In an illuminating introduction to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s Turkish novel The Time Regulation Institute, Pankaj Mishra discusses at great length how the writer wove into his novel the antagonistic implications of the rapid Westernisation of Turkey in the guise of embracing modernity. He wasn’t the only one.
Many novelists from the eastern hemisphere – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Natsume Soseki, Haruki Murakami, Lu Hsun, and Rabindranath Tagore, for instance – have expressed their disapproval and written about the immense social, cultural, political, and psychological damage caused by the urgent transformation of Eastern nations to “be more like the West”. While some nations have resisted Westernisation in their own peculiar ways, others have seen mangled consequences of the tussle between “embracing modernity” and preserving indigenous culture.
Being at the confluence of the eastern and western worlds, present day Turkey is at the same crossroads that it has been on one too many times in the past. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that the literature coming out of the country begs to comprehend and address the battles raging within its breast, which also affect the world at large.
Elif Safak’s latest novel, Three Daughters of Eve, revolves around a Muslim Turkish woman’s obtuse internal conflicts with the Turkish bourgeoisie and politics, her warring parents, her identity in a Western nation, and, finally, religion, or, as copiously and laboriously garnished in the novel – god.
Peri, a wealthy housewife, is on her way to a socialite dinner at a mansion on the bank of the Bosphorus when she is mugged and out of her handbag falls an old Polaroid of her student days at Oxford. This Polaroid tugs open a barrel full of memories Peri had bottled up. Divided in two parts, the novel alternates between the past, describing her growing years during which Peri was sent to Oxford by her father who was convinced that only education could save her, and the present, in which she is a typical housewife in Istanbul, out of choice, while continuously lamenting the erstwhile joys of her life she doesn’t seek anymore.
Peri’s childhood and teenage years are marked by being stuck down the middle between her devout Muslim mother and her religion-defying father. She has relatable but calculated curiosities such as boys and their sexual organs, ambiguity about god, a distancing from her mother, wretched disbelief at the injustice meted out to her older brother, shaming of her younger’s brother’s wife over speculation about her virginity, her attraction to a controversial professor, and, finally, the heartbreak that defines her life. All of this while she constantly weighs the role of god in the world – much of it seen in the author’s contrived attempts to demonstrate the incidents in the novel as those of Peri’s tryst with her Islamic identity and feminism.
Many viewpoints, confused perspective
As an adult, Peri’s secret battles revolve around the hypocritical bourgeois of Istanbul, world politics, Turkey’s democracy, the rift between the East and the West on account of modernity and religion, the need for feminism, and the haunting memories of the professor who challenged her amorphous views of religion and god. In this way the novel progresses, encapsulating the disaccord within a woman on account of her religion, country, and the increasingly polarised world that she lives in.
Narrated by an ardently bitter omniscient narrator, the novel has its redeeming graces, but they’re few and far between. As a child, Peri hears her father tell her the story of The Mute Poet of Istanbul, whose poems are now cawed by a bird that flies over the city. While at Oxford, Peri works at a bookstore named Two Kinds of Intelligence, evoking Rumi’s sensibility of acquired and formed intelligence.
Then there is (so little of) her Egyptian friend Mona who defends her right to wear a headscarf without insulting anyone and is unafraid of being a “modern religious woman”. But these refreshing moments sag under the enormous scope of Shafak’s novel. Unlike her previous works of fiction, where she takes a particular stand – visual perception of people (The Gaze), the Armenian genocide (The Bastard of Istanbul), Sufism and fulfilling romantic love (The Forty Rules of Love), and patriarchy versus women in a family (Honour) – Shafak does not take a stand here. On many occasions, the placement of world incidents (9/11) and debates between her characters about the burning questions of Islam seem forced to employ a voice that explains and apologises to the West for the problems of West Asia.
In speaking from every quarter, Shafak has largely captured the view of each stakeholder in this game of discord – the free thinkers, liberals, conservatives, capitalists, atheists, believers – but chooses to tell this story from the ambiguous point of view of her “confused” protagonist. To those who are completely convinced in their stand against West Asia or the West, this may seem like a poor position. But even for others who are seeking a more measured way of addressing in fiction what one cannot solve in fact, this novel shies away from accepting certain absolute truths, whether they’re against the West, against Islam, or even against plain hypocrisy.
