Orhan Pamuk is becoming that rare author who writes his best books after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whereas many writers, such as Alice Munro and VS Naipaul, received the top honour near the ends of their careers, Pamuk was only 54 when, in 2006, he became Turkey’s first Nobel Laureate. That left him plenty of time to add to his achievements, and his subsequent output, which includes his epic novel The Museum of Innocence (2008), is warmer, funnier and more beautiful than the works that preceded it.
And yet I still know a surprising number of readers who find Pamuk’s writing dense and emotionally cold. I read him for the first time on a visit to Istanbul and admit that, at first, I was more enchanted by the city than by the prose. I’m glad I persevered, though, because Pamuk reminds me that the truly rewarding writers aren’t necessarily the ones we like immediately. When I learned three years ago that Pamuk was writing a long novel about 40 years of history, witnessed through the eyes of an Istanbul street vendor, the prospect sounded as delicious as a glass of Turkish tea. Now I’m pleased to report that the results are magnificent. If you haven’t enjoyed Pamuk’s books in the past then A Strangeness in My Mind might well be the one that wins you over.
Like James Joyce, Pamuk holds a looking-glass up to his city. Set between 1969 and 2012, his new novel describes the dizzying period when Istanbul’s population increased from three to 13 million. Weaving his way through this mutating landscape, where old meets new and east meets west, is Mevlut Karata, who, aged 12, migrates with his father from rural Anatolia. Mevlut sells yogurt, rice and boza (“a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat, with a thick consistency, a pleasant aroma, a dark, yellowish colour, and low alcohol content”). He wanders “the poor and neglected cobblestone streets on winter evenings crying ‘Boo-zaa,’ reminding us of centuries past, the good old days that have come and gone.” At his cousin Korkut’s wedding, Mevlut is transfixed by the bride’s sister. Korkut’s brother, Süleyman, tells Mevlut that the girl’s name is Rayiha so, for three years, Mevlut sends her unintentionally amusing love letters (he addresses one to “Languid Eyes”). Rayiha agrees to elope to Istanbul but Süleyman has duped Mevlut: Rayiha is actually the older sister of Languid Eyes, whose real name is Samiha. Süleyman’s desire to marry Samiha himself is an intriguing subplot in the sprawling story that Pamuk tells, and Ekin Oklap translates, with panache.
Against the odds, Mevlut and Rayiha develop a loving bond and have two daughters, Fatma and Fevziye. Selling boza won’t provide for the family but, even while Mevlut works second jobs, their home glows with affection. “Isn’t it incredible?” says Mevlut when his babies cry. “They’re so little but they’re already scared of loneliness.” He feels “admitted to paradise by accident”, in part because his letters weren’t intended for Rayiha. Which sister does Mevlut really love? At the same time as posing philosophical questions about the importance of intentions over outcomes, Pamuk celebrates marriage, parenthood and even quarrelsome extended family.
This is a joyous novel but it features tragedies. Whether they elope or enter arranged marriages, female characters are expected to obey their husbands. For millions of women throughout history, we’re reminded, marriage has involved being sold and bought. “We are not for sale,” Rayiha tells her father before her sister, Vediha, unleashes her soliloquy (Pamuk alternates between narrating Mevlut’s story in the third person and other characters’ first person perspectives), concerning what Chaucer called “woe that is in marriage” and her hypocritical male relatives: “After all their pronouncements on God, the nation, and morality, is it right that all they should ever think about is how they can make more money?”
As the only male character of his generation not to get rich during the era of Turkey’s modernisation, is Mevlut a failure? No, he’s fulfilled by relationships, work and attachment to his city. While political and religious conflicts thunder in the background, he savours everyday details that reveal the profound effects of time.
“Istanbul nights are infinite,” says a character in another Pamuk novel and Mevlut would concur. Elsewhere, Pamuk has described how “hüzün”, the Turkish word for melancholy, saturates Istanbul. Is this the strangeness in Mevlut’s mind? The title comes from Wordsworth and Mevlut, a true romantic, senses that “the streets on which he sold boza in the night and the universe in his mind were one and the same.”
Prepare to fall in love with this everyman, this vendor of street-level history whose cry echoes down the years: “Boo-zaa.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies