10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World | Elif Shafak | Ali Salami (Persian Edition)
An intensely powerful new novel from the best-selling author of The Bastard of Istanbul and Honour
'In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila's consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away...'
For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life - friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . .
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a 2018 novel by Turkish writer Elif Shafak and her eleventh overall. It is a one-woman story about a sex worker in Istanbul. The author focuses on the Turkish government in her book.
It’s a source of great irony and outrage that the Turkish authorities have decided to investigate Elif Shafak for writing about sexual violence just as her latest novel, a profound, humanising narrative about the victims of sexual violence, is being published in Turkey and elsewhere. It starts with an explosive premise, as we dive into the mind of sex worker “Tequila Leila”, who is dying in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. As her brain begins to shut down, Leila, assuming the roles of digressive raconteur and her own biographer, goes back in time to trace the story of the little girl from the provinces who ends up as a two-column crime story in the city’s newspapers.
She recalled things she did not even know she was capable of remembering, things she had believed to be lost for ever. Time became fluid, a free flow of recollections seeping into one another, the past and the present inseparable.
Early in the novel, having captured the minutiae of domestic and social life in the eastern province of Van, Shafak recounts a hair-raising scene when Leila is six, during a family picnic at a beachside hotel. It’s this harrowing incident, almost unbearable to witness, that turns out to be the pivot around which young Leila’s life turns. We are then hurled into the brutal realities of life in the city. “Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong.”
For more than half the book, the reader is guided by Leila’s vibrant but soon to be extinguished memory, each reminiscence sparked by a smell or taste. It’s a terrific device, taking us from the rubbish bin to a day in her childhood when she is banned by her pious father from playing with a hula hoop. We are also transported to the grand opening of the Bosphorus Bridge, which a grown-up Leila witnesses alongside a sea of proud Istanbulis, including the activist and artist who becomes her only true love and husband.
A picture of Leila’s life, as well as that of her despondent and downtrodden mother, emerges from this buzzing, chaotic narrative. After a series of debilitating miscarriages, Leila’s mother gives birth to a baby girl, only to be instantly deprived of her joy when her husband decrees that his first wife is to be the mother of this child, and she will be only an aunt, because “you can always have more babies”.
In her youth and middle years, Leila is subjected to unspeakable cruelties in the metropolis, and Shafak does something remarkable here. She infuses Leila’s personality with heart and soul and surrounds her with a set of “undesirables”, five friends whose characters are sketched with beauty and pain. By revealing layer upon layer of her interior life, the novel draws a magnificently nuanced portrait of its protagonist. The dreamy girl from Van who refuses to be silent even when murdered becomes the conscience of “this manic old city”.
Shafak takes a piercing, unflinching look at the trauma women’s minds and bodies are subjected to in a social system defined by patriarchal codes. It’s a brutal book, bleak and relentless in its portrayal of violence, heartbreak and grief, but ultimately life-affirming. Here, as in Shafak’s previous work, we find the good old-fashioned art of intricate storytelling, something I miss sometimes in modern fiction. The mad, exhilarating final section, in which Leila is a corpse being driven away from the “cemetery of the companionless” by her friends, is a testament to Shafak’s brilliance as a storyteller. People in Turkey and elsewhere should celebrate her work.
• Mirza Waheed’s latest novel is Tell Her Everything (Context). 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak is published by Penguin (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.