So this is how Mevlut came to understand the truth that a part of him had known all along: walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head. That was why whenever he spoke to the walls, advertisements, shadows, and strange and mysterious shapes he couldn’t see in the night, he always felt as if he were talking to himself.
Orhan Pamuk has always connoted certain writerly traits to me, and I’ve always bunched him in with the likes of Rohinton Mistry, Jane Smiley, and Charles Dickens, the kind of classical realist writer who not only throws the kitchen sink at it but provides you with the size, make and year of the sink, the materials it was constructed from, the children from earlier generations that bathed in it, the type of screws used to attach it to the wall, what the wall is composed of, the size and tenacity of the mice scurrying around under it, and so on.
In other words: he likes detail. And the reason he obsesses so much over such detail is that he wants to contain a world, not just capture one. To capture one might mean allowing for its release, or making inherent concessions as to its elusiveness; Pamuk is a kind of maddened reconstructionist cartographer, desperate not only to map the psychogeographies and forgotten stretches of Istanbul (along with the well-known haunts) but to house everything in a glass box, that he might rest for a while, happy to have preserved his rendition of a nation, before limbering up for another assault on the city from a slightly different perspective. I imagine him in his dotage placing all these boxes out on a vast table and marvelling over them, their accurate intricacy, their diligent faithfulness, like a sated craftsman delighted that the world as he saw it will endure in miniature. Here’s an example of the kind of passage you can expect plenty more of: Pamuk uses such paragraphs as neatly-connecting building blocks, often, ironically, to accommodate a lack of cohesion, an ever-changing and elusive landscape.
The yogurt did not seem so heavy at first, because his father had taken some of his load, but as they advanced on the dirt road linking Kültepe to the city, Mevlut realized that a yogurt seller was essentially a porter. They would walk for half an hour along the dusty way full of trucks, horse carts, and buses. When they reached the paved road, he would concentrate on reading billboards, the headlines on newspapers displayed in grocery stores, and signs affixed to utility poles advertising circumcision services and cram schools. As they advanced farther into the city, they would see old wooden mansions that hadn’t yet burned down, military barracks dating back to the Ottoman era, dented shared taxis decorated with checkered livery, minivans blowing their musical horns and raising a cloud of dust in their wake, columns of soldiers marching by, kids playing football on the cobblestones, mothers pushing baby carriages, shopwindows teeming with shoes and boots in all colors, and policemen angrily blowing their whistles as they directed the traffic with their oversize white gloves.
We start the book with a half-auspicious escape. Young lad Mevlut has fled for Istanbul; he’s arranged to take the (it turns out, obscured) object of his desire with him. Only, the young girl waiting for him when the moment arrives is not who he has been writing ardently to; it’s her (“ugly”) sister. (“Who played this trick on me?” he asks, not concerning himself with any answer. He’s nothing if not a stoic.) He’s understandably a bit piqued by this, but far less than you might imagine: he marries the wrong girl anyway and eventually has three daughters with her. There’s no suggestion of happy fate here: Mevlut and his inadvertent bride will make the most of it and stake out a new life.
Mevlut has been to Istanbul before with his father, who was a street vendor selling primarily a sweet, low-alcohol beverage called ‘Boza’ (“a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat, with a thick consistency, a pleasant aroma, a dark, yellowish colour, and low alcohol content”: yum!). Mevlut follows the paternal line of employment and daily trudges his way across Istanbul with large jugs of the stuff hung either end of a shouldered plank. He also carries a certain amount of history around with him, and is seen more and more as a pleasing anomaly as he absorbs every evolution of the city, a walking cultural artefact, as the story unfolds, as the population more than quadruples, and as a city is slowly constructed before his eyes.
Towards the end, Mevlut has become a defiant figure, not quite obsolete but increasingly marginal, and he is conferred an unlikely grace and integrity by older civillians (and by Pamuk’s feral emissaries of Istanbul: dogs that once snarled and yapped at Mevlut latterly silently defer as he passes). He becomes an admirable, almost mythological figure. If character is fate, Mevlut could’ve presumably ended up happy anywhere, doing anything, under any conditions, so determined is he to make a virtue out of a back-breaking life and the wrong life partner (who he touchingly attests his undying love for at the close of the novel), but is he merely resiliently optimistic or is he truly precisely where he wants to be? Pamuk, with the following, is determined to leave Mevlut content in his own mind, whilst suggesting that contentment is not really the issue; survival, and making the most of life, is.
“Boza seller, how good that you came upstairs,” she said. “It was good to hear your voice from the street. I felt it right inside my heart. It’s a wonderful thing that you’re still selling boza. I’m glad you’re not just saying, ‘Who’d buy it anyway?’ and giving up.”
Mevlut was at the door. He slowed down on his way out.
“I would never say that,” he said. “I sell boza because it’s what I want to do.”
“Don’t ever give up, boza seller. Don’t ever think there’s no point trying among all these towers and all this concrete.”
