light gazing, ışığa bakmak

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

a strangeness (12)

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Once again, the main character of Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk's latest novel, "A Strangeness in My Mind," is Istanbul. The ancient city, the most populous in Turkey, stretches over the Bosphorus Strait, between two seas. The name means "to the city" in Greek.

"To the city" is where many rural Turks went, including Mevlut Karatas, the center of Pamuk's novel, which follows Karatas' life, and the changes in Istanbul, from 1969 to 2012. Mevlut leaves his small village to live in Istanbul with his father in search of schooling and a profession. He arrives, and his impressions are vivid:

The world beyond the train window contained more people, wheat fields, poplars, oxen, bridges, donkeys, houses, mosques, tractors, signs, letters, stars, and transmission towers than Mevlut had seen in his first twelve years of life.

The charming detail in that description is the word "stars," which suggests, despite Mevlut's rural childhood, a vastness beyond comprehension. Pamuk's novel is filled with this sort of rich specificity, creating for readers a world that feels, smells and tastes alive.

Born in Istanbul in 1952, Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. In its explanation of why it awarded the prize to the author, the Nobel committee cited Pamuk's "quest for the melancholic soul of his native city" and his discovery of "new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

This description of his work, which include the heralded "Snow" and "The Black Book," implies a darkness to these novels. But "Strangeness" is light and funny. Pamuk's perspective is generous. He takes a long view of history. The intermingling, and clashes, of cultures and peoples are part of what makes a city great, he suggests.

Mevlut, who sells boza, a Turkish fermented drink, on the city streets, experiences the changes in his city over time. His profession sends him through diverse neighborhoods and into people's homes, which he observes as an outsider. Here's Mevlut, selling to a rowdy crowd in an apartment in Istanbul:

Mevlut went from the kitchen to the living room, feeling poor and out of place. For a moment, everything was still and silent. Everyone at the dining room table was smiling at him, giving him curious looks. It was probably the novelty of seeing a living relic of the past that had now fallen out of fashion. In the past few years, Mevlut had grown used to getting this sort of look.

Pamuk shifts from Mevlut's point of view, peppering the narrative with other voices, bursting in to tell their sides of the story. These interjections happen intermittently throughout the book, giving the narrative a feeling of a story that keeps being interrupted by noisy friends, family and neighbors. These are happy asides, and over time, we begin to know and love these side characters.

In one section, readers are given an official-sounding history of Mevlut's school, the Ataturk Boys' Secondary School, itself a minor character in the book. Then we hear from the schoolmaster, who notes that the school was originally built to serve middle-class professionals. "Sadly," he interjects during the official history, correcting the record, in a way, "over the past ten years the school has been overrun by hordes of Anatolian children, who live in the new neighborhoods that have sprung up illegally on the once-empty hills."

Pamuk is such a skilled writer that he renders the most esoteric, seemingly banal topics fascinating. For example, he spends several pages describing how these illegal neighborhoods appear overnight, thanks to squatters like Mevlut and his father. These paragraphs on the political and regulatory process go down like water, a remarkable feat.

This accumulation of voices and detail, spanning the decades between 1969 and 2012, leave readers with their own "strangeness" in their minds, a sense, however improbable, that they too have lived in Istanbul over this period, and they have friends and family waiting for them there. Few authors are able to transplant places into their readers' minds, a fact noted by Horace Engdahl, Nobel Committee member, in his speech awarding the prize to Pamuk:

Most honored Orhan Pamuk! You have made your native city an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg, Joyce's Dublin or Proust's Paris — a place where readers from all corners of the world can live another life, just as credible as their own, filled by an alien feeling that they immediately recognize as their own.

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Trine Tsouderos  para o Chicago Tribune.

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