I will never forget my first introduction to Orhan Pamuk. It was early September, 2001 and My Name is Red had just been released in the U.S. I was about half to two-thirds of the way through it on September 11th. If ever there were a book for its time, it was that one. While the book’s events took place hundreds of years ago, the conflict between tradition and modernity was the same conflict that brought us to that awful day. Unable to bear watching the images on constant repeat on the news, I tuned out the news and retreated to 1591 where the same forces of Islamic fundamentalist tradition waged violent resistance to creeping Westernization. It was not comforting, but it helped frame my understanding of that conflict that 9/11 brought to our doorsteps.
So when Pamuk, who has since won a most deserved Nobel Prize for Literature, releases a new novel I am always eager to read it. In A Strangeness in My Mind, as in his other novels, he returns to his constant theme of Turkey’s duality and its conflicts. He often says Turkey exists in two places at once—both European and Asian, modern and traditional, Western and Islamic, secular and religious. This time, his story revolved around the life of Mevlut Karatas, though it is much more than that as the very long official title declares: A Strangeness in My Mind : being the adventures and dreams of Mevlut Karataş, a seller of boza, and of his friends, and also a portrait of life in Istanbul between 1969 and 2012 from many different points of view.
“I told him just so he wouldn’t be fooled by the bright lights of Istanbul into thinking that life was somehow easy.”
When he was twelve Mevlut left his mother and sisters in the Anatolian village where he was born and went to Istanbul to join his father, who like many in the impoverished village spent most of the year in the city to make money to support his family. Mevlut and his father Mustafa made their living selling yogurt and boza. Mevlut also attended high school and his dad hoped he would have a bright future.
Boza is a constant throughout this book and seems a metaphor for Mevlut himself. It is a traditional fermented wheat beverage flavored with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas. Clearly, as a fermented drink it contains alcohol but the alcohol content is so low that even the strictest Muslims drink it. It is steeped in tradition, but allows people to flout the prohibition of alcohol. It is a fine balance. For Mevlut, boza is holy. He finds peace in the streets as he walks through the night, calling mournfully, “Booo Zaaaa.”
“What I told you earlier were my public views. What I’m telling you now are my private views.”
Mevlut falls in love with a young girl at a family wedding celebration. He saw her for a moment, the younger sister of his cousin’s new bride. He did not even know her name, but his other cousin Suleyman, gives him her name and even helps him through three years of secret-letter writing to court her while she matures and he does his military service. He even helps arrange their elopement. But, Suleyman has motives of his own and when Mevlut first sees his soon-to-be bride as they elope, he discovers that he has been writing to and is now eloping with the wrong sister.
But on that night, Mevlut says nothing and he find real happiness and joy, falling deeply in love with her. He never tells her he was tricked and she would have never known, except, years later, feeling peevish and cruel, Suleyman tells her that she was not the one Mevluk thought he was writing to, dropping the cruel virus of doubt into their happy marriage. For Mevluk, though, Rayiha is his true love and the only impediment to perfect happiness is the poverty and daily struggle to get ahead. Life was never easy for street vendors, but urbanization and gentrification are making it harder and harder. Streets become harder to pass, freeways and bollards block his cart. People begin to turn up their noses at street food. Yogurt is sold in packages at the grocery store, no longer home delivered. All the marketing that focuses on hygiene, making people chary of street vendors. He tries rice and chickpeas, ice cream but always, the solid, dependable staple is boza.
The strangeness in Mevlut’s mind is melancholy. To make that perfectly clear, Pamuk has this epigraph:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
a strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”…William Wordsworth
It is somewhat odd to think of Mevlut as melancholy because he was a man made for happiness with an uncanny ability to be satisfied and pleased with his life. For him, his family were really all he needed to be happy, his family and the ability to support them. He was an agreeable man, some took his happy nature for innocence and naivety, but he was no holy fool. He perceived the shallow venality in others, he just did not let it bother him over much.
Mevluk is kind of like Turkey – a man in between. His family is conservative rightists, his best friend is a communist, he has a great admiration and fealty to a famed Islamist. He likes them all, he refuses to give any of them up for love of the other. He does not make a choice, he just goes about his business of making a life.
“There was something pretentious about politics when it was taken to extremes.”
One of the pleasures of A Strangeness in My Mind is Pamuk’s gentle humor, the way he loves to interject opinions, contrasting narratives and self-justifications from other characters from time to time. I imagine him writing the narrative of Mevluk’s life and this or that character, not liking the way readers might perceive him or her, jumping out of the page, grabbing the pen and clearing up a few things.
“In a city you can be alone in a crowd,and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes”
While this is the story of one man, Mevluk the boza seller, it is also the story of generations of several families, the story of Istanbul thoughout coups, upheavals, earthquakes, urbanization and westernization. It is massive, nearly 600 pages long. It is, however, easy to read, filled with humor and love. It will make you laugh and cry as Mevlut and his family struggle through all these changes, as Mevlut struggles to bring his public and private opinion together, to get the intentions of his heart and the intentions of his words to be the same, to find KISMET.
I loved A Strangeness in My Mind. Like everything Pamuk writes, the language is beautiful, with poetic lyricism joined with simple storytelling and gentle, kind humor. While his observations are sharp and his ability to find hypocrisy and corruption is endless, Pamuk always brings compassion and empathy to every character.