THE Nobel prize winner’s tantalising, intoxicating romance never quite answers the riddle of Istanbul, writes Stuart Kelly
A Strangeness In My Mind
Faber & Faber, £20
THE strangest thing about the new novel by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, is how strange it isn’t. Readers who have read The White Castle, The Black Book or My Name Is Red might be expecting a postmodern puzzle-box, a book which makes the familiar unsettling and approaches complex issues askew. But his more recent works – notably The Museum Of Innocence – have shown a different side to Pamuk. That A Strangeness In My Mind is actually a rather sentimental, bitter-sweet romance should not deter readers, however, as Pamuk, being a genius, does wistful longing and lump in the throat moments with his customary brilliance.
The protagonist of the novel is Mevlut Karatas, who moves as a young boy to Istanbul from Central Anatolia with his father in 1969. Although the idea is that he can be educated in the city, he soon becomes his father’s helpmeet in selling, door to door, yoghurt and boza, a fermented wheat drink with a low alcohol content, often served with cinnamon and toasted chickpeas. (The name comes from the English “booze” – it was a drink that Ottomans used to circumvent the Islamic prohibition of alcohol).
But although we get the whole of Mevlut’s life from before arriving in Istanbul to the present day, the novel opens somewhat more dramatically.
At a cousin’s wedding, Mevlut is entranced by the bride’s sister, and spends his national service writing heartfelt letters to her, having been given her name by another cousin, Süleyman. Eventually they decide to elope together with Süleyman’s assistance, though they haven’t seen each other since the wedding. When Mevlut finally has the chance to sit down with his runaway bride – irate family deflected elsewhere – he realises that he has been writing to the other sister of the object of his affections. But Mevlut is a curious character. He is a less comedic version of Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk or a more exotic version of HG Wells’ Kipps.
Pamuk refers to “his indomitable optimism – which some thought of as ‘innocence’ – and his knack of finding the easiest and least distressing way through any situation”.
He makes a go of his unexpected marriage, and, miraculously (or not: there are several discussions about the wisdom of falling in love after the wedding) he and Rayiha are happy, despite all the despites one could imagine. Although Mevlut’s career(s) never really take off, and he is the perpetual “poor cousin”, he never loses his love of selling boza, even as it seems like a relic from Istanbul’s past.
Walking the same streets for the best part of half a century means Mevlut is our keyhole into Turkey’s recent history. Pamuk orchestrates the private story of Mevlut with the public record of events with supreme skill. The major events, such as the invasion of Cyprus, the formation of the PKK, the 1980 coup, the 1999 earthquake are all present, but they are present as they would have appeared to l’homme moyen senseul. There is not sermonising or bloviating, no “info-dump” or hectoring. It helps that the cousins with whom his dealings seem invariably unfortunate are all conservative and pay lip-service to religion, while his best friend from school – with whom, in an early fit of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, he sells a kind of Lottery called, tellingly, “Kismet” – is more connected to the Kurds and the Communists.
Mevlut, of course, is a model not of prevarication, but the awful capability of seeing the virtues in both sides. He likes the Communists because they care about the poor, and he likes the conservatives because a good man needs a break. He even likes the Islamists because their heritage should not be disparaged, and God, is after all, Great. He is not a weathercock, but an amalgam: it is possible to have all these beliefs at once, Pamuk suggests, and that complexity is in itself a good thing.
The novel is cunningly constructed in that Mevlut is always narrated in the third person – as if, sometimes, held in tweezers by the author observing him – but the supporting cast are given first person interludes. It allows for a certain grate and grind in otherwise quotidian situations, and a degree of benevolent irony. That the reader knows more than Mevlut is both endearing and uncomfortable.
Towards the end of the novel, Pamuk tries to make good on his title. “Mevlut sensed that the light and darkness inside his mind looked like the night-time landscape of the city. Maybe that’s why he’d been going out into the streets to sell boza in the evening for the past forty years, no matter how little he earned from it”; “The city had been sending him these symbols and signs for forty years. He felt the urge to respond… it was his turn to talk now. What would he like to say to the city?”
This psychogeography of Istanbul is fascinating, and I, for one, would have cared to know what he would say, other than things are ebbing away, new things are arriving. If Mevlut is a kind of synecdoche for the whole city, the message seems to be that the poor get marginally less poor, especially if they know some of the rich. If he is the estranged observer, the message is the city isn’t the city any more (but which city ever is?). But if he is a decent, quiet, sometimes angry, sometimes lustful, sometimes heartbroken man then the message is just: this was a human, regardless of geography.