This, coming from the novelist who once went to jail for standing up against Turkey’s amnesia about the Armenian genocide, makes the faithful reader feel cheated. Taking on the West, Islamic fundamentalism, patriarchy, religion, love, and god in a single novel is no small endeavour. So, to be fair, one must applaud the enormous burden that Shafak has tried to shoulder in her fiction, but the bitter truth is that although the novel carries this burden gloriously, it ultimately crashes under the weight of its own ideas.
Crucial issues, wasted chance
Most of Shafak’s regular motifs – labouring over food, mystical manifestations, and a faith-bound mother – appear in Three Daughters of Eve as well. And so does the motif of a regular Turkish housewife struggling to break out her cocoon of comfort and fly out into the world. However, the protagonists of her other novels Jamila (Honour), Zeliha (The Bastard of Istanbul), and Ella (The Forty Rules of Love) have clearly done this better than Peri (Three Daughters of Eve).
As a character, Peri is as flat as the pancake she didn’t learn to make at Oxford, and her inability to come up with even one original thought makes reading the story she’s narrating a terribly uphill process. That she falls for her overtly popular professor is not only predictable but also infuriating because he just makes a show of challenging her thoughts, most of which are wholly unformed. Maybe that’s what she is – a warning to adolescent young women to form their own opinion rather than falling for men who would rather dazzle you with their convoluted, unorganised mess of intelligence. Not that the professor doesn’t conduct two well-meaning and even practical faith-based experiments – he does. But if Peri is to serve as the flag-bearer of women yearning to be saved by the opinion of others, she does a grand job of it.
Peri’s character flaws aside, here is a novel that represents some of the commonest issues that Muslim women encounter across the world. Especially those among them who are struggling with identity, feeling pressured to represent their religion in a way that appeals to the West, and are constantly scared about how they are perceived through no fault of theirs. She represents those Muslim women brought up by fathers who invest in their daughters’ futures. She represents those Muslim women who don’t cover their hair, but still pray to Allah for the souls of those who have been killed in his name. In some ways, it is good to have a Muslim woman who is not oppressed or an apostate in hiding.
As a novel, Three Daughters of Eve stumbles with the basic literary mechanisms such as too much tell and very little show, stale similes, minimal mention of the other two daughters of Eve – Shirin (the Sinner) and Mona (the Believer), a much-hyped but in-fact-lacklustre professor, and a totally uncared-for ending. Fleshing out Shirin and Mona’s characters and giving them as much of a voice as Peri could have saved the argument Shafak is trying to make, which is that it’s hard to make a convincing one given the complexity of the issue at hand.
It may seem pertinent that this novel came out in the week of the Muslim ban proposed by US President Donald Trump. Three Daughters of Eve is a 101 guide to looking at the world from the inside of a Muslim woman’s mind, especially the world in which her religion is deeply misunderstood and she shares the confusion. There’s also a dash of Turkish politics and the inside view of the tempest inside a Turkish woman’s breast when her life was shaped by her Western education, but is now threated by the threat from the East.
This is what makes Tanpinar more relevant than Safak, at least for better perspective, for a better argument. For, to understand the present, one must go back into the past. Hailed by Orhan Pamuk as the greatest Turkish novelist of the 20th century, Tanpinar wrote against the erasing of Turkey’s past to catch up to the Western notion of modernity to cure what he called “the awful thing we called belatedness”. Mishra’s introduction to the novel is evocative and educative and discusses how the Eastern nations should consider agreeing to disagree with the West.
In fact, Mishra’s recent book, Age of Anger, examines the Western ripple of modernity into the East and challenges its goodness for the benefit of all. And that is why Three Daughters of Eve is not convincing – because it hints towards appeasing the West and apologising for not becoming like them wholly. But of course, that’s mere suggestion.
What makes Three Daughters of Eve eye-catching is that it is written by one of the most recognised contemporary female authors of our time, whose writing cuts across geographic boundaries and speaks to all women in a familiar language. Elif Safak’s popularity makes this novel accessible and allows the exploration of how Muslim women are still figuring out who they are amidst the things they’ve been made out to be without asking for it. And just as Muslim women have to start all over again from the beginning every day, so does this novel.
Three Daughters of Eve, Elif Safak, Viking.