10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World boldly starts with a chapter entitled “The End” which opens with the death of the main protagonist. “Her name was Leila,” the novel begins, past tense, and already Leila, or Tequila Leila as she is known to her friends and clients, breathes no more, cliffhangers be damned.
Despite this momentous spoiler, Turkish author Elif Shafak’s twisted take on time proves a compelling read. I started to delve into it before the pandemic, and finished it in the middle of one of the worst global health crises. Even before the world shrunk to six-feet wide sanitized bubbles, Shafak’s latest opus proved to be an enchanting spatio-temporal journey, a time machine of a novel which moonwalks towards its beginning at an engaging pace. As I turned the pages with increasingly well-soaped and chapped hands, I realized that her tale of the misfortunes of sex worker Leila in 20th-century Turkey could not have come at a more timely moment, digging an escape route amid our new stir-crazy normal.
In the novel, the masks are made of social fabric, rendered compulsory by conservative customs firmly rooted in the post-War Turkish countryside. Prostitute Tequila Leila, born Leyla Afife Kamile in 1947 in an affluent household, is from her first breath under a mandatory stay-at-home order dictated by an authoritative, religiously-inclined father. In her village, women lacking the sexual education to know better, swallow condoms for contraception when their husbands refuse to wear them, while newborns’ umbilical cords are hidden on school rooftops in the hope that the child will become a teacher. “Oh, she will cry, this girl,” the midwife foresees. And Leila does indeed, lamenting a strict education where she is forced to stay a metaphorical six feet apart from miniskirts, men and music. A bright orange hula hoop she bounces around her pre-teen hips thus constitutes the high point of her rare gulps of freedom.
The book, which won several awards and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is Shafak’s eleventh novel and the third—after The Forty Rules of Love and Three Daughters of Eve—to feature numbers in its title. Like her previous works of fiction, it skillfully weaves the lives of her main characters into the historical backdrop of Turkey and the sweeping changes it undergoes.
The ten minutes and 38 seconds of its title is the time left for Leila to reminisce about her 43 years of life, her escape to Istanbul and the close friends she made there, as her slain body lies in a dumpster, on a cold night of November 1990. She leaves the mystery of her murder to thicken until the very last chapters; as her soul is leaving her corpse, Leila focuses on rewinding her descent from riches to rags. Short intermissions are dedicated to the stories of her ragtag bunch of friends, who all eloped to Istanbul, seeking a path to self-realization, only to twist their ankles on the city’s gleaming paving stones. As Shafak writes,
Istanbul was not a city of opportunities, but of scars. The descent, when it started, spiralled rapidly, like water sucked through a plug.
Time and death are major themes in the novel, which uses as an epigraph a quote by Albert Einstein, written after the demise of a close friend.
Now he has again preceded me a little in parting from this strange world. This has no importance. For people like us who believe in progress, the separation between past, present and future has only the importance of an admittedly tenacious illusion.
Shafak is a master in infusing her own time-bending illusion with sensory imagery, and her writing style shines even brighter in a sense-deprived Covid world. She conjures up the smells of cardamom coffee, the freshness of pomegranate sherbet and the sensuous perfumes of Istanbul, thus enlivening even the most mundane descriptions:
The curtains, tattered and faded from the sun, were the colour of sliced watermelon – and those black dots that resembled seeds were, in fact, cigarette burns.
Her story does not shy away from the unforgiving cruelty of modern Istanbul, sparing her protagonists no plight, be it family secrets, sexual abuse, acid attacks or honor killings. My only regret is that the storylines of Leila’s friends, transgender Nostalgia Nalan, childhood partner in crime Sabotage Sinan, Somalian migrant Jameelah, dwarf Zaynab and singer Hollywood Humeyra were not expanded more. The few pages dedicated to each character sometimes fall short of putting enough flesh on their bones. Leila, despite being dead, remains the nexus that connects them all, sucking all the author’s attention, with little light left for the smaller, yet equally intriguing, stars of the cast. If only the layered and complex portrayal of Leila had extended to her group of confidantes, in an otherwise ambitious saga which spans half a century, where
everyone seemed a little lost, vulnerable and unsure of themselves, whether they were educated or not, Eastern or not, grown up or a child.
What Shafak does with tantalizing deftness is celebrate female empowerment. The writer grew up as an only child raised by a single mother and her grandmother. It is therefore no surprise that the book is dedicated to the women of Istanbul and the city itself,
which is, and has always been, a she-city.
Shafak grants Leila the experience of a redeeming camaraderie in the face of hardships, allowing her to share with her mostly female friends a sensitivity to suffering; they spot it even in the laminated eyes of Hollywood star Rita Hayworth:
Dear old Rita could not fool them. They never failed to recognize a sad woman when they saw one.
Shafak’s world is not only strange; it is mystical, lyrical, dangerously enticing, populated with dancing bears, sleeping ghouls, Elvis Presley and Brigitte Bardot. It is a tightrope extended over the roofs of a city caught between two worlds, where revealing cleavage is paraded next to shadow-dyed chadors.
Shafak’s latest novel defies time, discarding it like an irrelevant measuring cup, where ten minutes and 38 seconds can stretch to a lifetime and beyond, in an infinite love letter to Istanbul and its ghosts, whose only crime was to dream of another life.