Alone amid an Is­tan­bul in flux

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

‘The city into which I was born was poorer, shab­bier, and more iso­lated than it had ever been in its 2000-year history. For me it has al­ways been a city of ru­ins and of end-of-em­pire melan­choly.” So writes Orhan Pa­muk in Is­tan­bul: Mem­o­ries and the City (2003), a book that is both a child­hood mem­oir and a paean to the No­bel prize-win­ning au­thor’s na­tive city.

Is­tan­bul is in­grained in Pa­muk’s work. The nov­els My Name is Red (1998) and The White Cas­tle (1985) plunge the reader into the ex­otic world of pi­rates, palaces, sul­tans and slaves of, re­spec­tively, 16th and 17th-cen­tury Is­tan­bul. The city’s East-West col­li­sion man­i­fests it­self most acutely in The Mu­seum of In­no­cence (2008), while other in­trin­sic bi­na­ries — rich and poor, re­li­gious and sec­u­lar, tra­di­tional-old and rad­i­cal-new — are ex­posed and ex­plored in what is ar­guably Pa­muk’s finest novel, The Black Book (1990).

Pa­muk’s artis­tic treat­ment of Is­tan­bul’s history, con­flicts and that “end-of-em­pire melan­choly” he at­tests to con­trib­uted to his No­bel win in 2006. In its ci­ta­tion, the Swedish Acad­emy ap­plauded Pa­muk’s “quest for the melan­cholic soul” of Is­tan­bul, and his dis­cov­ery of “new sym­bols for the clash and in­ter­lac­ing of cul­tures”.

In his lat­est novel, A Strange­ness in My Mind, Pa­muk, who was born in 1952, creates a pro­tag­o­nist who is born in 1957, and as such is more or less a con­tem­po­rary. Mev­lut Karatas is not a fic­tion­alised Pa­muk but he has wit­nessed and ex­pe­ri­enced what his cre­ator has, namely Is­tan­bul in flux and at times in cri­sis in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury and its seis­mic trans­for­ma­tion from poor, shabby, iso­lated city to bustling, reen­er­gised 21st-cen­tury me­trop­o­lis.

Pa­muk opens in 1982 with a piv­otal ex­tended scene that in­tro­duces in­te­gral char­ac­ters, out­lines in­ten­tions and sows po­ten­tial dis­con­tent and up­heaval. It also snares the reader.

One night, with help from his cousin Su­ley­man, 25-year-old Mev­lut elopes with Ray­iha, a girl to whom he has writ­ten flow­ery love let­ters for the past three years af­ter see­ing her just once at a wed­ding.

How­ever, when he views her fully in the light he re­alises he has been tricked: it isn’t the girl he had fallen for but her older, less beau­ti­ful sis­ter. In­stead of kick­ing up a fuss with Su­ley­man or aban­don­ing Ray­iha, Mev­lut does the no­ble thing and holds his tongue, ac­cepts his fate and set­tles down with his new woman in Is­tan­bul.

From here, Pa­muk shunts us back­wards and for­wards. First we get a glimpse of 1994, with Mev­lut pound­ing the streets ev­ery night sell­ing boza, a typ­i­cal Turk­ish drink made of fer­mented wheat — “some­thing some­one in­vented so Mus­lims could drink al­co­hol”, ac­cord­ing to Su­ley­man. It tran­spires Mev­lut has been do­ing this for 25 years to make ends meet. Pa­muk then un­spools to chron­i­cle Mev­lut’s child­hood in an im­pov­er­ished vil­lage in Cen­tral Ana­to­lia, fol­lowed by his move to the big smoke with his fa­ther in 1969.

It is af­ter flunk­ing his ex­ams in an “apoc­a­lyp­ti­cally over­crowded” school that he joins his fa-

ther on his ar­du­ous rounds sell­ing yo­ghurt and boza. In time he is do­ing it alone.

We are told from the out­set that the book is the story of Mev­lut’s “life and day­dreams”, and Pa­muk por­trays both in the two main sec­tions: Mev­lut’s early years as a young, un­at­tached man, and his later years as a fam­ily man.

The first part cov­ers his mil­i­tary ser­vice, his po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing with his best friend Fer­hat and his sex­ual awak­en­ing alone, which ranges from stalk­ing girls to fran­tic bouts of mas­tur­ba­tion. The sec­ond part takes in his wed­ding cer­e­mony (“per­formed by a Kur­dish scrap-metal dealer who had grad­u­ated from a re­li­gious in­sti­tute in Ankara”), his se­ries of jobs, and, as the novel opens up to be­come a multi­gen­er­a­tional epic, the in­ter­lock­ing re­la­tion­ships and for­tunes of fam­ily and friends.

