One of Turkey's best known contemporary writers, Nobel-prize winner Orhan Pamuk, is as popular among foreigners as he is looked down upon at home, ostensibly for conveying an Orientalist image of the country that caters to educated Western readers. But that has not stopped him from delving into controversial topics for Turkish readers in books and interviews, like the issue of headscarves in schools and universities, and the military regimes’ oppression of Islamists in novels like “Snow” (2002) and the Armenian genocide in an interview in 2005, for which he was even charged with “insulting Turkishness”.
Unlike “Snow”, which abounds in conflicts and ideology to such an extent that it makes for a hard read, Pamuk's latest book, “A Strangeness in My Mind”, flows more swiftly and marks a return to origins for the writer – to his birthplace of Istanbul and to the style that consecrated him, the meandering family saga. History and politics are ever-present in the novel, which made the short list for the Man Booker International Prize this year, only to lose to Han Kang's “The Vegetarian”.
But history and politics serve merely as the backdrop for the story of protagonist Mevlut, a poor peasant from the Anatolian province of Konya that migrates to Istanbul in 1969, and that of his family. A third-person narrator that occasionally switches points of view with that of some of the main characters follows Mevlut and his relatives for over four decades in a story that temptingly resembles a foundational narrative of modern Istanbul.
That is because Mevlut's story is the story of how Istanbul itself grew from the already large port city of 3mn inhabitants in the 1960s to the metropolis of over 14mn; it is a story of small family businesses, of illegal but tolerated land occupation and construction, of marriage, deaths, tradition, night life, gangs, money problems, and ultimately of people striving to make ends meet as military coups took place, laws were changed, companies were privatised, terrorists staged attacks, and skyscrapers sprung up.
Just like Istanbul's skyline, Mevlut's life also changes over the course of the four decades – his political allegiances go from militant communism in high school to moderate Islamism and to political apathy; he has two marriages, two daughters, and numerous unstable jobs – but the one constant in his live is his need to be on Istanbul's streets at night.
Mevlut begins wandering the streets of Istanbul as a schoolboy, helping his father sell yogurt, and continues to work as a street vendor throughout his life, even when he has a day job. After a failed experiment selling rice and chickpeas from one of the many street carts in the city full-time, he settles on selling boza, a fermented wheat drink that is served with cinnamon or roasted chickpeas, at night.
Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist realises that walking down the streets of the city at night is the only thing that quells the feeling of strangeness in his mind, because “walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head”. That is also when he realises that he had stopped distinguishing between what he saw on the streets and the things he imagined as he was walking, or perhaps that he never had. That the creatures of the night he so often feared as he walked by cemeteries and the dogs that mortified him were perhaps all figments of his imagination.
The strangeness in his mind first appears when young Mevlut realizes that he'd eloped with the wrong girl. That, after writing love letters for three years to a girl he had fallen in love with at a wedding, he had been tricked into eloping with her sister. But Mevlut does not do – or say – anything about the confusion, instead accepting that the mistake was his fate, or kismet in Turkish, and growing to love his wife regardless.
Kismet is only one of the tropes of Turkishness that are conjured up repeatedly in the novel. Others are the difference between the intention of the heart and that of the words, which Mevlut’s spiritual mentor brings up to criticise him for not praying and which haunts him afterwards; nostalgia for the past; the tension between tradition and modernity when it comes to family values, arranged marriage, women's education, abortion, sex, alcohol and modest dressing; the constantly changing landscape of Istanbul; the continuous flow of poor people from rural areas, who replace the formerly poor; and the duality between private and public life, and between private and public opinions.
The latter confuses Mevlut to such an extent, that he can no longer differentiate between what he feels and what he tells others. Street vendor Mevlut is a principled man who only lies to protect others’ feelings, but in his later years he has a hard time establishing what his “private opinion”, or his truth, actually is. After his wife passes away in a botched abortion, he marries the sister that he'd originally fallen in love with, only to realise that he had loved his late wife all along. Boza, the drink Mevlut sells on cold winter nights, perhaps best exemplifies the duality between private and public truths: while the street vendor and his customers know that it contains traces of alcohol, the consensus is to deny the alcoholic content of the Ottoman-era drink because it would clash with Islamic law and tradition. Even when his closest friends force him to acknowledge that boza contains alcohol, he refuses to admit to the fact.
While perception plays a central role in the 600-page novel, which is replete with descriptive passages of the ever-changing streets of Istanbul, the issue of representation appears more frequently in criticism of “A Strangeness in My Mind”. After all, how can an upper-middle class Orhan Pamuk, who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood of Nisantasi, purport to represent the lives of slum dwellers and street vendors?
To which Pamuk himself would perhaps reply, as he has in an interview with Alexander Star, that while the problem of representing the poor is morally dubious, even in literature "my little contribution, if there is any... is to turn it around a bit and make the problem of representation a part of the fiction too”.
“A Strangeness in My Mind”, by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Ekin Oklap) is published by Penguin Random House (2015).