At the end of August, BBC Radio 4 dramatised in its entirety Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. This was an ambitious project, and not just because of the novel’s length: as Belinda Jack argued in an edition of Open Book that previewed the series, every character in Proust is a figment of the narrator’s memory, his imagination; not one other figure who appears anywhere in the novel is fully, or perhaps remotely, themselves. In a dramatisation, it is almost impossible to capture this intermediary quality – but it is essential to the novel’s approach to the quest that gives it its title.
I mention this by way of introduction to Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World for two reasons: number one, the novel is obviously indebted to Proust’s madeleine, in the way that its protagonist – a woman who has just died and whose consciousness spends the rest of the novel unravelling by way of revisiting key moments in her life – recalls episodes based on the prompting of flavours – the salty taste of the Bosphorous waters in which her body floats, but also, and without any particular immediate cues, the remembrance of cardamom coffee, chocolate bonbons or watermelon; and number two, as this idiosyncratic approach to memory may imply, because Shafak’s novel is, in the absence of Proustian discipline, a great deal less cohesive and coherent than it might otherwise have been.
Shafak’s narrator, Leila, lives at the time of her murder in Istanbul. A semi-retired sex worker, she grew up in the rural east of Turkey, in a conservative family whose strictures she chafed against – but escape from which was itself far from frictionless or without cost. Two thirds of the novel constitute her biography, an obituary by way of reminiscence that floats through Leila’s mind – or soul, or whatever other ineffable aspect of Leila is proposed by Shafak to outlive her physical death – during the posthumous duration of the title. This tour of Leila’s troubled life permits the novel to take up the cause of the marginalised women of Turkey.
“Until the year 1990, Article 438 of the Turkish Penal Code was used to reduce the sentence given to rapists by one-third if they could prove that their victim was a prostitute,” Shafak writes in a note to the reader. “In 1990, in the face of an increasing number of attacks against sex workers … Article 438 was repealed. But there have been few, if any, legal amendments in the country since then towards gender equality” [p. 307]. 10 Minutes is in this sense an eloquent rejection of the judgemental fundamentalism of patriarchal authority: it creates in Leila a woman who exhibits many of the characteristics ordinarily applied to “fallen” women undeserving of sympathy, and yet in plotting her life story makes clear that these qualities are responses to circumstances created by precisely the dogmatism that seeks to mete out punishment for them.
When Leila is six, her forty-three-year-old uncle asks her to “Hold it”, pushing “her hand down the front of his pyjama shorts” [p. 66]; this abuse goes on for some time, and of course is never reported. Leila is plagued by guilt: “she had done something terrible, and not just once, not twice, but many times” [p. 97]. When she flees to Istanbul, without a penny to her name, she is trafficked; when she meets a good man at the brothel where she eventually finds something like a home, and then marries him, he is quickly killed by the police while taking part in an anti-government protest; she reverts, of course, to the sex work for which she is condemned by those self-same officials. “I don’t know who’s normal in a system so crooked,” a character comments at one point [p. 143], and this might be the motto of the novel as a whole. There is little justice to be found in its pages.
What Shafak offers instead is consolation. In the absence of radical change – much hullaballoo is made in the novel about as incremental a development as “the repeal of the constitutional requirement for a married woman to get her husband’s permission to work outside the home” [p. 29] – Shafak offers us the respite of community, of found family, or what she calls a “water family”: “a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot” [p. 199]. During her time in Istanbul, Leila makes five close friends: the transgender Nalan, the gentle Sinan, the Christian Jameelah, the dis/abled Zaynab, the plus-size Humeyra. Each of these five is given a nickname – Nostalgia Nalan is given hers for the intense homesickness she feels, Hollywood Humeyra because of her connection to showbusiness. These don’t quite ring true, but are put into service as markers of Leila’s familiarity with her “five”. In the final third of the novel, when Leila has conclusively passed on, this group of friends become the focus of the narrative, as they seek to pay the proper respects to the body of a woman who is deemed by the authorities only good enough to be buried in the desolate “Cemetery of the Companionless”.
This isn’t subtle stuff: five close friends seek to reclaim the demonstrable humanity of a person whose body is disrespected as without connection to the world by the pitiless system. This on-the-nose quality is characteristic of the novel as a whole: the good man who rescues his wife from a brothel, and seduces her by painting her portrait; the damaging abuse leading to a broken life; the immigrant’s stories – internal and external – that define Leila and each of her friends: it’s not that these aren’t important perspectives, and Shafak’s messages themselves of value; it’s that each are deployed more or less precisely as you’d expect, almost by rote, and that what emerges is therefore less empathetic and more sentimental. Like the friends’ nicknames, it all feels a bit unearned, a bit bolted-on – much like that final third of the novel, which reads like an over-long coda to the book’s main project, and consequently lacks much pith and moment. This can be a soggy novel.
Indeed, 10 Minutes poses a different problem to A la recherche du temps perdu. It isn’t that all of the characters bar the protagonist are unreal, in the sense that they are recreations of a single fictional consciousness; it’s that all of them lack what Proust’s narrator has in spades – a reality, a set of complexities and contradictions which grants them at least the illusion of being more than a vehicle for a writer of fiction.
At one point late in the novel, Nalan considers Leila’s old Zippo lighter, given to her by her late husband:
this antique … was not the simple onject it seemed to be, but a perpetual wanderer. It travelled from one person to another, outliving each of its owners. Before Leila it had belonged to D/Ali, and before D/Ali, to an American soldier who had been unfortunate enough to come to Istanbul away from the Sixth Fleet in 1968. [p. 229]
Which, OK, is fine. But it is also intensely novelistic, queasily artificial for a book so interested in creating real human lives with which to contrast the inhumanity of authoritarianism. In her acknowledgements, Shafak recounts that her grandmother died as she began to write this novel, and that – because she was afraid for her safety in Turkey – the author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and The Bastard of Istanbul and The Forty Rules of Love was unable to attend her Grandma’s funeral. This, of course, is a small inconvenience compared to the depredations she recounts in this novel, and which take place daily in Erdoğan’s Turkey; as Ron Charles has argued, her writing is among the most visible and therefore powerful acts of defiance against the regime that commits those violations as currently exists worldwide. But a novel isn’t merely a manifesto; and for this reason I’d be surprised if this particular volume won the 2019 Booker Prize later this month. But long may the impacts of its sentiments vex the over-mighty.