A Strangeness In My Mind, by Orhan Pamuk, Faber, 624 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0571275977
Not many are brave enough to attempt fitting a city into a novel. Its unfurled streets can stick out over the edges. Emissions of light and sound can burn up the page. Words get lost down side streets and alleys. Yet those few that have done so successfully come to transform the city itself into an Everyman of moods and memories, failures and triumphs.
What kind of book could reign in a city like Istanbul. Once Byzantium, then Constantinople, it is not one but three cities, brimful with energy to the tops of its seven hills. Sitting on those nervous tectonic plates and old enough to own the world, it is a place that seems just as ready to reach to the sky as to dive deep down into the ferry-strewn Bosporus strait.
Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s only Nobel Prize-winning author and one of the award’s youngest recipients, is a writer whose life and work are held aloft as emblematic of his country’s wishes and woes. In the city of Istanbul he has found his most favoured character, through which he has repeatedly explored themes of identity and authenticity. When the award committee presented him with the prize they noted that:
You have made your native city an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoyevsky’s St Petersburg, Joyce’s Dublin or Proust’s Paris – a place where readers from all corners of the world can live another life, just as credible as their own, filled by an alien feeling that they immediately recognise as their own.
Yet Pamuk is both the light that shines over Istanbul’s literary landscape, drawing attention to writers that the rest of the world may never otherwise hear of and at the same time a constraining shadow dominating foreign interest. Domestic detractors observe a trite reduction of Turkish society to the bloodstained historical clash of east versus west and the perilous battle between secularism and Islamism. Publishers complain that they cannot sell the international rights of exciting Turkish fiction unless it involves some crisis of Euro-Asian identity or addresses the menace of looming religious extremism.
Boarding a plane from Paris to Istanbul a couple of months ago, I was pushing my bag into the overhead luggage compartment. Thrown on my seat were my passport, a flimsy boarding pass and Pamuk’s latest novel, A Strangeness In My Mind. As I battled unceremoniously with what I had convinced the airline was a manageable rucksack, I noticed a bespectacled Turkish air hostess peer down at the chunky book. Picking it up, she twirled and waved it at her colleague with a raised eyebrow over the rim of her fashionable black-framed glasses. Seeing I had observed her, she asked: “You like him?” I nodded. “And you?” “Of course,” she said with a simple certainty devoid of any passion followed by a knowing side glance to a smirking colleague.
The Turkish are understandably cautious of being advised on who they are by the outside world and in Pamuk’s case international acclaim complicates their appreciation of him. Türkiye’nin Çeviri ve Yayım Destek Programı, or TEDA for short, is a government-funded grant programme that provides funding to support the translation and publication of Turkish literature for foreign markets. The official TEDA guide to Turkish literature has this to say about their native Nobel:
Pamuk himself asserted that the prize was principally awarded to Turkish language and literature. Although some intellectuals acknowledge this to be a fact, many claimed that it was in recognition of Pamuk’s creative work which had been rewarded in spite of the fact that the Nobel Prize committee was essentially anti-Turkish and as a result of the damaging remarks he had made about incidents in Ottoman history and contemporary life. His formula for success has been postmodernism plus some Turkish exoticism. He has been likened to several giants of modern literature. Such kinships tend to provide a fairly easy passage to fame abroad. The risk involved, however, is that similarities may not sustain the inherent value of the œuvre for long ‑ unless the writer from the other culture finds a voice uniquely his own, explores new forms, and creates a synthesis beyond a pat formula based on what is in fashion.
Pamuk’s ambivalent relationship with some of his compatriots reached a critical point in 2005 when the writer made comments concerning the treatment of Armenians and Kurds by the Turkish state. His statements led to criminal charges of “denigrating Turkishness”. While the court proceedings were subsequently abandoned, the atmosphere for writers and journalists has not changed substantially since. Reporters Without Borders lists Turkey as one 149th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. In November this year two journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, were arrested as a result of their reporting on Syria. Pamuk’s work and his public remarks may today be a little less adversarial ‑ if still altogether unapologetic ‑ but he still has a bodyguard, albeit one provided by the state.
Pamuk’s ninth novel follows the life of Mevlut Karataş, who leaves his village of Cennetpınar in the province of Konya in central Anatolia to move to Istanbul. There he leads a somewhat impoverished life selling boza (a mildly fermented wheat beverage) on the streets. “Mevlut” is a special prayer that is said at times of birth or death derived from a poem written by Süleyman Çelebi (1377-1411) describing and praising the life of the Prophet. Mevlut is thus set the task, unbeknownst to him in his simple piety, of revealing the arc of life in this story.
The title of the book comes from Wordsworth’s The Prelude (“I had melancholy thoughts …a strangeness in my mind, A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place”) which nods to the constant sense of dislocation which oppresses Mevlut. At one point he exasperatedly says: “There’s a strangeness in my mind … No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in the world.” Having come from village life to the bustling Turkish metropolis, he is simultaneously at home and a stranger. He is both familiar and unsettled in his surroundings, always searching for something that he cannot fully understand.
After briefly seeing the immensely beautiful Samiha at a wedding, Mevlut finds himself enraptured by her or more accurately his imagined ideal of her. When asked if he would recognise her again, he answers humorously: “Not from afar. But I would recognize her eyes immediately. Everyone knows how pretty she is anyway.” Mevlut engages in a determined letter writing campaign to woo her. After three years he eventually manages to concoct a plan, with the help of his cousin Süleyman, to elope with her so that they can be married. However, he is being deceived and is tricked into marrying her less appealing sister Rayiha. Years after his marriage, he continues to mull over what might have been.
Pamuk’s elaborate love story evokes his own affection for this city which is itself frustrating, impassioned and altogether by chance. Through Samiya and Rahiya, Mevlut demonstrates how an illusion of the life not led can shape our daily lives. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote: “Our lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.” The strangeness in Mevlut’s mind becomes all the more acute as his life goes on.
As was the case in previous works, for example in The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence, the city of Istanbul is more than just a backdrop for plot; rather its evolution is symbiotic to the development of his characters. The novel comes with a family tree, a timeline of historical events and an index as if it were a history textbook charting how the contours of a city’s history dovetail the evolution of a mind. When at one point in the novel it is asked “what makes a city, a city?” the answer comes that: “In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes a city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.”
In Turkey, the book has been criticized by some for not being able to provide a more substantive depiction of the poor and their environment, a lack which attests to the author’s own privileged background, the critics say. However, in a recent interview with The Guardian, responded: “If being a novelist has any moral, political side, it is identifying with people who are not like you. It’s not that we make political statements or show our party cards; it’s seeing the world though the eyes of someone who is different.”
In the current context of the overwhelming forces of change asserting themselves on Istanbul, Pamuk’s nostalgic cartography takes on a more radical force. Turkey, alongside its neighbours, is experiencing the impact of the world’s greatest displacement since World War II, hosting as it does nearly 2.2 million refugees. At the same, Istanbul is today the third-fastest-growing city in the world, with huge investment and entrepreneurialism leading to rapid and visible social and cultural transformation.
Pamuk is thus certainly rehearsing the ground laid out by Ahmet Hami Tanpınar (1901-1962) in the novel A Mind at Peace. There Tanpınar was a witness to the emergence of modern Turkey in 1923, inverting the Bildungsroman to construct an increasingly fragile environment where individual Istanbulite relationships are shown to be vulnerable in the face of adjusting to the fall of the Ottoman empire. Through his novel of more than forty years ranging from 1969 to 2012, Pamuk refers to immense change resulting from military coups, foreign excursions and political assassinations, yet interlaced through the major events of his country are the major events of a life, including growing a first moustache, being mugged, a marriage.
In order to relay this history, Pamuk has tried to strike a middle ground between the perceived division between conservatives and nationalists by cleverly making Mevlut a boza seller. Boza, being neither the potent anise-flavoured raki nor the wholesome salty yoghurt drink ayran, refuses the bipolar debate and goes to the heart of the nuances of Turkish society that are typically overlooked. Mevlut describes the two types of customers who purchase his boza and in doing so helps ridicule their extremism:
1. Conservative customers who wanted to drink boza and also wanted to believe that they were not committing a sin. The clever ones knew that there was alcohol in boza, but acted as if the mixture Mevlut sold was a special invention, like sugar-free Coke, and if there was alcohol in it, then Mevlut was a liar, and the sin was is.
2. Secular, Westernized customers who wanted to drink boza and also wanted to enlighten the country bumpkin who sold it to them. The clever ones understood that Mevlut knew there was alcohol in boza, but they wanted to shame the cunning religious peasant who lied to them just to make more money.
The novel opens with a quote from Celâl Salik, Pamuk’s own fictional journalist from The Black Book, that “the gulf between the private and the public views of our countrymen is evidence of the power of the state”. Pamuk is insisting that Mevlut’s sincerity can breach the walls between the public and the private to allow traditional practices and moderate politics to coincide. Boza seems to embody a moderate ground where tradition and respect for others can coincide publicly. Tradition in the public sphere need not be dangerous, in fact it can give solace in the midst of unnerving urban transformation.
As the novel approaches its end, Mevlut comes to learn what is of genuine value in life. The call of boza by Mevlut on the street reaches into his neighbours’ homes like as a deeply personal political slogan: “It was so good to hear your voice on the street,” says one customer, “I felt it right inside my heart … Don’t ever think there’s no point trying among all these towers and all this concrete.”
Pamuk is not so much making a call to arms as a call to raise our glasses together.
Joseph Burke is a writer and researcher with a background in philosophy and politics. He has worked across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.