Istanbul Saga: Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind”

To my mind, there is no finer novelist living today than Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the Novel Prize in Literature in 2006. As I have written many times, The Museum of Innocence (2008) is the most significant novel I have read during the past decade. Pamuk’s first novel since that work, A Strangeness in My Mind, has just been translated into English and, like the earlier work (and its tangential spin-off, the author’s actual Museum of Innocence, in Istanbul, an elegant treat in and of itself), the new novel continues the author’s on-going obsession with the city where he was born and raised. Let me note, also, that in 2003, the writer published a mostly autographical account of his life, growing up in the city: Istanbul: Memories and a City, wherein he stated that he was living in the same building where he had been raised as a child. That in itself was incredibly revealing, which is only to say that with A Strangeness in My Mind the author has made Istanbul into one of the world’s great literary cities.

The new novel is also totally different than the earlier one, again no surprise.

Instead of the upper class, A Strangeness in My Mind focuses almost exclusively on the people at the bottom, workers who leave the country in order to improve their lives in the city: migrants, with a minimum of education, who become squatters in the city’s outlying areas, mostly in one-room structures but, over the years, with additional rooms and stories. The time frame for the narrative moves from the mid-1950s and ends in 2012. The main character, Mevlut Karataș, follows his father to Istanbul in 1969, where he assists his father, selling yogurt in the day and, at night, boza—“a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat, with a thick consistency, a pleasant aroma, a dark yellowish color, and a low alcoholic content”—by trodding the streets of the city.

Much later, the narrator will tell us that during the years of Mevlut’s life in Istanbul, the city will increase from three to thirteen million people. Most of the one and two-room squatter areas will be torn down and replaced with high-rise apartment buildings. In the process, many of the original squatters will strangenessinmindbecome enormously wealthy—but not Mevlut, a scrupulously honest man and hard-worker, who will remain pretty much at the bottom all those years, while some of his friends and members of his own extended family become fabulously rich. Most large cities typically contain diligent workers who are not quite in poverty but not much beyond it. During the course of Mevlut’s life in Istanbul, the older squatter areas of the city will become the city’s center, as still more urban sprawl extends outward from the parameters of the burgeoning metropolis.

Mevlut is a loveable character, who regards street vendors as “songbirds of the streets.” Initially, with his father, and then later by himself, he will call out his wares as he walks the city’s streets. For a time, he attends Ataturk Boys’ Secondary School during part of each day but does not graduate. His father, who is illiterate, is proud of his son’s education, and takes great pride in his own hard work. He tells his son, “So you walk thirty kilometers every day carrying thirty, maybe forty kilos on your back. Our job is mostly heavy living.” Over the decades, the city’s denizens begin purchasing their yogurt from small convenience stores, so Mevlut will shift his daytime sales to ice cream. The night time sales will continue with boza, which people tend to see it as an evening drink, perhaps because of its alcoholic content (slight at that, but referred to as “booze in disguise,” “something someone invented so Muslims could drink alcohol….”)

The novel begins with a scene, in 1982, when Mevlut is twenty-five years old, having lived and worked in Istanbul for more than a decade. His father has died. At a wedding he attended several years earlier in Istanbul, he saw the younger sister of the bride for hardly more than a moment and fell in love with her because of her unforgettable eyes. She was thirteen years old and Mevlut will write to her for more than three years, sending her hundreds of love letters, until Süleyman, his friend, will help him elope with her (steal her away from her father in their village). Süleyman has told him that her name is Rayiha, but on the evening of their elopement (when she is barely seventeen), Mevlut has a momentary fright that Rayiha is not the beautiful sister he thought she was but someone else. This Shakespearean switch of heroines will become the source of much of the novel’s pain for the three characters already mentioned (Mevlut, Rayiha and Süleyman) and for the other sister, Samiha, whom Süleyman intends to save for himself.

Years will pass, as Mevlut and Rayiha will live in a one-room hovel in Tarlabaşi, raise two daughters, and Rayiha will help her husband, as his daytime vending will change to rice (with chicken and chick peas). Samiha and Süleyman will marry others, and all of them (plus Vediha, the oldest sister, and her husband), will raise their children, prosper, or stagnate in Istanbul. Turkey will undergo political and economic turmoil and “Istanbul’s relentless sprawl” will drive these characters apart and, subsequently, bring them back together again. It will only be Mevlut’s relentless walking of the streets—selling yogurt, ice cream, and then rice, and always boza—that provides a sense of continuity. In difficult times, Mevlut will take other daytime jobs but continue selling boza at night. Istanbul will be the source of his greatest frustration and hope:

Midway through the novel, the narrator observes, “Mevlut had been in Istanbul for twenty years. It was sad to see the old face of the city as he had come to know it disappear before his eyes, erased by new roads, demolitions, buildings, billboards, shops, tunnels, and flyovers, but it was also gratifying to feel that someone out there was working to improve the city for his benefit. He didn’t see it as a place that had existed before his arrival and to which he’d come as an outsider. Instead, he liked to imagine that Istanbul was being built while he lived in it and to dream of how much cleaner, more beautiful, and more modern it would be in the future.” Still, the magical city is also the source of much of his restlessness, as the ageing boza seller walks the streets of increasingly distant neighborhoods.

A Strangeness of My Mind does not have the tension of either of Pamuk’s previous two novels: Snow and The Museum of Innocence. Rather, the novel’s bittersweet ending belies the maturity and the wisdom of a writer in full mastery of his form and—more importantly—his worldview. The end of the narrative fuses Istanbul and the memorable Mevlut together: “Walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head.”

Reading Pamuk is like sipping a glass of fine wine or reading a late Dickens novel. Writers don’t get any better.

Orhan Pamuk: A Strangeness in My Mind

Trans. By Ekin Oklap

Knopf, 624 pp., $28.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.