Death, and before—life in a limbo in IstanbulElif Shafak’s ‘10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ is an ode to the space a woman occupies in this world with light play of words, but the plot lacks finesse.
Dawn is breaking across the city of Istanbul. In one of its alleyways on the outskirts, the unusually named Tequila Leila has been murdered and dumped into a metal rubbish bin. She is fast dying, but her brain refuses to shut down. In the next 10 minutes and 38 seconds, Leila summons her past—through sights and smells and memories of her beloved people. This story, that begins from ‘The End’, progresses as a flashback, before Leila’s soul finally escapes, and readers are jolted back to the gory present. The British-Turkish author Elif Shafak’s eleventh novel sets out to dissect life from the afterlife.
The strange-sounding plot turns into a superb device in the hands of Shafak, as she flits back and forth; now and then; unfolding happenings and introducing characters. Her characters, as always, are a work of art. They are more than people coming alive on a page—they are people breathing and existing next to the reader, with their quirks and remarkable histories. For example, one of the very first characterisations, Leila’s mother, Binnaz—one thousand blandishments—is described thus, “She had full, generous lips, a dainty, upturned nose that was considered a rarity in this part of the country, a long face with a pointed chin, and large, dark eyes speckled with blue flecks like a starling’s eggs. There were a few faint smallpox scars on her cheeks; her mother had once said they were a sign that she had been caressed by moonlight in her sleep.”
Shafak’s texts are a lesson on character building and progression, the rituals that Binnaz follows to ensure the safe birth of her baby could be a fascinating story in itself. “She had not touched a single peach so the baby wouldn’t be covered in fuzz; she had not used any spices or herbs in her cooking so the baby wouldn’t have freckles or moles; she had not smelled roses so the baby wouldn’t have post-wine birthmarks.” This much-awaited baby, then, wails into the world through a mountain of salt, and distances herself from an ultra-religious family before meeting a sad end. A bright yellow band on TV proclaims “Prostitute Found Slain in City Waste Bin: Fourth in a Month. Panic spreads among Istanbul’s Sex workers.”
In Leila’s dying thoughts we meet five of her closest friends, who’ve assembled in lstanbul from the world over, seeking a dignified and peaceful life. Yet all of them have faced miseries and setbacks that have less to do with their abilities and more to do with the state of the country and the world in general. The plot revolves around a sex worker and her friends, each struggling with a patriarchal, often oppressive society, and always finding themselves at the receiving end. The bleakness of it, the pervasive distress and hopelessness will chill many readers to the bone, reminding them of their own homelands.
The novel walks you through the streets of Istanbul that tourists rarely venture to—the brothel street and poorer parts of Karakoy and Hairy Kafka, where Leila settles after her marriage. Away from the marvellous Bosphorus bridge, and the regal Galata tower, or rather in its neglected vicinity, Shafak paints a sad, crumbling picture of lives that go unnoticed. It draws attention especially to the ‘Cemetery of the Companionless’ in Turkey, where hundreds of lives like Leila’s lay unloved and unrecognised.
To everyone who has flitted through Istanbul, the novel will lay bare a grey underbelly that is usually brushed off. To those who’ve never been to this breathtaking city, it will create a craving to catch a glimpse. And one can only imagine the feelings it arouses in resident Istanbulites, in the varied ways their city is described. At one point it is “a city of impromptu spectacles and ready-made, eager spectators” (wallowing in others’ grief). At another, Istanbul is “an illusion, a magician’s trick gone wrong, a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters.”
In this multi-pronged city, the characters grapple with immigration and sexual identity; racial discrimination and religious othering; childhood sexual abuse and oppression; hatred and ostracisation; honour killing and gaslighting; bullying and assault; homicide and blackmailing; corruption and lawlessness. Almost all of them brawl with mental illnesses and physical manifestations born out of this squashed life. The women, particularly, either suffer it acutely, or live in mortal fear of the repercussions of desiring an independent life. Shafak’s oft repeated theme of a woman’s ‘honour’, of a fight against the widely accepted concept that the world is only safe as a woman keeps her vagina shut, is repeated fiercely in the novel. Again and again the incidents circle back to the space a woman occupies in this world, always precarious, liable to be maligned and obliterated at any moment.
It is a torturous story, and yet the goodness of this world is juxtaposed clearly through the sacrifices the friends make for each other to the very end. Each of the friends’ backstories is wisely thought of, and colourfully laid out, often making them a representative for each of their groups (illegal immigrant, transgender, dwarfism), and yet taking great care to not reduce them to a stereotype.
Shafak’s writing might just be one of the most perfect things produced in this world, a fact already established by readers and critics alike. Her light play of words, or arranging them this way and stretching them that way, is a delight. A person has eyes “the color of dried grass.” A woman gives a child a look “as unexpected as a ladybird landing on her finger, and just as gentle.” Legs dangle over the edge of roofs like “a pair of drop earrings.” Between the women of the town, unspoken words run “like washing lines strung between houses.” Her writing is clear and sharp as it exposes wounds seen and unseen and then the very same writing applies a soothing salve to that hurt.
All this mastery over words makes reading highly enjoyable. The plot, however, loses itself after Leila breathes her last. The denouement is quite distasteful and grotesque, as it’s no doubt literally meant to be. But even figuratively there is a kind of coarseness and carelessness to it that is quite unlike Shafak’s graceful plots. It lacks finesse, denigrating into the bizarre, and then the comical genre of pop-horror. Even the unravelling of Leila’s murder is quite wishy-washy and dissatisfactory, especially compared to the sensitivity displayed at every other step in the novel.
That aside, in an age where it’s more and more difficult to dissect the politics of one’s country, lest you be labelled as ‘traitor’ or ‘anti-national’, Shafak carries on her lone protest against everything she thinks is holding her country back. For that courage and love for the country and its citizens, this novel must be read and discussed.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK
Price: Rs 1,120