What happens to an abuser who doesn’t pay for crimes towards their victims? An individual abuser’s world might get shaped to believe that they never committed an offense. Someone who doesn’t have to accept the cruelties they are capable of committing won’t live in a proper reality. Dostoevsky, in Crime and Punishment, investigated the psyche of an individual who walks free from punishment. After murdering an old landlord and escaping punishment, he was faced with a sickness of the mind so debilitating that he had to turn himself in to begin healing. Elif Shafak, in The Bastard of Istanbul illustrates the consequences of non-repentance for an entire nation of people. Her novel is based in current day Istanbul, but has roots in the Ottoman genocide of over 1 million Armenians in 1915, which Turkey denies having committed. The novel explores how the politics of a nation affect the psyche of its individuals. Shafak contends that the Turkish population today is in danger of living without a proper sense of history. Shafak tells the story of a modern day Turkish girl and her Armenian cousin, who are descended from the same place but have different relationships with their past.

Elif Shafak centers her novel on two characters, Asya and Armanoush, both from non-traditional families. Asya, is born and raised in Istanbul by her mother, grandmother, and aunts, she does not know who her father is and curiously never seems to care to find out. Asya sees her household as one group of people she is unable to understand or relate to at all. She journeys towards nihilism, rejecting faith, and general disinterest in participating in her family or society. She mostly spends time in a cafe of like minded people who also tend to agree that life is meaningless. Asya is a symbol for the entire generation of Turkish citizens who have not had to reckon with their history. Shafak paints them as lost. Asya seems to speak for a larger Turkish nihilist population when she claims “The past is nothing but a shackle we need to get rid of. Such an excruciating burden. If only I could have no past — you know, if only I could be a nobody, start from point zero and just remain there, forever… No family, no memories and all that shit.”

Asya generally accepts that she will not be able to understand her aunts or mother. Her aunts are diverse in their beliefs, and seem uninterested in imposing their beliefs on each other. One sister is devoted to a mystical and pious reality, while her mother has an agnostic distaste for Islam. Asya, as a rejection of her family’s diverse values, engages in a casual sexual relationship with Dipsomaniac Cartoonist, one of the patrons of her cafe. He is, as his nickname describes, an alcoholic cartoonist who similarly believes in the meaninglessness of life. Her relations with him reflect her embrace of nihilism, until she realizes that he’s no role model at all, just someone who shirks his responsibilities and his wife to drink. As Asya begins to question the merits of her pastless life, she meets her Armenian cousin, Armanoush, who visits from San Francisco.

Armanoush is an Armenian-American teenager who spends time split between her white American mother, Rose, and her Armenian father and his family. Her mother remarried a Turkish man, as a way to spite her ex-husband. Armanoush maintained a curiosity about the Armenian side of her family, and sought to find out the history of her grandparents who did not survive the genocide. Through online chatrooms, Armanoush found the Armenian American diaspora who lived in hatred of the Turkish people. As a foil to Asya, Armanoush looked to learn and form meaning around her past, rather than abandon it. This journey led her back to Istanbul, and into Asya’s home.

Armanoush was the stepdaughter of Asya’s uncle, and came as a visitor into Asya’s home. Shafak showed the curious similarities between the two cousins. They had come from opposite sides of the same history, and their past lived in them in dramatically different ways. Asya, fatherless and pastless, began to live with no meaning. Armanoush, whose grandfather was murdered by the Ottomans, preciously protected her past, but was unable to learn about the Armenian people outside of this tragic history. Both were afflicted with a scarred version of a similar past Armanoush taught her cousin the history of Ottoman oppression, and showed Asya that although she’s not responsible for the past crime of her people, she is responsible for recognizing it. “All my life I wanted to be pastless. Being a bastard is less about having no father than having no past… and now here you are asking me to own the past and apologize for a mythical father!” Asya outpoured. An Armenian friend of Armanoush retorted, “Well the truth is… some among the Armenians in the diaspora would never want the Turks to recognize the genocide. Just like the Turks have been in the habit of denying their wrongdoing, the Armenians have been in the habit of savoring the cocoon of victimhood. Apparently there are some old habits that need to be changed on both sides.”

Shafak uncovered the Dostoevskian sickness of the Turkish people. Content in their denial of the past, she argued that the story of a nation with no past can have no future. The Turkish people, stuck in their non-acknowledgement of genocidal crimes create a generation of people lost in the world. Similarly, the Armenian victims are robbed of a rich and diverse story to pass down to their future generations. The Armenian diaspora, Shafak contends, begins and ends with their cruel genocide. A story consumed as victims of oppression robs the Armenians of the fullness of their people and their past.