You may remember my recent ungrateful whinging after being loaned a pile of books which I didn’t like the look of, but felt obligated to read. Well, The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak was in this pile, and it more than made up for my disappointment in the other choices.*
The Architect’s Apprentice is set in Istanbul in the 1600s and follows the life of Jahan, who at the age of 12 finds himself alone in the world pretending to be an elephant-keeper to Chota, a white elephant gifted to Sultan Suleimaniye. Many of the characters in the book actually existed, including the Sultan and another main character, Mimar Sinan. The following picture is the actual Sultan. I cannot imagine what is under that hat.
The Architect’s Apprentice isn’t one big story that starts with a problem, builds up to some big event or other, resolves and then ends. Instead it is a series of stories from Jahan’s life, some little and some big, which are put together to tell the whole story of his life. The story wanders here and there and although in the beginning I kept waiting for something to happen, eventually I realised it probably wouldn’t and settled into the style a little better.
Jahan and Chota travel through life together and their stories are entwined throughout the book. As a teenager, Jahan falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Mihrimah when they meet by accident. Jahan tells the Princess stories about his childhood and his adventures to date, and of course, about Chota. She appears to feel affection for Jahan too, although the difference in their status is such that this hint of romance is all there is for Jahan. The story of Chota’s brief liaison with a female elephant is also told, and more happily for Chota, his partner becomes pregnant.
Jahan and Chota go to war with the Sultan. Jahan finds the violence and fear sickening and the knowledge he has taught Chota to kill makes him unhappier than almost anything else in the entire story.
Jahan lives a blessed life in many ways. He is rescued time and time again from trouble by a gypsy, Balaban, who appears whenever he is needed. Jahan is also fortunate enough to become one of four apprentices to Mimar Sinan, the empire’s chief architect at a time when the Ottoman Empire were building great
Sinan is a wonderful character who shares his knowledge and his love of architecture and building with his apprentices, who vie for his favour throughout the story. During the course of Jihan’s apprenticeship he has the opportunity to visit Rome to see St Peters being built. He also meets Michelangelo. Later in life Jahan visits India, where he watches the building of the Taj Mahal.
My favourite line from the book is from Sinan, who said, “If not put to use, iron rusts, woodwork crumbles, man errs.” Sinan, pictured below, was the architect responsible for the Suleiman Mosque. He lived to be nearly 100 years of age, and was worked his whole life.
The artwork on the cover is exotically beautiful, and the gold catches the light when the book is moved. It is a fitting cover for a lovely story. I would definitely read another book by Elif Shafak.
*I think my resentment on having been loaned a pile of books stems mostly from losing my power to choose my own reading matter, even for a short time.