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July 19, 2020

‘The Gaze’ by Elif Shafak

Islamabad

 
July 19, 2020

Time moves through and within us, in endless spirals and so does this book. “The Gaze” demands an undying interest and unbreakable commitment. Once you ensure it, it will slowly and gradually reveal its treasures. Strangely enough once you have finished the book you get a feeling that as if this book has no end and no beginning. As if the journey through this book had been circular, you have reached exactly where you had started from. In Physics terminology you have covered absolutely no displacement but my dear you are forgetting about the “distance”. After you have finished the book you are no longer that person who had started reading it. You are a different person, a person with a new perspective, a person who knows about the power of “Gaze”, a person who knows that “Gaze” is not just a mere action but a whole phenomenon, a phenomenon that can change a person’s world or worldview.

“The Gaze” is written by Elif Shafak. it was first published in Turkey in 1999. The novel won “Turkish Author’s Association 2000” prize for the best novel. It was published in English in 2006. Synopsis of the story states that “an obese women and her lover, a dwarf are so sick of being stared at wherever they go, and so decide to reverse roles. The man goes out wearing make-up and the women draws a mustache on her face.” While buying the book when I read it I thought to myself that what could someone possibly write on this theme and this perked up my curiosity but as I started reading it I got so absorbed and emotionally involved that I could not put the book down. I could see all the characters in my mind’s eye and I built special sympathies for them. Elif Shafak has done a marvelous job in creating such complex and yet simple, fictional yet life-like characters. Besides characters complex plot, profound symbolism and appropriate narrative technique spice it up.

As it is in most of her novels, there are two plots flowing side by side. Setting of one is “Pera” in nineteenth century. This revolves around “a man with slanted eyes, Keramet Mumi Keske Memis Efendi”. As he took his first breath in this world his mother drew in last but the midwife did not notice the death of mother because she could not take her eyes from the son. His face was different.......it was featureless, made of wax. Luckily his aunt was a wise women, as soon as women left she picked up a hazelnut and started drawing the features. She spent too much time on lips and nose that she could only draw two slits for eyes. He grew up to be a very clever and lucky man but it was not his intelligence that attracted people towards him but his eyes. His eyes did not give away what he felt and that is why on his wedding night he broke the mirror. His sisters had chosen the most beautiful girl to be his bride but that girl was mute. She could only communicate through eyes and his eyes would not reveal anything. This incident led him to his metamorphosis, changed his perspective, bestowed on him a profound understanding of men and women’s nature.

On the other hand we witness a women’s perspective being changed in Istanbul in late twentieth century. It is story of a couple, an obese women(narrator) and her dwarf lover. They met on a bus and she fell in awe with him and as she spent more time with him she gradually fell in love with him. In the honeymoon period of their relationship BC was a perfect boyfriend, he made her accept her frame, he made her comfortable in her skin, he made her fall in love with herself. The conflict arises when he starts writing “The Dictionary of Gazes”. It stole away most of his time and his happy spirit. Apart from this he did not let her see the dictionary. At first she tried to understand and gave him space but one day she read the dictionary while BC is out. There she came across an entry ‘sisko (fatty)”. It was about her. It went as “she was so fat that wherever she went , people would stop whatever they were doing and stare at her. The way people looked at her made her so uncomfortable that she would eat even more and become even fatter.(Research fatty’s childhood)”. Two things hit her, first that the person who made her see herself beyond physical level and who himself saw her without noticing the layers of fat was calling her by the name from which she had been running all her life and from which he protected her, secondly that she had become a mere object among many others. She had lost the distinct position in BC’s heart ad this realization made her loose herself all over again. While she was falling in the pit of ambiguities she rose high as a weightless balloon because her gravity had betrayed her.

It is hard to decide which one is main plot and which is subplot and strangely these cannot be called parallel plots because they intersect at a couple of points. First bridge between them is the character of “Effendi” and “BC”. Their eyes are called “slits” as they do not reveal their secrets. No one can say for sure that what they are feeling or thinking. Another linking aspect of their personalities is their “volatile interests”. When they take up a task they do it with ardor and fervor, they are full of robust energy but after they have invested themselves, a point comes when they lose all of their interest and consequently leave the project (well in BC’s case people) without caring about the loss. Second bridge between the plots is resemblance between “Hyalifener Apartments (residence of BC) and “Cherry colored tent(Effendi’s heaven)”. Both are far from town, “at the top of the steep hill that was difficult to ascend and descend”. In the middle of the novel, owner of the Hayalifener paints the building “cherry colored”, adding another similarity. Last and most important is the fountain. When people would walk towards the cherry colored tent they would stop by a fountain to freshen up and in the description of Hayalifner, Shafak wrote about a ruined structure and hinted that it might be a fountain a century or half ago.

We encounter a stupendous narration technique in the “The Gaze”. Shafak has used first and third person narration alternatively. The story of “BC” has first person narration. His girlfriend takes our hand and shows us her world. We see it through her eyes, we see her laugh, we see her cry, we see her finding true love and we see her shattering. First person narration brings it closer to the reader. Funny thing is that we do not know the name of the narrator. When we enter in her realm we become so enchanted and frightened that we only focus on what she has to say and totally forget about her identity. On the other hand the story of Effendi and two inter wind mythical stories have third person narration, giving us an out of the picture viewpoint. Besides narration we come across very interesting symbols. Most important of them is the symbol of “wax”. Shafak says that Effendi flowed into this world like a drop of wax rather his whole being is compared to a drop of wax. This symbol can be taken in two different perspectives. First one is in the light of “John Locke’s” theory of Tabula Rasa. Tabula Rasa means blank slate. This theory states that newly born children’s brains are like blank slates, people and their surroundings influence the growth of their mental frame. Keeping this in mind we can safely conclude for Effendi’s case that as he was exposed to the harshness of this world at a very tender age his blank slate was filled rapidly. He matured quickly and before his time. Second perspective is in the light of Wordsworth’s concept of “prenatal and post natal”. When he was born he was innocent and soft like wax because he was closer to the One but as time passed and he got comfortable in this world his link became weaker and weaker as a result he hardened.

Helen Oyeyemi, author of “The Icarus Girl” says that Shafak plays with ideas of beauty and ugliness, like they’re Rubik’s cube. As for as the effect of this book is considered “this elegant yet challenging novel explores the damage which can be inflicted by our simple desire to look at others”.

Reviewed by Zainab Farooq