The grand design behind architecture is mirrored in the way we build ourselves and our lives, crafting the foundations only to witness them tumble down at the very core. People are buildings and their architecture erects flawed or tall, yet it is behind the little cracks that light finds a way to glitter. The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak is an epic novel commemorating the architecture of the Ottoman Empire across a century. The life span of the characters reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Buendias that built and crumbled themselves during One hundred years of solitude. Yet, the outcome of this novel is about closing a circle of solitude into a round, full life, though the same weaving of magical and reality oozes in the various layers of the novel -where real life starts fading away, magic breathes in softly, unraveling miracles as people and people as miraculous pieces within a greater plan.
A white elephant named Chota and an Indian boy, Jahan, are bound to live together at the court of Suleiman, the Great Sultan and his offsprings. The boy is half mahout -the elephant's tamer- half apprentice to the great Mimar Sinan, architect of over 300 constructions under 3 sultans. When he is not caught in his daily attire, he dreams of jewels to steal for his savior at sea, Captain Gareth, and of Suleiman's beloved daughter, Princess Mihrimah. During his life, he comes to meet people from all over the world, take part in wars, travel to Europe, meet Michelangelo, slipping easily from the royal gardens into taverns, whore houses, dungeons and gypsy camps. Above all, he is taught about love and the way it shapes his heart: for the master he could never outwit, for the architecture that builds out of himself and for a woman he can never have.
Architecture is a mirror that reflects the harmony and balance present in the world. Architecture is a conversation with God.
So he learns to build against the arbor of the sky and is also taught the sad lesson of breaking down from bridges to observatories, on the whim of people in charge of lives and destinies. Lessons come painfully and carve deep into his simple nature. Jahan's heart is large and welcoming, yet love is something he is denied and brings into him a yearning that shall stay with him till the end of time. Sliding through the thick layers of plot, characters like Jahan seem little pieces within the large puzzle that is the great city of Istanbul. Elif Shafak draws an appealing image of a place that stands in between worlds, a spicy mixture of religions, races, and colors. The novel gives you a sense of place, a taste against the roof of your mouth, a scent in the nostrils, a soft breeze in the ears, as the great city of Istanbul paints itself against times. It easily brings to mind Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red which focuses on the miniaturist painters in Istanbul over nine days in 1591. Still, the flavour and the richness of descriptions, the historical frame and the love for both places and people that exults from the pages, reminded me of Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence ,
There is a deep sense of humanity behind the fictional possibilities of Elif Shafak's novel that reads in between the lines. It is a journey as every good novel should be that promises to deliver not only a soft understanding of Jahan's learnings of yearning, unattainable love, or self-fulfilment, but to stir a certain shred of emotion inside the reader. Whether it is the salad bowl of cultures and faiths, the plottings ,the gossipy, the visuals of this world's menagerie, the unexpectedness, the love story, the historical shade, it is that and much more. It is a refreshing reading experience that conveys the spirit of an exotic world at the end of our fingertips.