Istanbul diaries

Istanbul diaries

Lead review

Istanbul diaries
A Turkish word for melancholy is huzun, and Orhan Pamuk’s writing soaks in it. Certain jazz musicians excepted, few artists conjure sweet sadness as unremittingly. Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, sought to tap into “the huzun of an entire city” in his nonfiction book Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005). His sprawling new novel is after something similar.

A Strangeness in My Mind, Pamuk’s first novel since The Museum of Innocence (2009), is a minor-key epic about life in Istanbul over the past half-century. It floats on a cushion of huzun, the way an air-hockey puck hovers above the game table.

The first thing to know about A Strangeness in My Mind is that it ranks with A Confederacy of Dunces as a major street-food vendor novel. Its primary character is Mevlut Karatas, who walks Istanbul’s neighbourhoods at night calling out: “Booo-zaaaaa. Goooood boozaaaaa.”

Boza is an ancient fermented beverage, made in Turkey from wheat. It’s yellowish and thick and often topped with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas. Boza has a low alcohol content — so low that, as one character comments, it is “just something someone invented so Muslims could drink alcohol.” Boza sellers, Pamuk notes, have mostly disappeared from Istanbul. By the 1960s and ‘70s, Mevlut is among the last of a breed. His call is ripe with huzun. One customer says, “You have a lovely voice, like a muezzin.” He replies, “It’s the emotion in the seller’s voice that really sells the boza.”

A Strangeness in My Mind is not merely Mevlut’s story. This novel relates, through multiple voices, each jostling for airtime, the lives of a frazzled and often funny cast of characters. Most are members of Mevlut’s extended family.

They arrive in Istanbul from poor villages in the Central Anatolia region of Turkey. They move into crumbling houses on the city’s outskirts before being raked by modernity into tall and disorienting apartment buildings. From this handful of people, Pamuk evokes the flow of generations of hopeful immigrants into the teeming city.

The primary theme in Pamuk’s work, powerfully evoked in his eerily fine novel Snow (2004), is mental dislocation — life lived between the competing attractions of Western and Eastern values, between secular doubt and religious conviction.

That’s true here, too. Mevlut is pulled, at trying moments, toward a deeper engagement with Islam. But A Strangeness in My Mind wears this topic lightly. The book is a hymn to life’s physical and mental chaos, not to the harmonies faith would impose.

A lot happens in A Strangeness in My Mind. There are timely births and untimely deaths, feuds and frauds, heartaches by the number. At its centre is an unconventional love story.

Mevlut is hoodwinked into eloping with the wrong girl, the less attractive older sister of a woman he admired. Theirs becomes a blissful marriage anyway, although they never quite make it out of poverty. There are many things to praise in A Strangeness in My Mind, which I’ll get to in a moment. What first needs to be said about this amiable novel is that, like boza, it doesn’t have much alcohol. At nearly 600 pages, it has the stretch of an epic but not the impact of one. Like boza, it leaves a bit of film on your lip.

Melancholy is a hard emotion to sustain; over the long run, it cloys. Reading this novel, I was reminded of a passage in Elif Batuman’s lovely nonfiction book, The Possessed. Batuman, an American writer born to Turkish parents, described how few people in Turkey read novels, and how the melancholy Pamuk seemed somewhat miserable writing his.

I was not deeply, viscerally bored by A Strangeness in My Mind. But I mostly turned its pages with polite interest rather than real desire. This novel hits its low points in its too frequent nods toward its title, to the strangeness in Mevlut’s mind. This “strangeness” is not so strange; it comes to seem like little more than a variation on the author’s own brand of huzun.

Pamuk remains an estimable writer. One of his great gifts is for blending what is clearly a large amount of research, on many topics, into alert, humane, nonwonky prose. One example can stand in for many: his writing about street vendors.

He evokes “the golden years of Ottoman-style street food.” He expounds on many dishes, from stuffed mussels and lamb’s head to pan-fried liver. We learn the history of these food sellers. We witness them coping with onerous regulations, fickle customers, mean dogs.

Pamuk is a subtle writer on about social class. Once dishes like chicken with chickpeas and rice, eaten outside with plastic cutlery by office workers, begin to be seen as poor people’s food, sales shrivel.

Mevlut is among these sellers. At night, he peddles boza. During the day, he sells whatever he can. His wife, who helps prepare the food he hawks, describes herself as “the head chef of a three-wheeled restaurant.”

The humour in this novel, which has been lucidly translated by Ekin Oklap, flows freely. The narrators interrupt and contradict one another as if they were talking heads in an early Spike Lee movie.

One woman notes the upside of dirt floors: “It took a month before I realised that the more I swept the floor, the higher the ceiling got.” Mevlut, who loves movies, comments on the downside of American and European ones: “You never quite knew who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.”

Yet A Strangeness in My Mind lacks the visceral and cerebral impact of Pamuk’s best novels, notably Snow and My Name Is Red (2001). For all its melancholy, it verges on being cute. You can say about it what one character says of Mevlut: “He’s a bit of a weirdo, but he’s got a heart of gold.”

A Strangeness in My Mind
Orhan Pamuk
Translated by
Ekin Oklap
2015, pp 624, Rs 350

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