, a complex of buildings covering almost 25 acres overlooking the Golden Horn commissioned by the Sultan. Sinan died at the age of ninety nine. When the story begins around 1574, he is eighty five years old.
Shafak is a true story teller. In addition to juggling timelines she knows to intersperse her tale with interesting detail that expresses more than any lengthy narrative ever could. We discover for example that Sinan fasted for three days before beginning work on any new design. And also that ‘no matter how great the building, he would leave within it a flaw…a tile placed the wrong side up, an upended stone or a marble chipped on the edge. He made sure the defect was there, visible to the knowing eye, invisible to the public. Only God was perfect.’
There is another description, a short and poignant one of ‘the Wish Tree’ which manages to also possess a certain ironic humour. The Wish Tree is an evergreen hung with ‘hundreds of scarves, ribbons, pendants and laces’ each representing a secret that a concubine in the royal harem was unable to share with anyone but God. These motley items were fastened to the tree on behalf of these concubines by eunuchs who were persuaded to help them. ‘Since the aspirations of one woman often went against those of another,’ notes Shafak, ‘the tree bristled with clashing pleas and warring prayers.’
Clashing pleas and warring prayers. It looks as though things were always this way and little has changed. That, oddly enough, is what some people want, to go back to the past and bring back the caliphate. This book may change a few minds.