As a physician, I am skeptical that consciousness and memory can remain intact after the heart quits pumping. There may be reflexive movement or some random cellular metabolic activity after blood flow stops, but that’s all. As a human being, I find the idea of a period of awareness after death intriguing, yet I know that I won’t find out the truth of that on this side of the grave.
But, as a writer of gonzo book reviews, I was thrilled to read Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World about a young, murdered Turkish woman recalling her life in the time after her heart fails. Leila, no longer alive, remembers her childhood in a provincial part of Turkey, the circumstances that led her to flee from there and the people who came to love her.
Elif Shafak is a Turkish writer who now lives in London. She writes in both Turkish and English and is the most widely read female author in Turkey. This is her eleventh novel.
The story takes place in Istanbul, the most breathtaking city I’ve ever visited and definitely my favorite. Bill and I had no idea what to expect when we went to Turkey that fall in 2014. It was our friends Larry and Marilyn’s idea. We were just tagging along. At the last minute, Larry’s health took a bad turn and they couldn’t go.
How do I describe Istanbul? Visually stunning — domed mosques bordered by sky-piercing minarets; white fishing boats bobbing on the azure Sea of Marmara; majestic bridges that connect continents. Sensuously pleasing — sinuous trees; carved, turban topped tombstones; mounds of colorful spices. Historically unparalleled — the Hippodrome of the third century Constantine era, the defensive walls from the 6th-century; the stunning views of the Bosphorus from the sprawling courtyards of the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman sultans.
And the food! The food! We bought a simit for 50 cents from a street vendor. It looked like a sesame seed bagel, but the sesame flavor was a thousand times more intense. Chicken shish kabob; imambayildi (eggplants stuffed with tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices); koftes or meatballs of lamb and ground beef. Even the beans had taste. Everything was fresh and flavorful.
Let me put it this way. The city is a complex yet lovely intermingling of urban living, nature, history and culture. I compare it to the beautiful rugs that the Turkish people make. The colors are vibrant. The designs are intricate but keep a soft, organic aspect. The rugs are heavenly to walk on.
Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World intertwines complex social issues and personal relationships amidst the backdrop of the Big City. She speaks of Istanbul’s storied history by citing all those who tried to conquer the city: “The Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Genoese, the corsairs, the Ottomans, the Don Cossacks and, for a brief period, the Russians.”
She colors the neighborhoods in loving tones. “In the background the Galata Tower wrapped itself in purple and crimson gossamer against the setting sun … Far in the distance, the Bosphorus whirled, mixing saltwater with freshwater easily as it mixed reality and dream.”
But this is not a gauzy travelogue through exotic places. The story is a gritty one. It takes place in the early ‘90s, before Erdogan’s rise to power. Our Leila, our dead Leila, our dead Leila whose thoughts continued for ten-plus minutes after death, is a prostitute. She ran away from her home in eastern Turkey, ran away from an arranged marriage, away from sexual molestation, away from patriarchy.
Much of the story is about Leila’s friendship with other “misfits”: a transgendered woman, a Somali woman sex-trafficked to Turkey, a little person who added 122 to her name because she was 122 cm tall (four feet), a nightclub singer who left her loveless marriage near the Syria-Turkey border, and a man who was Leila’s childhood confidant. The Five.
Their relationship almost has a Sex in the City vibe in its intimacy among friends. Of course, the life stories in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World are much darker. Everyone in Leila’s circle had left their homes to escape intolerable circumstances. This didn’t mean that life in Istanbul was easy, or even fair. I was reminded of movies where a young person moves from the sticks to New York or London or Calcutta. The city is full people who will take advantage of you, and possibly kill you.
Shafak puts this story squarely in Istanbul, and Turkish sensibility suffuses it. For example, each of Leila’s post-death memories is triggered by something sensuous: a taste, a smell, the feel of a substance on the skin. “The first memory that came to her mind was about salt – the feel of it on her skin and the taste of it on her tongue.” And, “Four minutes after her heart had stopped beating, a fleeting memory surfaced in Leila’s mind, bringing with it the smell and taste of watermelon.”
Whether Bill and I were walking the neighborhoods, eating fish at the gaily decorated boat restaurants on the Golden Horn or seeing mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, experiencing Istanbul filled my mind, my senses and my heart. Reading this book on the force of friendship, even beyond death, with a rich Turkish tang was just as soul-satisfying.
Tell me: Do you have a place that just blows you away?