Alone amid an Istanbul in flux
‘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