September began, for me, in Turkey. Thanks to the existing air bridge at that time, I was able to spend a week by the coast, finishing with an impromptu four days in Istanbul, in the weeks before my return to Durham. It seems strange, and somewhat fitting, that I would accidentally return to Istanbul, in December, by reading Elif Shafak’s novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. I had received a copy of the book for Christmas last year, but had put off reading it, unaware of its setting. It would seem that my subconscious had delayed the opening of the book until I was better equipped to understand and appreciate this literary depiction of Istanbul, armed with my very limited lived experience in the city.
Immediately, and throughout the novel, Shafak sets out, both linguistically and thematically, to blur the lines between preconceived distinctions, to challenge societal perceptions and to dismantle existing binaries: life, death, past, present, good, evil. Far from being an astute perception of my own, Shafak is very aware of the effects and intentions of her writing, establishing this central theme in the first chapter by stating that “at some level invisible to the human eye, opposites blended in the most unexpected ways”.
In keeping with this, the novel begins with the end: the end of the life of its protagonist, Leila, who had been a sex worker in Istanbul. The plot artfully tells the story of Leila’s life, accessing its defining moments through her own recollection of a palimpsest of memories, triggered by the sensation of taste, in the minutes of mental awareness immediately after her corporeal death. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is peppered with discussion of heavy, and, occasionally, very unsettling themes, from religion, transvestism, and xenophobia, to prostitution, human trafficking, and incestuous child molestation, woven into the fabric of Leila’s life, and the lives of her friends. However, far from rendering the novel a desperately miserable read, (although, at times, the effect is indeed most perturbing), addressing so many divisive and alarming topics is refreshing and quasi-revolutionary in itself.
My attention was captivated not by any human characters, but by the living, breathing, omnipresent character of Istanbul itself.
Yet, despite the gripping, sometimes shocking and ultimately fascinating, nature of the plot, my attention was captivated not by any human characters, but by the living, breathing, omnipresent character of Istanbul itself. My senses heightened by my vague, surface level familiarity with different locations and aspects of the city, I was struck by the way in which, behind almost all of these memories, excluding those from Leila’s childhood, Istanbul itself serves as an almost tangible, incredibly influential backdrop. Through the lens of Leila’s personal experiences, meetings, friendships, Shafak depicts many crucial historical events and societal tensions of 20th Century Istanbul, such as Bloody Sunday in 1969 and the Taksim Square Massacre in 1977. Rather than being factual accounts, these events provide the setting for meetings, deaths, and the forging of friendships. Thus, tragic, factual events about which one might study are imbued with personal elements, such as Leila worrying about her dress on the way to the 1977 march, which history shows would prove fatal to between 34 and 42 of its attendees.
For me, the historical occurrence of these events, the portrayal of real misunderstandings, corruption, and injustice, triggered a very uncomfortable reaction. In my mind, I could explain away many of the horrors of Leila’s personal life as works of fiction, which indeed they were, but the horrifying, cold facts of history proved much harder to understand. Mark Twain’s comment that “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is required to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t” rang painfully true. It was difficult to reconcile my naïve, touristy interpretation of Istanbul, with its violent, shocking, recent history. Perhaps this was exactly the point.
Shafak’s novel revealed aspects of my own ignorance to me, and what is this if not a fundamental purpose of literature? Novels serve a purpose. If Shafak’s intention was indeed to blur the lines between binaries and to challenge the reader to do so themselves, Shafak achieved this while simultaneously diverting and enthralling the reader. The picturesque Istanbul seen in a four-day trip gets fleshed out with its cultural practices, as well as its darker history. The prostitute, repudiated by the society in which she lived, is shown to be deeply compassionate and adored by her friends. How refreshing it would be if, in our own seemingly polarised society, the different aspects of polemic issues could be considered even half as skilfully.
Whether one is interested in Istanbul, or one enjoys reading simply for the plot, a copy of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World would be an excellent investment, as we, unable to experience much outside of our own homes during the pandemic and the cold of winter, turn to reading to distract, educate, and entertain.
Images: Jemima Gurney