One may not like Orhan Pamuk’s new novel without ever losing interest in its hero, Mevlut. He is the Turkish everyman of the last half-century, the son of a village migrant to Istanbul. Except that Mevlut stands apart from the crowd. Everyone but him is scrambling to make a fast fortune amid the spectacular, if grossly mismanaged, transformation of Istanbul from a decaying imperial ruin into a cash-rich metropolis. Mevlut, untouched by the opportunism of others, just pushes on with the family trade of peddling boza in the streets.
Much like the novel’s hero, boza is an obsolescent thing. The traditional, highly diluted alcoholic drink made from fermented wheat is a relic from the Ottoman past. A well-heeled customer who buys a little homemade boza from Mevlut horrifies the street peddler by pulling out of his fridge a bottled and branded version. The year is 2002 and the creeping transformations wrought by consumerism and commodification on Istanbul life grow by the page.
At its heart, the novel is an engrossing love story. Mevlut spends three years writing letters to his beloved, having spotted her once at a wedding. What follows is a tale of mistaken identities and romantic travails involving his two cousins, who are fanatical Turkish nationalists, his best friend Ferhat, who is a leftist and Alevi (that particular political outlook and sect of Islam being almost identical in postwar Turkey), and the four daughters of the village drunk.
In his memoir Istanbul (2009), Pamuk says that, as a child, he dreamed of finding his double somewhere out in the vastness of the city. Perhaps wrongly, I couldn’t resist reading Mevlut as that double.
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.
Mevlut is a flaneur for the proletariat, regretting but not blind to the practical reasons behind the “demon of change.” From the hill where he lives in his mud-floored slum house for most of his youth, the city itself appears as “only mysterious smudges on the horizon.” By the book’s end, Mevlut, now living in and resenting the sterile comforts of a high-rise apartment, has become the ideal resident of Istanbul.
As always, Pamuk’s prose is archly sympathetic toward his characters, their foibles and their self-deceptions. The pleasure of reading this novel, however, is interrupted by literary devices pretending to draw on Turkish myths and folkloric traditions. Early in the novel, the narrator says his story is “peculiar” and full of “strange things.” But his world is the same as ours, full of cause and effect. Mevlut constantly wrestles with his memory and dwells in a state of uncertainty about what is and what is not. That is entrancing, as far it brings out the irreality of ordinary life. But with Mevlut, Pamuk exaggerates the sense of astonishment at the world and (you guessed it) the “strangeness in his mind.” All the talk of superstitions and demons stalking the night seems like window-dressing on Pamuk’s otherwise masterful ability to tell a good story.
Mevlut trembles on the brink of self-knowledge for roughly 600 pages. When it comes, his epiphany resolves in an utterly human way the allegory of love Pamuk has spun. Besides the woman in question, Mevlut has a second, equally confounding beloved: Istanbul. From beginning to end, the city grows from some 1 million to over 14 million inhabitants. Its vast and rapid contortions upset the lives of almost everyone. Mevlut’s friend Ferhat claws his way from the urban slums where Mevlut and his family languish in honorable poverty to the city’s center at Beyoglu. His leftist idealism of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor turns into a fig leaf for corruption.
A Strangeness in My Mind isn’t colored by any kind of political critique of those violent transformations — mercifully, Pamuk is too interested in people and character for that. Yet for those irked by his reputation in the West as a political dissident, the lack of anything deeply political about this or any of his novels must be striking. Even in Snow (2002), the hero Ka, a political exile who returns to Turkey and becomes caught up in the secularists-versus-Islamists intrigues of a provincial town, seems to have entirely lost his political bearings. Like Mevlut, he is a detached observer of events. Other than writing about his story, Ka’s only real interest and path to personal redemption is the love of a woman.
Pamuk is director, stagehand, and — one suspects — lead in his own stories. Of course, it’s almost pointless to say a character resembles his author (or a perfect inversion of him). The problem here is that Pamuk jiggles the puppet strings too violently. Most of the time, Mevlut is human. But there are moments when he suddenly seems like a well-researched automaton of Istanbul-melancholy, who leads a pleasingly poor life among the ruins. Mevlut’s contentment with his difficult life is made convincing by the happiness he finds elsewhere, but could also explain why his innocence verges on thick-headedness. Class voyeurism can be a valuable thing in literature, but not when it fails to be anything more than itself.
There’s a whiff of self-indulgent and bourgeois nostalgia for “simpler” and perhaps more picturesque days about Pamuk. It’s a sentiment that many of his readers share, myself among them, though we might disdain it a little. It doesn’t carry any political overtones, but is a form of literary and aesthetic nostalgia difficult to resist in a world of featureless concrete, especially in places whose charm was once defined by older materials of stone, brick, and wood — from Mohandessin to Tehran. It’s not about returning to the past, but longing for a connection with it, and mourning the loss of that connection when old cities are abruptly razed and paved over.
Nostalgia can masquerade as melancholy in Pamuk. In Istanbul, he imputes to the city an intractable melancholy, in Turkish hüzun, that befogs the Bosphorus and its people. This is Mevlut’s strangeness. Confronted by the grey silhouettes of Ottoman mosques and palaces by night, “He felt a melancholy coming on, advancing with the irresistible determination of those huge ocean waves he’d seen on TV.” It’s a poetry of the ruins — not entirely sententious, but the this-too-shall-pass sorrow any human feels. In high-color prose, Pamuk paints the city’s landscape as a reflection of his hero’s mind, though Mevlut often feels it is just the opposite.
By the early 1990s, memories of old Istanbul seem like “fairy tales” to Mevlut, the city has changed so much. This is not mere modishness on Pamuk’s part. Since his earliest novels, the Turkish writer has seen the past as a magically wondrous fiction. But in The White Castle (1985) or My Name Is Red (1998), that literary pose is integrated more with the work’s language and conception.
Pamuk has said he only likes “to write big, thick, ambitious novels”. He has succeeded on all three counts here, and the novel’s lengthy index and timeline should give the reader an idea of the work at hand. But the book falls short of Pamuk’s other stated ambition: to create for Istanbul what James Joyce did for Dublin with Ulysses.