ANKARA — At a time when Turkey’s dramatic news cycle is dominating international headlines, the country’s Nobel laureate has written a novel about a street vendor. So far, so trivial, you might think — save for the fact that this street vendor has lived through everything that sheds light on what is going on in Turkey today. How did a humble vendor end up so far from his hometown? Who are his friends? Is he a patriot, a family man, a capitalist?
In the imagination of Orhan Pamuk, the answers to these seemingly superficial questions are stepping stones to the fundamental stories of Turkey today: one man’s attempt to make his fortune becomes the story of mass urban migration, his stolen bride the story of love warped by traditional mores, the gang wars in his neighborhood the story of ethnic tensions and nationalist terrorism. “A Strangeness in My Mind” is a story about an everyman that could only be staged in the author’s beloved Istanbul — it is both a life story and a beautifully related history lesson in modern Turkey.
Pamuk’s novel was eight years in the making, the product of the peculiarly meticulous mind announced by its title. The irony of this title is that it does not refer to Pamuk directly, nor is it his own phrase. The source — a poem of William Wordsworth — isquoted at the beginning of the book:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
a strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”
‘A Strangeness in My Mind’ captures the loneliness of a city-dweller surrounded by millions of strangers, an individual with an imagination both fed and fettered by urban surroundings.
As the novel unfolds, it is obvious that there is much of Pamuk in Mevlut, the central character who literally walks us through four decades in Istanbul, from 1969 to 2012, just as Wordsworth’s speaker walks his readers through the “motley spectacle” of 19th century Cambridge. Mevlut is, on the face of it, worlds away from Pamuk and his upper-middle class background: a village boy who comes from central Anatolia to Istanbul, aged 12, to help his father sell yoghurt in the rapidly expanding city. Later, they sell boza, a fermented drink that has never regained the popularity it once enjoyed in Ottoman times, one of the many reasons Mevlut is “not for that hour, nor for that place.” Anyone who knows Pamuk’s work has paced these streets before, albeit through other characters’ eyes. The “strangeness” of the title is true of Mevlut, of Pamuk, of all of us, to an extent. It captures the loneliness of a city dweller surrounded by millions of strangers, an individual with an imagination both fed and fettered by urban surroundings.
Walking fueled his mind and reminded him that there was another realm within our world, hidden away behind the walls of a mosque, in a collapsing wooden mansion, or inside a cemetery — A Strangeness in My Mind.
Mevlut’s journey is a gift to someone like me, who moved to the city only five years ago and has always wondered what came before. What did that massive tower block replace? What was destroyed to make that highway? Why is this area full of Kurds from the east of the country, or conservative villagers from central Anatolia ? In one of the most unsettling parts of the book, Mevlut witnesses conservative nationalists attacking and eventually driving away a whole community of Kurdish Alevis (thelargest religious minority in Turkey), totally changing the social make-up of the area. Seeing the news of Saturday’s attacks shows how the country’s fault lines have not changed; Pamuk is not prescient, he merely remembers.
According to Pamuk, “A Strangeness in My Mind” started life as a short novel, only to develop into an epic — one suspects he got sidetracked by the complexity of his central character’s world. An inadvertent love triangle exists between Mevlut and two sisters — one whose eyes he falls in love with in a fleeting encounter, the other whom he mistakenly elopes with in the dead of night, years later. As often happens with Pamuk, this (confused) love story, which revolves around a stash of ambiguous love letters, is sometimes outshone by a more abiding relationship with Istanbul itself — previous books such as “The Museum of Innocence,” his memoirs, “Istanbul” and “The Black Book” all revolve around Pamuk’s central nexus of inspiration.
In one impassioned soliloquy a character called Veliya lists her never-ending responsibilities as mother, wife and daughter. It is a sweeping piece of rhetoric, but full of devastating detail — a feminist war cry, delivered under house arrest.
What sets this novel apart is the symbiosis of the two relationships. In “The Museum of Innocence,” for example, Istanbul is the pervasively gloomy backdrop to the central character’s thwarted obsession for an unsuitable cousin; in “A Strangeness in My Mind,” the city grows with Mevlut year by year, more of an alter ego than a stage. In describing it, Pamuk seems more hopeful, less melancholic than usual, matching the ebullient optimism of his central character perhaps, who keeps himself free of the corruption and disappointment of city life with his solitary wanderings, his rambling mind. The language is simpler, too — perhaps the result of a new translator (Ekin Oklap, rather than Pamuk’s usual translator Maureen Freely) — but also in keeping with the simplicity of Mevlut, who is almost childishly naïve compared to the assorted cast of supporting characters — his family members, friends and customers.
These characters frequently interrupt the narrative — voicing their version of events, revealing private motives or grudges — in a way that is reminiscent of Louis de Bernières’ “Birds Without Wings.” This novel, based in Turkey a hundred years ago, also revolves around the chaos of a close-knit community and gives voice to marginal characters, which in a Turkish context includes women.
In one impassioned soliloquy in “A Strangeness in My Mind,” a character called Veliya lists her never-ending responsibilities as mother, wife and daughter. She spews out her private resentments in a way which would never happen outside the pages of a novel; this is Pamuk’s way of inviting the book’s most domesticized woman forward to speak, not only of her obvious restrictions — such as being kept in the house — but also more subtle injustices: being belittled by her sons, ignored by her mother-in-law, mocked for watching daytime TV, criticized for her cooking, told she doesn’t understand, blamed for the whole family’s failures when she acts as the central mother ship. It is a sweeping piece of rhetoric, but full of devastating detail — a feminist war cry, delivered under house arrest.
This is a novel about what it is to be a poor, ordinary Turk, buffeted by the winds of modern politics and traditional mores. It is detailed, intimate, but it is also universal, dealing with emotions like shame, ambition, love and grief, and what it feels like to belong. Mevlut reflects on his involvement in a nationalist gang at one point: “Being Turkish felt infinitely better than being poor.” This is not an intentionally political novel, but if there is a political message, this is it: Turkey needs to recognize its universals, not its differences. Saturday’s bombing in Ankara showed us that, with devastating effect.
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