Book review: The Flea Palace

I read Elif Shafak’s The Flea Palace almost four years ago. I haven’t re-read it since, and don’t own a copy. But it’s still one of my favorite books, and I can still vividly recall much of the writing. Here’s what I had to say about it when I first reviewed it:

I saw this book in the “new books” shelf of UNLV’s Lied Library. The title jumped out at me, and I decided to read it on one of my cross-country flights back east. I originally approached it with some trepidation (it’s written by an academic, and in my experience most academic prose is eminently forgettable), but it’s a great book! Don’t trust me, read it yourself.

So keep on reading, and learn just why this book is one of my favorites.

Elif Shafak. Muge Gocek, trans. The Flea Palace. London: Marion Boyars, 2004. Paperback, 444 pp. $14.95

I started reading this one very skeptically. On the pre-title page, I read that that the author has a masters in Gender Studies and a PhD in Political Sciences. My knee-jerk anti-intellectual reflex immediately kicked in (yes, I know that I myself make my living from intellectual work; it’s part of my paradox). I vividly imagined four hundred plus pages of characters ranting against patriarchy and women viewing the tangled intersections of their lives through the prism of race, class, and gender. Worse yet, according to the back cover, the book’s narrator is a womanizing academic with a penchant for Kierkegaard. Great. I began reading with an inward groan, wondering how far I would get before I abandoned the book.

Instead, after cautiously wading through the first few pages, I dove headlong into a novel that was absolutely brilliant. I don’t mean brilliant in the current British sense; they seem to incessantly use the word where I would say cool, awesome, or no way!, but in the dictionary sense, which to me means “really smart.” Shafak makes the inhabitants of Bonbon Palace, a rundown apartment building in present-day Istanbul, thoroughly entrancing. It takes a talented writer to get me interested in the daily lives and anxieties of a pair of twin male Turkish hairstylists, for example, and Shafak incredibly did just that.

Mind you, this isn’t a summer-at-the-beach page-turner or the kind of mental chewing gum that most people read. The Flea Palace is an insightful, deep novel that is very accessible, yet doubtlessly full of thicker meaning for those familiar with Istanbul. This novel is undoubtedly about Istanbul-the city itself is a major character-but it masterfully transcends the purely local. As I said, Shafak’s compelling writing (and no doubt Muge Gocek’s English translation) lets the reader, even a rather provincial fringe academician living in Las Vegas, connect with both the characters and the wider story that embraces them all.

Shafak chose an interesting structure for The Flea Palace, beginning with a somewhat abstract narrative introduction about deception and truth. She then sets the premise of the novel’s main action: garbage is piling up in the garden of the Bonbon Palace, and relentless hordes of bugs and a sour garbage smell are bedeviling its residents. This short introduction, though, is quickly left behind, as the narrative then turns to the prehistory of the current-day Bonbon Palace, beginning with the displacement of a cemetery and two vanished saints’ graves for a construction project, and continuing with the story of its builder, a Russian émigré.

From there, the novel returns to the present day, and quickly immerses the reader in the lives of the inhabitants of Bonbon Palace’s ten apartments; the rest of the novel essentially unfolds across ten different stories, each revolving around the inhabitant(s) of the apartments, though as the book goes on they begin to run together. I’ll provide brief summaries that don’t give away too much of the plot:

* Flat 1, Musa, Meryem, and Muhammet: Musa and Meryem are married, but Musa isn’t around too much. Muhammet is a bullied young schoolboy whose mother (Meryem) wishes he would find courage.
* Flat 2, Sidar and Gaba: A dropout stoner-type who lives with his dog and is obsessed with death.
* Flat 3, Hairdressers Cemal and Celal: Separated as children, these identical twins are temperamentally dissimilar Cemal, who grew up in Australia, is a fussy extrovert, while Celal, who remained in Turkey, is painfully introverted. They run a hair salon on the ground floor.
* Flat 4, The FireNaturedSons: This is a mildly dysfunctional family dogged by ill fortune who try to insulate themselves from the other Palace dwellers and, by extension, the outside world. They don’t get too much space.
* Flat 5, Hadj Hadj, his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren: Because the son and daughter-in-law work, most of the action in flat 5 involves Hadj telling his grandchildren stories.
* Flat 6, Metin Chetinceviz and HisWifeNadia: Metin isn’t around much, but HisWideNadia is: she’s a Russian émigré with an unhealthy obsession for bugs and a dubbed-over Latin American soap opera, “The Oleander of Passion.”
* Flat 7, “Me:” The narrator is a recently divorced university professor who is actually quite perspicacious.
* Flat 8, The Blue Mistress: She’s a kept woman for a merchant, which most of the neighbors seem okay with.
* Flat 9, Hygiene Tyijen and Su: Hygiene is a compulsive clean freak-think Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest on amphetamines. Her daughter Su has lice, and an endearing curiosity.
* Flat 10, Madam Auntie: The aged matriarch of Bonbon Palace, whose story only reveals itself towards the end.

Each of the apartments, in its own way, resonates with elements of three shared tensions, Western vs. Eastern orientation, secular vs. religious thought, and the sometimes-unhappy place of kader, or fortune, in daily life. Seeing how each of the inhabitants deals with these dualities gives a window, perhaps, into the social and cultural reality of contemporary Turkey. This is what makes the novel more than just a bunch of stories; it presents a microcosm of the Turkish mindset that is instantly accessible, even to a reader who knows next to nothing about Turkey and has never been that curious about the country.

Shafak has a piercing writer’s eye. I’ll cite just one favorite example, where her narrator, a handsome, middle-aged professor, explains why he will not reciprocate the interest of one of his attractive students. Because, he reasons, girls always talk, and students voraciously gossip:

All of the sudden you are not the ‘esteemed, unknown’ professor you once were, always watched by prying eyes from a distance, but an ordinary mortal whose weaknesses, lunacies, baloneys, and fixations are paraded in front of all. To be with a young girl could indeed provide a pleasant boost to self-esteem for middle-aged men, but that comes at a cost: it is a shaky status bound to shatter any time…. Then, all the letters you have written, the confessions you have made and the secrets you let slip will altogether vex you. Your sexual performance will be the talk of the town and, before you know it, you’ll have become the butt of all jokes. It’s not worth it. (303)

Personally, that hit home with me; people invariably ask me if I reciprocate any student interest that might, improbably, come my way, and I’ve never been able to explain to them exactly why I wouldn’t. Shafak distilled the same inchoate feelings that I had on the subject into pretty clear prose that explains it all. It’s a great writer that lets you clarify your own thoughts. Like I said before, absolutely brilliant.

So The Flea Palace works on several levels: it’s an interesting collection of “slice of life” human interest stories about several city-dwellers facing various crises; it’s symbolic of a deeper struggle for Turkish identity; and it’s a flat-out well-written book. The stuff about the role of fortune in life is about as universal a human anxiety as there is, and Shafak’s handling of it in a uniquely Turkish manner symbolizes her general approach: making the universal local, and vice versa.

In closing, The Flea Palace is now on my list of “definitely recommended books that I really liked.” I liked one this so much that I’m going to read her three other novels. This gets my highest possible recommendation.

Originally reviewed August 2004