A Strangeness in my Mind, Orhan Pamuk, Penguin
Orhan Pamuk’s latest is a large, overstuffed novel, bursting at the seams with history and characters. As in My Name is Red, various characters contribute to the narration, leading to a sense that truth in this novel is somewhat relative, as well as giving the impression of the characters being part of a family and a community. The story follows Mevlut, a street vendor who has moved from the countryside into Istanbul. He sells yoghurt and boza, a fermented drink that is slightly alcoholic but that Muslim residents pretend does not contain alcohol. As Mevlut ages street vendors become more and more a novelty in Istanbul’s streets – a reminder of a more traditional lifestyle giving way to more Western values. Pamuk returns to the theme of Istanbul’s identity as a mixture of cultures, unsure of where it belongs. As in his other books, Istanbul is really the main character, and the strength of his writing, and here Pamuk documents the hillsides filling with apartment blocks (which are likened in a telling metaphor to gravestones), the scramble for wealth and the decline of tradition and religion in favour of aspiration and a more consumerist Western approach.
Mevlut stands as both an everyman figure, representative of the Istanbul residents who have moved from the more traditional villages, and something of an outsider, the title referring to his sense of standing askew from many of his fellow residents, and his finding it hard to distinguish at times between dreams and reality. And rather than pursue money, he is happy to drift and fall back on the traditional art of street selling, which in changing Istanbul makes him an anomaly.
The book is also a chronicle of Mevlut’s romances. He marries a girl to whom he has been writing letters, and this provides some of the comic element in the book – Mevlut engages the help of his friends to write his love letters and it takes them two weeks to agree on what the first two lines of Mevlut’s first letter should contain. When Mevlut and his bride-to-be finally elope, escaping her village at night, Mevlut discovers he was writing to the sister instead. As well as providing some of the narrative drive, this mix-up (which Mevlut, typically, resigns himself to) is paralleled by the way Istanbul is not quite what many of its residents hope it to be.