After the second of our stopovers in France, the penultimate leg of our Man Booker International Prize journey takes us to Turkey, where we’ll take a trip into the past. Our guide is an affable fellow, a man who knows the streets of Istanbul like the back of his hand, and he’s happy to take us all around the Turkish capital and show us the progress its made over the past few decades. We’ll have to be patient, though – he just has a few more deliveries to make. A drink while we wait?
A Strangeness in my Mind, by Orhan Pamuk –
Hamish Hamilton, translated by Ekin Oklap
What’s it all about?
Pamuk’s latest novel is an epic affair, a story following the life of Mevlut, a man who came to Istanbul as a young boy and never left. Like his father before him, Mevlut makes his living primarily from the sale of boza, and for those of us who have never heard of it before, the writer is kind enough to enlighten us near the start of the book:
Before we go any further, and to make sure that our story is properly understood, perhaps I should explain for foreign readers who’ve never heard of it before, and for future generations of Turkish readers who will, I fear, forget all about it within the next twenty to thirty years, that boza is a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat, with a thick consistency, a pleasant aroma, a dark yellowish color, and a low alcohol content.
pp.18/9 (Hamish Hamilton, 2015)
While Mevlut enjoys his meandering routes through the city every evening, selling boza is never going to be a route to financial success, but while his cousins are able to thrive in the confusing, corrupt big city, our friend goes from one job to another, never able to make a go of his various endeavours.
His love life, on the other hand, is far more successful than most people’s. Having written for years to a young woman whose eyes captivated him at a wedding, he manages to elope with her, only to find that Rayiha, the recipient of his poetic love letters, is not the woman he thought, but the elder sister. What could have been a disaster, though, grows into a beautiful love as Rayiha and Mevlut become an inseparable pair, a couple supporting each other in the great adventure of making a life in Istanbul…
A Strangeness in my Mind stretches over around fifty years, allowing us to see Melvut develop from a well-behaved, ambitious schoolboy into a hard-working family man. Surrounded by hypocrites, thieves and liars, he stands out as a decent man and a loving husband. While he’s not as religious as he would like to be, he always tries to do his best, attending prayers when possible and avoiding the drinking and womanising that plague some of the outwardly more devout characters.
As much as the novel is about Mevlut, however, it is just as much about the city, almost six-hundred pages on Istanbul’s development from a sizeable city to a thriving metropolis. Quite apart from the societal changes featuring successive waves of rural migrants creating shanty towns on the hills surrounding the city proper, Pamuk sketches out the way the city (and the country) becomes, on the one hand, more outwardly religious, while also falling prey to turmoil, with gang wars and drugs taking over some of the old streets. After half a century of organic growth, the contrast between ramshackle one-room houses and the towering blocks of flats which replace them is telling, as the three-million-strong population of Mevlut’s youth explodes to thirteen million.
This era of change helps to explain Melvut’s almost-visceral need to walk the streets of the city. As a boza seller in the heart of the old town, he’s a living link to the past, and in the same way, following the routine helps him to feel a part of Istanbul, even if some consider him a relic. It’s on these nocturnal walks through the city that we see the importance of the title, with Melvut feeling that by walking the streets he’s actually looking inside his mind, helping him to find the strength to carry on his exhausting life.
A Strangeness in My Mind could also be seen as a love story, with the relationship between Mevlut and Rahiya pivotal to the story, particularly when contrasted with the less successful marriages of those around them. In the end, the ‘mistake’ with the letters, a clever plot hatched by his cousin Süleyman, backfires, and the main reason for this is Mevlut’s ability to make his a marriage of equals within the constraints of the culture, something which others find far more difficult to achieve:
“I made a mistake, I kept showing off, I didn’t try to be friends with her,” said Süleyman. “But she has a sharp tongue on her. It’s hard talking to girls; no one ever taught us to do it properly. I just talked to her as I would talk to a man, only without swearing. It didn’t work.” (p.256)
Life in a traditional Muslim environment has failed to teach many of the men of the novel how to attract, and cope with, a woman they can enjoy married life with, and while he may not have a lot of money, Mevlut’s respectful demeanour gets him a lot further than that of his brash cousin.
If you like the blockbuster novels of Victorian literature and have a passion for stories of faraway places, A Strangeness in My Mind is one for you. It starts very well, with the story of the elopement suddenly abandoned, with the main narrative only catching up two-hundred pages later. While it does sag a little in the middle (some of the family plotting can be rather dull), the final fifty pages or so, bringing a renewed focus on Melvut and his relationship with the city, finish the story off nicely. It’s always a comforting read, with the intrusion of characters into the narrative, commenting on the story (and occasionally bickering…), adding to the fullness of the story.
The real beauty of the novel, though is the picture Pamuk creates of a changing city. When Mevlut walks the streets, filling the baskets of his customers with boza or yoghurt, or is invited to climb the steep stairs to ancient flats where extended families greet him, enchanted to meet a living piece of history, what we’re reading is Pamuk’s extended love letter to Istanbul. Incredibly evocative, these scenes conjure up images of days long gone, the cries of ‘boo-zaa’ ringing in the reader’s ears.
This is only the third of Pamuk’s books I’ve tried, and I doubt it’s his best, but there’s more than enough here to make me want to try one of his others. I suspect it might try the patience of some readers, but those prepared to devote some time to a more extended literary journey will enjoy their time in the Turkish capital 🙂
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I’m afraid not. A Strangeness is my Mind would certainly be in the top six of my list for enjoyment, but there’s not enough here to put it in the running for best in show. A big thank you to the judges for pushing me to read it, but this is the end of Mevlut’s journey 😉
Will it make the shortlist?
No. In a strong year (and with a better Nobel-laureate-written book on the longlist), I really can’t see the judges putting this in their final six.
One last boza, then, and it’s time to move on, returning to the European mainland once more for the final leg of our journey. After the stresses of city life, it’s time to unwind in the mountains, but while the view can be spectacular, life’s not always easy. Watch out for falling snow…