'There were six of us: the master, the apprentices and the white elephant. We built everything together...'
Sixteenth century Istanbul: a stowaway arrives in the city bearing an extraordinary gift for the Sultan. The boy is utterly alone in a foreign land, with no worldly possessions to his name except Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie.
So begins an epic adventure that will see young Jahan rise from lowly origins to the highest ranks of the Sultan's court. Along the way he will meet deceitful courtiers and false friends, gypsies, animal tamers, and the beautiful, mischievous Princess Mihrimah. He will journey on Chota's back to the furthest corners of the Sultan's kingdom and back again. And one day he will catch the eye of the royal architect, Sinan, a chance encounter destined to change Jahan's fortunes forever.
Filled with all the colour of the Ottoman Empire, when Istanbul was the teeming centre of civilisation, The Architect's Apprentice is a magical, sweeping tale of one boy and his elephant caught up in a world of wonder and danger.
The story begins with a recollection by Jahan about a story his master once told to him and his fellow apprentices: when some people who find a secret place in their hearts without getting befuddled by external beauty, they become either 'the lovers' (who feel longing for something and yearn for completeness) or 'the learners' (who have myriad of questions and aspire to knowledge). From there we meet a middle aged Jahan working on a design in the night when animals become restless and certain commotion in restricted part of palace piques his curiosity. He is nearly caught in one of the darkest palace conspiracies and only the arrival of his Master Sinan ensures his survival.
From there we are taken back in time, to a skinny boy of 12 who arrives at Istanbul through ship with a nearly dead baby elephant, a gift from Hindustan's Sultan to Turkish Sultan. Nursing it back to health and living in animal menagerie of the palace, Jahan is introduced to the life of Istanbul which is on architectural bloom. A Mahout of the only elephant of Istanbul, Jahan travels with Chota to various places within and outside the city, perform tricks for the royalty, entertains visitors including the beautiful princess Mihrimah, meets with gypsies, goes to war as Chota's handler, helps with bridge construction and ultimately becomes a student of the Chief Royal Architect Sinan.
Once he is taken as an apprentice, the plot thickens to great magnitude as Jahan performs various roles at the same time ... a Mahout of the Elephant, an apprentice to the Master Architect, a thief for a crazy naval commander. His relation with Chota is of brotherhood, with Gypsies as family, with Sinan as loyal apprentice, with his fellow apprentices as comrade. Jahan's story with Chota entwines across eras of three Sultans and several life-threatening hardships, constructing one building after another under the watchful gaze and gentle guidance of Master Sinan.
Authenticity of the environment
The 16th century Istanbul is vividly described and good attention to detail brings it to life, like a fairytale city made real. Muslims, Jews, Christians and whole host of tribes living in Istanbul are described from perceptions of Jahan, often gaining wisdom from words of other characters. A particularly riveting example is found on page 33:
As they drove along, the official pointed things out: This cove is Georgian, that one Armenian. The scrawny figure over there is a dervish, the one beside him a dragoman. This man, a wearer of green, is an imam, for only they can put on the colour favoured by the Prophet. See the baker around the corner, he is Greek. They make the best bread, those infidels, but don't you dare eat any, they draw the sign of the cross on every loaf. One bite and you'll turn into one of them. This shopowner is Jewish. He sells chickens but can't kill the birds himself and pays a rabbi to do that. That fella with sheepskin over his shoulders and rings in his pierced ears is a Torlak - a holy soul, some say, a sluggard if your ask me. Look at those Janissaries over there! They are not allowed to grow beard, only moustaches.The bias people have, the superstitions that rule daily lives and omens that halt or speed progress are accurately described. Each person has its own ways to respect nature and how they affect Jahan's life as he tries to survive Istanbul is a brilliant example of society stuck in limbo, at one side trying to find meaning through religion while attempting to progress through art and science.
Most of the story is told from third-person perspective with Jahan as the protagonist. Descriptions of certain events (such as plague that grips Istanbul or fire that burns the palace), places (such as dungeon) and phenomenons (such as the spread of gossip) are brilliantly narrated despite Jahan's occasional absence from the flow.
The Sultan's palace and its intrigues have been touched upon with the intensity of a scholar. How the death of one Sultan can bring the most dramatic changes in the most subtle ways, as if nothing is wrong, is masterfully expressed. The daily life of these Sultans, that affects every domain one way or the other, shape Jahan's own struggle is worth reading.
The author also touched upon religion but stayed away from controversies. Since the 16th century Turkey was stuck between progress and religious bigotry, it was also being contested by Sufi mystics and hardline Ulemas. Ulemas had greater say in the affairs of the state and their dialogue with Sufis is very intriguing even if shy of reality. For example the Ulema question a Sufi, Majnon Shaykh, about the very concept of God (Allah). The dialogues, while representing the correct mindsets, are purely philosophical (restricted to loving or fearing Allah) and not once quotes from Quran or Sunnah used by either side for offence or defense. This is both brilliant and sad at the same time, brilliant because it vividly portrays the two parties without sullying religion and sad because the exchange is devoid of substance that actually is a bone of contention between them.
Relevance & Complexity of themes in the novel
Survival is the major theme of this novel. Jahan and Chota survive their journey through sea to reach Istanbul. Jahan survives molestation, dungeon, war, treacheries and backstabbing till the very end. Sinan and his apprentices survive several life-taking attempts while constructing mosques and, once a Sultan dies, only one of his sons survive.
Religious bigotry is another theme that is lightly touched in this novel. States with declared religion often tend to create religious bigotry, leaving population at odds with itself to either strictly follow teachings of religion or follow desires of the world and heart. Mosques are being commissioned but the money is coming through spoils of war. Their construction is considered sacred duty but rarely anyone bothers to go and pray, only marvel at the construction. Sex trade and alcohol are readily available for people of all classes. While proclaiming to follow Islam, a Sultan is someone who takes the throne on death of his father and his first order is to kill his brothers. Be they a month old or fully grown, the brothers are suffocated in their sleep with a silk handkerchief around their necks to prevent spilling of royal blood, and then Sultan commission construction of a grand mosque to honor their memory.
At page 420 Jahan converses with Balaban who provides a deep insight in very few words:
'Do animals go to heaven, you think? Imams say they won't.'
'What do they know about animals? Farmers do, Gypsies do. But imams, nay.' Balaban paused. 'Don't brood. When I go to heaven, I'll have a word with God.'
Jahan's eyes lit up with amusement. 'You steal. You drink. You gamble. You bribe. You still think you're going to Paradise?'
'Well brother ... I look at the holier-than-thou. I say to myself, if these chaps are goin', I sure am goin', 'cause they are no better than me. That's how I measure my sins.'
Love and faith are other explored themes where workmanship is given resemblance to great acts. The author has explained some of the concepts from perspective of true masters and the concept of architecture is masterfully explained in a comparison by Master Sinan on page 292 when Sinan expresses his fears that the work is wearing them out:
'Think of a baby in the womb. She lives off her mother and tires her. While we deliver a building, we are like the mother. Once the baby is born, we shall be the happiest souls'
The comparison between building and giving birth made Jahan smile. Yet instantly he had another thought. 'But I don't understand. The Sultan doesn't work with us. Why does it sap his strength?'
'He is still attached to his mosque,' said Sinan.
'We've worked on other buildings. Bridges, mosques, madrasas, aqueducts ... Why have I never felt this way before?'
'You did, you just don't remember. That, too, is in the nature of things. We forget how we felt the last time. Again, like a mother.' Sinan paused, as though unsure whether to say the next thing. 'But then some births are harder than others.'
Author pursues the act of selflessness in the face of practicing art. On page 97, Jahan talks with Master Sinan about wastage of work and dismantling of hard work. Jahan couldn't understand why would a person willingly destroy his work to get better rather than keep it alive and with him as good remembrance. If work was destroyed, there would be no building in this world. To that Master Sinan says:
We are not destroying the buildings, son. We are destroying our desire to possess them. Only God is the owner. Of the stone and the skill.
And test of faith comes when Jahan experiences his first true dismantling of hard work and labor on page 348:
Inwardly, however, numbness seized his heart, wiping away signs of joy, like melting snow erasing the footprints of life. He was losing his faith in his workmanship. Little did he know, back then, that the worth of one's faith depended not on how solid and strong it was, but on how many times one would lose it and still be able to get it back.
Lastly, ambition is one such element in the story that will surely surprise the readers, just like the head warden tells Jahan on page 208:
'A cock that crows too soon is calling the butcher,'
The white elephant, Chota, despite being a minor character is exceptionally well written. It's presence throughout the story is of strength and gentle wisdom, a dependable entity on whom Jahan can rely in times of great sorrows and extreme happiness. The apprentices, each with its own motivation and secrets darker than other, are fleshed out late but do not disappoint. There part in this book is worth reading since many themes apply to them as well as they did Jahan.
Jahan is an well balanced character, an unlikely protagonist who is neither a hero nor a villain. He is simply an elephant tamer and an apprentice of the master architect, yet his simple life is so meaningful and small details so elegantly embraced that his growth over the years can be traced to small moments of life, providing the fuel to his passion and strengthening his resolve. Jahan was so inquisitive that even in that era he had genuine religious concerns such as what would he do with houses in Jannat and, if men go to heaven, what would happen to their animals? These questions show he had sharp, questioning mind and his life journey was shaped by his queries and curiosity.
Master Sinan is truly shown as a master. A person who leads from the front, gets down and dirty his hands with hard labor, and not get high and mighty. His passion is creation and create he must. He mends what is broken, and that is not restricted to buildings alone. Author has both philosophically and literally explored the limits of the master as they can be explored, though since he was already an old man when the story began he remained an old man throughout.
Minor characters were not neglected but neither much time was devoted to them. We met several members of the menagerie, animal tamers like Jahan whose personalities remained largely unexplored, their lives glanced not more than their primary role as animal tamers. Similarly some of the royal members weren't fleshed out either, be they grand viziers or relatives, concubines and wives of the Sultans. Princess Mihrimah, while mischievous and later fleshed out, left much to be desired. As a side character and love interest of Jahan, her personality could have been explored sooner rather than later. Still, this approach did create its own charm in this story.
The one character that stood out, despite being unchanging throughout the story, was Balaban. Chief of his wandering Gypsie tribe with uncountable relatives, his first interaction with Jahan leaves a strong impression in reader's mind that comes back strongly with each new interaction. Right till the end Balaban's character maintained its charm that progressed the story at odd but intriguing angles.
Use of language (by author/by characters)
The story is very engaging due to its simple narrative and thought provoking exchanges. Words are simple, description elegantly put and non-English words easily incorporated where meaning could easily be guessed by reading the sentence. Where some of the words were used for the first time or may cause confusion, the meaning was provided the end of the page.
Characters are completely organic in conversations. They do tend to flock to philosophy every now and then, particularly where Master Sinan was involved, but never long-winded or boring. The insights and wisdom condensed in the exchanges is what helped the characters to grow and were easy to understand.
The Architect's Apprentice is a wonderful creation by Elif Shafak. Already famed for works like 40 Rules of Love, this is yet another marvel of Turkish historical fiction from her. The novel explores Turkish historical era from a very unique point of view that is both engaging and enlightening at the same time. It's a must-read novel for fans of historical fiction genre and those who have an interest in Turkey and its architectural beauty.
Tags: Book review, Elif Shafak, The Architect's Apprentice