This is a sprawl­ing novel that thrums and teems with life. At strate­gic points it be­comes poly­phonic, with Pa­muk halt­ing his main nar­ra­tive to bring in the view­points of his sup­port­ing cast. Th­ese chim­ing or jar­ring voices add fresh insight as they rou­tinely elu­ci­date, gain­say, crit­i­cise or sim­ply com­ment on Mev­lut’s last move or the cur­rent se­quence of events. Pa­muk throws in births and deaths (in­clud­ing mur­der), fam­ily feuds and ri­val­ries, turf wars and mil­i­tary coups, land grabs and elec­tric­ity thefts, plus peace-breach­ing com­mu­nists, na­tion­al­ists and Is­lamists.

Making sense of it all is Pa­muk’s “hero” Mev­lut, a de­cent man, an every­man who wres­tles with his de­sires and al­le­giances and strug­gles to pro­vide for his fam­ily. In one es­say in his book of crit­i­cism, The

Naive and Sen­ti­men­tal Nov­el­ist (2011), Pa­muk talks about the ef­fect of cre­at­ing a con­vinc­ing back­drop: “The reader gets the im­pres­sion he is not among the words of a novel but stand­ing be­fore a land­scape paint­ing.” Such is the case in this novel. By making Mev­lut an itin­er­ant street ven­dor, Pa­muk is able to paint one lav­ish vista af­ter an­other of Is­tan­bul’s var­i­ous sub­urbs and their mo­men­tous and tu­mul­tuous over­hauls. One area is filled with ram­shackle cabaret bars, night­clubs and brothels in the late 1970s; 15 years later “the de­mon of change had cast its spell over the neigh­bour­hood as it had over the whole city, and the fab­ric of that past had been torn asun­der”.

The bare hills, dusty streets, Ot­toman-era bar­racks and gecekondu slum houses of Mev­lut’s youth grad­u­ally suc­cumb to mod­erni­sa­tion — de­vel­oped, paved, de­mol­ished and built anew.

Some of Pa­muk’s close-up de­tail sparkles: an­cient ceme­ter­ies at night; a cock­fight­ing match at the An­i­mal Wel­fare Club; the Elyazar Cin­ema, which splices erotic scenes from French films into tame Turk­ish movies. Like fel­low wan­derer Galip in The Black Book who roams “the muddy con­crete for­est that is our city”, Mev­lut walks and ob­serves and records, and in do­ing so brings Is­tan­bul vi­brantly alive.

Mev­lut’s walks also bring him alive. Through­out the novel we are sym­pa­thetic to him. “Be­ing alone in this big city is un­bear­able,” Su­ley­man tells him, urg­ing him to find a wife. But even when he has one he is still plagued by lone­li­ness due to his soli­tary pro­fes­sion.

“There’s a strange­ness in my mind,” Mev­lut says, echo­ing the book’s ti­tle. “No mat­ter what I do, I feel com­pletely alone in this world.” Pa­muk has taken his ti­tle from Wordsworth’s

The Pre­lude, but it is an­other of his po­ems that comes to mind as Mev­lut wan­ders lonely as a cloud.

Mev­lut’s “swelling tide of sor­rows” is care­fully han­dled — what could have been maudlin is in fact Pa­muk’s care­fully con­trolled melan­choly. If there is fault to be found it is in the novel’s dis­tinct lack of tension. A prefa­tory fam­ily tree, com­plete with char­ac­ters’ birth and death dates, to­gether with an end-of-book chronol­ogy, in­forms us of who will die early and when and how. But while those fore­warned demises don’t shock, they still man­age to af­fect.

“His life, his fury, his hap­pi­ness, Ray­iha — ev­ery­thing re­volved around Is­tan­bul.” The city shapes Mev­lut, bend­ing and brand­ing him in ac­cor­dance with its many in­car­na­tions. Pa­muk him­self pro­fesses a sim­i­lar af­fil­i­a­tion: “Is­tan­bul’s fate is my fate,” he de­clares in his mem­oir.

A Strange­ness in My Mind, el­e­gantly trans­lated by Ekin Ok­lap, skil­fully maps a per­son and a place, and proves to be a rich, en­gross­ing and il­lu­mi­na­tive novel. We gladly tag along with Mev­lut and rel­ish how his pere­gri­na­tions and med­i­ta­tions take us down many a dark al­ley and into the light.

Street ven­dors stroll past Is­tan­bul’s Blue Mosque; far left, Orhan Pa­muk

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