Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s new novel “The Architect’s Apprentice” is a beautiful and intricately told tale of the bond between a boy and an elephant, set in 16th century Istanbul.
‘The Architect’s Apprentice’
by Elif Shafak
Viking, 452 pp., $27.95
“The Architect’s Apprentice” is as intricate and lovely as the tile work in the magnificent mosques its protagonist helps build.
Elif Shafak’s new novel, a fantastical tale rooted in history, follows a boy named Jahan in 16th-century Istanbul at the height of the Ottoman Empire. He arrives at Sultan Suleiman’s palace — “a maze of rooms within rooms and paths that drew circles, a serpent swallowing its tail”— escorting Chota, a white elephant that is a gift to the sultan. Through the course of the novel, inquisitive, plucky Jahan grows from an illiterate 12-year-old to one of the trusted apprentices of Chief Royal Architect Sinan to a respected master of his craft.
Written in English, “Architect” was first published in author Shafak’s (“The Bastard of Istanbul”) native Turkey. Through Jahan’s journey, she addresses weighty topics such as the conflict between art, science and politics; the crossroads of faith, superstition and fundamentalism; destiny and self-determination; and the many permutations of love.
Jahan, with his poet’s soul and “eggshell heart,” has three great loves: Chota, his dearest friend; Master Sinan, a brilliant and gentle father figure; and Princess Mihrimah, the Sultan’s daughter, who is drawn to Chota, the latest addition to her father’s menagerie, and grows fond of his keeper.
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Animal lovers will relate to the bond between Jahan and Chota. With Jahan at his side or on his back, the elephant entertains at the sultan’s celebrations, does heavy lifting on construction sites and, with sharpened, lethal tusks and to Jahan’s horror, goes to war.
After their initiation into battle, it is Chief Royal Architect Sinan who brings a traumatized Jahan back from the brink, presenting him with a small carved wooden elephant whose tusks have been replaced with flowers. Sinan, a convert to Islam with an expansive world view, intertwines his knowledge of human nature and architecture as he imparts his wisdom: “God has built the palace of our body … Remember, even a beggar owns a palace.”
And it is Sinan who deems that Jahan be educated in the sultan’s academy. But the menagerie remains Jahan’s favorite spot, as he awaits visits from Princess Mihrimah, beautiful as the meaning of her name — “the sun and the moon.”
Court intrigue looms large and chillingly in “Architect” — “poisoned eunuchs, strangled concubines, beheaded viziers and sacks thrown into the waters of the Bosporus, their contents still wriggling with life …” . A rogues’ gallery of memorable characters also contribute to the action, including a dastardly privateer, a good-guy Gypsy and a wily sorceress. Even an elderly Michelangelo, in the throes of creating St. Peter’s, makes a cameo, when Jahan travels to Rome.
But it’s the bustling, multicultural, multilingual Istanbul of the 1500s, “a molten town perched on the tip of the waves, swaying, dizzying, ever changing …,” that takes center stage:
“A honeysuckle of a city, it drew from near and far people of every kind — bustling, seeking, yearning. There were far too many souls under the same sky, outnumbering the stars at which they gazed — Muslims, Christians, Jews, believers and heretics of each faith, talking to God all at once, their pleas and prayers for succor and good fortune carried on the wind, mingling with the cries of the seagulls. Jahan wondered how the Almighty could hear any of them over the commotion.”