“I will sell boza until the day the world ends,” said Mevlut.
Both Mevlut and his father would rally any potential boza buyers like rag ‘n’ bone men, bellowing their arrival, and are regularly hollered back at to head up a few flights, are presented with a dangled bucket from a high window, or are beckoned through a doorway. They may then have to perform and are often given custom by those looking to pat themselves on the back by deferring to a long-standing social rite, and the reasons for indulging the boza seller are complex. It might be a way of establishing a kind of superior kinship with the boza vendor; he being a living museum piece, perhaps a novelty for the host of a get-together to pay a fee to for a bit of fun (bought beverage quickly ignored and left teeming in a pot on the sideboard). But the transaction is always tinged with a little unease, a strange ambivalence and the sense that to invite a boza seller onto your premises is the fulfilment of a kind of sacred act, never merely a trifling bit of amusement, as though the boza seller were the roaming manifestation of some ancient aspect of a nation.
Mevlut is of symbolic value to his fellow countrymen, just as he is an authorial symbol with which Pamuk can wend his way through his beloved city. Pamuk has chosen a means of occupying every square inch of Istanbul, and the reasoning is entirely a matter of narrative execution. Mevlut is basically a bystander, as Pamuk is an impassioned, respectful observer. Mevlut is awed by Istanbul, as Pamuk is. There is no real anger or drive — Mevlut and Pamuk are too enamoured of the world the former inhabits and the latter deferentially reconstructs. The conflation of protagonist and author is unavoidable. Mevlut doesn’t seem especially interested in the whys and wherefores of the erosions and mulchings of upheaval that happen; he is more than happy enough to be mesmerised by them. This explains both why the book slips down so easily — there is no philosophical or political traction to the story, which remains largely subservient to the exigencies of narrative propulsion — and why it feels so ultimately insubstantial. Pamuk does not want to tread uncarefully, unlike his hero, who is in the end only mildly heroic as the caricatured doughty spirit of everyman. Pamuk is reluctant to saddle his main character with any roused sense of political curiosity, and deals with the rise of Islamic politics and women’s rights as though keen to move on to less troubling, more timelessly anecdotal issues.
A Strangeness in My Mind is another in a long line of Pamuk books that frets (and you can feel that tension throughout in a way you can’t with, for example, VS Naipaul, who has a more helpfully deft comic touch; it renders prose that might otherwise be seen as grand and emotionally freighted as slightly straining for gravitas and chilly, like nationally-approved “luxury” prose) over big matters via small prisms, pushing huge themes — fate, national identity, the nature of love — through tiny apertures. He doesn’t really tell at all, he shows, but in too tidy a manner for the results to feel like anything but carefully mounted allegories: Pamuk is certainly not one for the smart turn of phrase that encapsulates a nation, or for clever metaphors. For me he’s at his best here, when he lets slip his tight grip on his representation just enough to let a little wonder, a little levity in.
On the way back from Uncle Hasan’s in Duttepe to their own place in Kültepe, Mevlut would see the city lights sparkling from afar, the velvety night, and the neon lamps of Istanbul. Sometimes, as he walked with his little hand in his father’s bigger one, a single star in the starry dark blue sky would catch Mevlut’s eye, and even as his father kept grumbling and muttering to himself, Mevlut imagined that they were walking toward it. Sometimes, you couldn’t see the city at all, but the pale orange-hued lights from the tens of thousands of tiny homes in the surrounding hills made the now-familiar landscape more resplendent than it really was. And sometimes, the lights from the nearby hills would disappear in the mist, and from within the thickening fog, Mevlut would hear the sound of dogs barking.
Pamuk otherwise accumulates authenticity rather than evinces it. There is really no, as there is with Lawrence Durrell, rapturous delirium or an acceptance of grasping inadequacy in the face of a city always arriving in an unchartable series of subsequent moments. He rolls his sleeves up and presents to you a nation, all its clangor, stenches, inapprehensible surfeit, in the hope that such snowballing of local colour will speak for itself. And to an extent, Pamuk’s replete, discretely forensic presentation of Istanbul goes a long way. It’s evocative, often sensually engaging and convincingly chaotic. But — and this is a personal bugbear — there were times when you wanted Pamuk to curb his industrious rummaging around his city. He stacks the sounds and sights up, imagining them to form an impervious portrait of a city and a nation, but the effect for me was just slightly lacking. He charts so much of the nitty-gritty — the perilous intricacies of land ownership, the societal inter-relationships — and not enough of the psychology, the awe, the acceptance of the ineffable. Instead of the latter, we get very broad surface intimations and regular testimonies from the protagonists and minor players, as though Pamuk knows what’s missing but, rather than threading multiple complex mindsets through the sprawl, he lets representative candidates have their say and be done with it. It’s as though Pamuk does not really want to interfere, so in awe is he of his panoramic take on his fusing of microcosms and macrocosms, but a little more interference, a little more strangeness, would’ve gone a long way.