In her 2010 TED talk the Turkish writer Elif Shafak inveighed against the tendency to read fiction as if it were politics, to turn novelists into political representatives of their countries. “As much as I love stories,” she said, “recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story.” It is tempting to read Shafak’s new novel, The Architect’s Apprentice, as a response to this, an attempt to recapture the pure magic of storytelling. Gone is the multi-layered narrative of her The Bastard of Istanbul (2006), the split timeframes of The Forty Rules of Love (2010), or the magical realism of Honour (2012), works which secured for Shafak the huge popularity she enjoys with readers both in Turkey and worldwide. This latest book, Shafak’s tenth work of fiction, takes a far more traditional approach to storytelling.
Set in 16th-century Istanbul, epicentre of the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire, the novel tells the story of 12-year-old Jahan, a penniless Indian boy who stows away on a ship bound for Turkey, in part to escape his brutal stepfather and in part to protect his beloved white elephant, Chota. Boy and elephant wind up in the palace menagerie, where they soon catch the eye of the Royal Architect, Mimar Sinan, and the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, Mihrimah. As Chota’s tamer and Sinan’s apprentice, Jahan’s services are enlisted for military campaigns, building projects and royal parades. But there are rivals and enemies on all sides. From youth to old age, his twisting fortunes take him from palaces to battlefields, from baths to prison dungeons, encountering along the way gypsies, blind dwarfs, eunuchs, astronomers, beggars and priests. Over the lives of them all hangs the terrifying power of the sultan himself, Murad III.
If this sounds a bit like a children’s story, it also reads like one, excepting the occasional episodes involving hashish, fratricide, sodomy and prostitution. Plot-rich, character-driven, unencumbered by narrative self-consciousness, the novel is deliberately archaic, the exuberant offspring of a rich body of Turkish folk literature. At once epic and comic, fantastical and realistic, it is firmly rooted in oral storytelling traditions and permeated by diverse cultural influences from across Asia and Europe.
But despite Shafak’s evident desire to tell a story for its own sake, like all good stories it conveys deeper meanings about human experience. Jahan is not all he seems, and neither are his fellow apprentices. Their esteemed master raises temples to God built by armies of slaves. Contradiction is not only a motif in the plot, it’s at the heart of the book itself. When we read about Murad III’s cold-blooded murder of his five young brothers, or the wholesale destruction of the magnificent Royal Observatory, along with all its precious books and scientific equipment, or the demolition of hundreds of homes to make way for a mosque, or the execution of a harmless Sufi mystic, it is all but impossible not to draw contemporary inferences.
While Jahan and Chota are pure inventions, many of the characters in the novel are based on historical figures, the most intriguing of whom is the enigmatic Sinan, the supreme architect of the Ottomans, responsible for 365 buildings, from the Suleimaniye Mosque to the Selimiye Mosque. Sinan is the Merlin figure of the story, an exemplar of the man of learning who never ceases to learn, the artist whose art is never perfected.
Shafak evokes his architectural creations in loving detail: the slender minarets, sunlit porticos, carved marble and soaring domes. Istanbul is seen through the eyes of its builders, the novel a monument to its monuments. Beneath the veneer of simplicity, The Architect’s Apprentice explores issues of power and bigotry, creativity and freedom, but its overarching theme is love. The love of learning and learning about love are inextricably linked, and Jahan’s quest to discover the centre of the universe brings him to the realisation that it was “neither in the East nor in the West. It was where one surrendered to love.”
Like the astonishing mosques Sinan built, Shafak’s novel is a carefully crafted work of imagination that both reveals and conceals its skill. It will confirm Shafak’s reputation as a writer of impressive range, who quietly resists categorisation and is not afraid to ask the big questions.
The Architect’s Apprentice, by Elif Shafak, Viking, RRP£14.99/ $27.95, 464 pages
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)
Photograph: Islamic School/ Getty Images