A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk has been nominated for this year’s Booker prize, and was written by a Nobel prize winner, yet I had never heard about Pamuk until I picked this up at the bookshop. It shows how anglo-centric my knowledge and interests are, and, if I am typical, how closed we are as a nation to so much of world culture.
A Strangeness in my Mind tells the story of Mevlut, who moves from his village to Istanbul in 1968. The novel ends in this century, with Istanbul changed unrecognisably. It has been argued that A Strangeness in my Mind is really about the city of Istanbul, which is in some ways true, as the city itself is at the heart of the novel. Mevlut settles into an Istanbul slum, and the novel ends with him living in a high rise apartment owned by members of his family, and built on this same piece of land. We witness the changes that lead to this outcome.
But the book is about much more than that. It’s about family, and the loyalties and conflicts that arise between family members; it’s about love, about materialism and about values. The book opens with Mevlut being mugged on a dark city stairway, and goes on to explain how he had been tricked into marrying the ugliest of three sisters. Having glanced into Samiha’s eyes at a family wedding Mevlut writes doting letters to her, describing the beauty of her eyes, using tropes and metaphors drawn from the islamic equivalent of chivalric literature, only to find that the letters are being passed to Rayiha, the wrong sister!! Eventually he arranges to elope with her, and it is only when they are sat on the bus, running away together, that he realises he has been tricked. (We learn this at the beginning of the novel, so no that’s not a spoiler.)
So Mevlut is a strange kind of hero – unambitious and unsuccessful by most people’s standards, and a victim rather than a victor. He sells yoghurt and boza around the streets of Istanbul, being the author’s eyes and ears as he carries his heavy load around the city. Whilst others progress through high school diplomas, or by being sharp business practitioners, and improve their lives, Mevlut continues to sell yoghurt and boza until the end, despite the development of more industrialised methods of production, which means he is competing for business with shops and supermarkets, and of course remains poor. For many he would be a “loser”, yet Mevlut falls in love with Rayiha, the “ugly” sister he eloped with, and they have a happy marriage. He is blessed with two daughters, and meets many people who care for him and value his traditional wares.
The Istanbul we are shown is a chaotic place riven by ethnic, tribal and political divisions in which economic and political power go hand in hand with bribery and corruption. His family see Mevlut is making little progress, so find him a job as an electricity inspector. He becomes involved in scams, ignoring the illegal tapping of electricity when offered a suitable bribe, but Mevlut’s heart is not in this. He is too honest, too naive some might say but in reality he is a beacon of decency and honesty in this den of thieves.
Mevlut epitomises Turkey itself, I suppose, in his moral and spiritual life. His Kurdish friend Ferhat is a communist, and a big influence on Mevlut, but Mevlut is captivated by the Holy Guide, a charismatic islamist he meets on his rounds as a door to door salesman of boza and yoghurt. He prevaricates and wavers between these moral opposites in much the same way as his country, and as time unfolds we see, in the margins of the story, the various coups d’etats and wars that epitomise this divide.
The novel is essentially an enlightenment genre, reflecting both the protestant reformation and the age of reason in its focus on the individual, so it was interesting to see how Pamuk approached the issues of the individual and society in the context of Turkey and its Islamic heritage. There is certainly no holding back on the key issues of sexuality and morality. His adolescence and schooldays are reminiscent of Portnoy’s Complaint, and would be shocking to many.
However, Pamuk tends to show rather than tell, and so avoids direct criticism of either Islam or the Turkish state. The reader sees the weaknesses and foibles of all the different characters, and the absurd patriarchal nature of Turkish society, but these are always shown through the characters. Pamuk doesn’t go on to draw general conclusions.
This is a long book but the narrative voice is clear and simple. It mostly recounts Mevlut’s life but there are regular intrusions from the point of view of other characters, explaining their reactions to events. There is a diverse list of characters and events, and it’s an entertaining and uplifting story.