Unlike the usual format of a three-step act with a beginning, middle and end, Turkish author Elif Shafak’s latest novel opens with the climax. The preface is ironically titled ‘The End’ and, in it, Shafak reveals what happens to Tequila Leila and why her body is in a wheelie bin. Leila is the protagonist of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World; she has led a socially unacceptable life in the brothels of Istanbul and her end has been painful.

Apparently, 10 minutes and 38 seconds is how long — according to a doctor in the novel — the mind remains conscious even when the body is clinically dead. The sudden realisation of being dead sends Leila into a heightened consciousness where her entire life flashes before her eyes. She recalls the first time her mother talked to her soon after her birth. She revisits forgotten moments. Sounds and flavours dance in her memory soon after she is murdered. Leila’s body is unable to move, but Shafak creates a vivacious world with Leila’s thoughts, through an exquisite narrative that aptly describes Leila’s feelings to explain the complexities of her not-so-moral life as a sex worker in an illiberal country.

Describing the last moments of Leila’s brain activity and then looking at her life while she was alive would have been a tedious task for any writer to complete. Perhaps this is why Shafak divides the book into three parts. Part one, ‘The Mind’, shows a delicate balance between the horror of losing a life and of life itself, while revealing Leila’s perception of her own existence. Leila is, and always has been, focused on the present and averse to thinking about her past. Shafak writes, “Never in a thousand years would she agree to be spoken of in the past tense. The very thought of it would make her feel small and defeated, and the last thing she wanted in this world was to feel that way. No, she would insist on the present tense — even though she now realised with a sinking feeling that her heart had just stopped beating, and her breathing had abruptly ceased, and whichever way she looked at her situation, there was no denying that she was dead.”

Turkish author Elif Shafak’s latest novel traces the life of an Istanbul prostitute after her death and of others marginalised by society

Part two, ‘The Body’, discusses Leila’s five friends — Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra — who, like Leila, do not fit into standard social ideology and thus, are non-existent for society. Themselves pushed beyond the edges of ordinary communal existence, they want to give Leila’s body a proper burial to prove that she was not alone in this world. Here, the narrative does not resort to one specific point of view, but is shared with a sagacious external voice. It also sparks a few moments of morbid amusement when the friends dig out Leila’s corpse from the Cemetery of the Companionless. Shafak gives each of the five friends a chapter of their own as well, to explain their connection to Leila and the trajectories of their individual lives.

However, while Shafak’s tone and expression are strong in the first two parts, she sort of loses her grip on style and brevity in the third, ‘The Spirit’. This is perhaps because, by the time the third part begins, Leila’s mind has ceased to work and she is gone for good. Furthermore, Shafak’s narration during this part seems to be written in haste, maybe because she has already explicitly described Leila and her life in the first two parts and, it seems, just wants to end the novel now.

Akin to other Muslim societies, Turkish society does not accept sex workers or any outcast as their own. This is why Tequila Leila’s body is dumped at the Cemetery of the Companionless, a graveyard for “the undesirables.”

Shafak’s portrayal of Leila as a sex worker in Turkey landed the author in trouble with the authorities when the book was released some months ago. She dares to uncover the bleak truth of those existing on the margins of society — which includes Nostalgia Nalan, who was a man before deciding to become a woman — but rather than tackle the actual issues that lead to such marginalisation, the government is clamping down on those who write about them. The government is ignoring reality, just as Leila’s body is being ignored. An object to satisfy men when alive, the corpse now lies unattended and overlooked. The only witness to this sad spectacle is a teenage scavenger rooting through rubbish, but once he makes off with the necklace clasped round its throat, the corpse ceases to exist for him as well.

The somewhat rushed ending aside, the author’s ability of describing the smallest details enhances the story’s comprehensive appeal. For instance, the chapter titled ‘Two Minutes’ begins like this: “Two minutes after her heart had stopped beating, Leila’s mind recalled two contrasting tastes: lemon and sugar. June 1953. She saw herself as a six-year-old, a thicket of chestnut-brown curls surrounding her frail, wan face. No matter how remarkable her appetite, especially for pistachio baklava, sesame brittle and all things savoury, she was as thin as a reed. An only child. A lonely child.”

The lonely child grows to live a lonely life, and dies a lonely death. Akin to other Muslim societies, Turkish society does not accept sex workers or any outcast as their own. This is why Tequila Leila’s body is dumped at the Cemetery of the Companionless, a graveyard for “the undesirables”, those who have died of AIDS or by committing suicide. Many of the bodies are of drug addicts or members of the LGBTQ community. Also buried here are refugees who drowned at sea while trying to reach Turkey. Shafak advocates for Leila and the others who make up the novel’s rich cast of characters as regular human beings who have every right to receive a proper burial after death, even if society looked at them with disgust when they were alive.

The reviewer is a columnist, formerly an assistant editor at a magazine and currently working at a business management institute in Karachi

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
By Elif Shafak
Viking, UK
ISBN: 978-0241293874
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 28th, 2019

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