Book review: Orhan Pamuk writes another love letter to Istanbul in all its decaying glory
The Nobel Laureate's latest novel considers the mysteries of love and fate as it wends its way through the labyrinthine city
The invention of Turkey in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his fellow officers entailed an imaginative severing from its Ottoman roots. The new nation presented itself in opposition to the Ottoman past in policies, dress, writing, manners and speech. The literature that grew from this was decidedly modern, inspired by 19th-century and early 20th-century European writing, especially French. Baudelaire, Balzac and Zola were in the libraries of most young Turks.
Though several of Orhan Pamuk's novels stubbornly hark back to that condemned past ( The White Castle, My Name is Red) or look at contemporary tragedies with a borderless eye ( Snow), the principal character of much of his most important fiction is the city of Istanbul itself, where Pamuk was born in 1952. Cevdet Bey and His Sons (his first novel) and later work The Black Book tell the story of Istanbul through the lives of affluent Westernised characters. Now, in A Strangeness in My Mind, Pamuk has taken up the same story but this time through the eyes of a street vendor, Mevlut, who trades in yogurt, rice and peas, and boza, the emblematic Turkish drink of fermented wheat.
The reader follows Mevlut through the sprawling plot, which winds its way in and out of the poorer neighbourhoods and the ancient alleys and passages of Istanbul. Though at times it reads as a cross between a history manual and private memoir, A Strangeness in My Mind is above all a love letter to the city in all its faded, messy, dusty glory.
Constructed as a cantata for many voices, the novel allows each character to tell his or her portion of Mevlut's unfolding story. Born in a poor village in the province of Konya, around 1,100km southeast of Istanbul, in 1957, Mevlut leaves his home 12 years later and follows his father to Istanbul. There begins a succession of failed attempts at schooling, small businesses, political engagements. On a visit to the house of acquaintances, Mevlut falls in love with a 13-year-old girl. Over three long years, he writes her love letters, which he entrusts to her brother, saying he wants to marry her. At last, the brother arranges an elopement. All is set for the couple to flee, but, just before boarding the train, Mevlut discovers that the girl the brother has brought with him is not the one Mevlut had fallen in love with, but her older sister.
Mevlut says nothing, accepts his fate and attempts to understand the new love that is born from the trickery. His attitude is not one of resignation, but of gratitude for unexpected gifts. Mevlut's life is one of ongoing generous recognition and marvelling acceptance of such revelations.
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk (Faber & Faber)