Friday, 18 January 2013

Book Review: The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak
The best-selling novel that I want to tell you about today first came out in 2002 under the Turkish title Bit Palas. The English translation, The Flea Palace, followed two years later and was short-listed for the Foreign Fiction Prize of The Independant in London in 2005 (the same year as Orhan Pamuk’s Snow   »»» read my review). The German edition, Der Bonbonpalast, was released in 2008, but I read it only last summer. As a matter of fact, I had never heard of the author before because apart from Orhan Pamuk Turkish writers receive little attention from German-language publishers.

Elif Shafak (correctly Şafak, "dawn" or "aurora" in Turkish and the first name of her mother) is one of Turkey‘s most famous contemporary writers and has been awarded many important literature prizes nationally as well as internationally. She was born in Strasbourg, France, in October 1971. Later she moved to Madrid, Spain, and Amman, Jordan, with her mother who was a diplomat at the Turkish embassies there. She returned to Turkey only when it was time to begin her Political Science studies at the University of Ankara. As a fiction writer she made her debut in 1994 with the narrative Kem Gözlere Anadolu. Her first novel Pinhan (The Mystic) was published in 1997 and received the Great Rumi Award the following year. The novel The Saint of Incipient Insanities launched her international career as a writer in 2004. It was the first of several books that Elif Shafak wrote in English and that was translated into Turkish afterwards.

The story of The Flea Palace is set in an apartment building from the 1960s in the centre of Istanbul, the so called Bonbon Palace. The name is a tribute to the woman – Agrippina Fjodorowna Antipowa, a Russian aristocrat who emigrated to Turkey after the revolution – that the once impressing, always unique and now shabby old house had been built for after she had regained the view of colours thanks to a box of candies, each one wrapped into paper of a colour linked to its taste. The building is home to many very peculiar characters. There are Musa, Meryem, and their son Muhammet in flat #1, Sidar and his St. Bernard Gaba in flat #2, the identical twins Cemal and Celal and their hair dresser’s salon in flat #3, the FireNaturedSons in flat #4, Hadj Hadj, his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren in flat #5, Metin Chetinceviz and his Russian wife Nadia in flat #6, the narrating "Me" in flat #7, the Blue Mistress in flat #8, Hygiene Tijen and Su in flat #9, and Madam Auntie in flat #10. The novel tells the stories of the house, of the neighbourhood where there had been two cemeteries which gain unexpected importance in the course of the novel, of life in modern Istanbul and of the tenants‘ everyday lives. The red thread of the novel and at the same time the connecting element is the seemingly ineradicable stench of rubbish everywhere in the house that attracts all sorts of vermin. Only at the end of the book the tenants and the readers find out what is wrong… and it’s quite an amazing revelation.

Elif Shafak found a rather unorthodox way of telling the story of those people. The book consists of five parts: Introduction, Before, Still Before, Now, And Then. The biggest part is dealing with the present. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the flats and to what is happening there. It’s difficult to judge the language and style of a writer when all you have in hands is a translation, but I think that both are clear and pleasing. The language is rich in pictures, sometimes metaphoric, very vivid, intelligent, witty, and often funny, too. All in all it’s well suited for a story from today’s Istanbul where people are trying to create their own identity combining the heritage of the old Ottoman, thus Islamic society and the requirements of modern life in a democracy that is European in character. 

To cut a long story short: I enjoyed reading the novel very much and recommend it to everyone who is interested to learn more about the Turkish soul and about the life in Istanbul today.

An interesting portrait of Elif Şafak can be found on the website of the Turkish Cultural Foundation:


  1. I have read two books by Elif Şafak so far: The Forty Rules of Love and Araf or The Saint of Incipient Insanities. I enjoyed both of them very much. I love Turkish authors and must say I am happy that a lot of them get translated into German.

    Marianne from Let's Read

    1. So far I only heard of those two novels by Elif Shafak. There are so many authors that I hardly ever get round to reading another book by the same writer! However, like you I'm happy that Turkish authors are getting more attention today and that they are translated into German at last.

      Thanks for your comment, Marianne!


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