Orhan Pamuk begins "A Strangeness in My Mind" with an elopement gone wrong.
Mevlut, a street vendor born in 1957 and living in Istanbul since boyhood, returns to his native Anatolia to claim his beloved, 17-year-old Rayiha. Mevlut has glimpsed her just once, wearing a headscarf, at a wedding. Since then, he's written her hundreds of love letters, praising the beauty of her eyes.
Except that it hadn't been Rayiha's eyes he'd seen.
After making his getaway with his intended during a pitch-dark night, Mevlut realizes that his bride-to-be — while indeed named Rayiha — is an older, homelier sister of the young beauty who'd actually slain him. An honorable man, Mevlut nevertheless makes his peace with his mistake, marrying Rayiha and determined to reconcile all he feels inside with the surprisingly different external reality he's encountered.
Mevlut's sense of disconnect between self and world — and his lifelong efforts to harmonize the two — sound a recurring theme in Pamuk's writing and dominate this novel, in which a long, early section retraces the years culminating in the climactic elopement, followed by a portrait of Mevlut and Rayiha's marriage, the years after Rayiha's premature death in 1995 and a double coda concluding in 2012.
Deploying his trademark doubling, Pamuk also unpacks the stories of Mevlut's Anatolian cousins, who'd similarly come to Istanbul and who grow increasingly rich.
For all his dreaming, Mevlut himself remains poor, working a series of odd jobs while watching his initial vocation — as a street vendor selling yogurt and boza, a traditional Turkish drink — disappear. It's done in by prepackaged versions of both products and a similarly plasticized Istanbul, in which "every corner of the city looked identical, with overhead pedestrian crossings" undercutting the sort of lively street scene within which vendors once thrived.
Mevlut nevertheless persists in walking those streets, continuing to sell boza at night after working elsewhere during the day. That enables Pamuk's haunting nocturnes, commemorating the vanishing nooks and crannies within Istanbul and its many cultures. Such melancholic passages brood over time's ruins with the same loving remembrance of things past one sees on display in Pamuk's autobiographical "Istanbul" (2005).
"Walking fueled his imagination and reminded him that there was another realm within our world, hidden away," the narrator writes, describing the allure of Mevlut's nightly forays selling boza — a metaphor for Mevlut's own transactions, between rural past and urban present and between isolated self and outside world.
This and many similar passages recall Wordsworth, that champion walker from whose greatest poem Pamuk takes this novel's title, in a portion of "The Prelude" recalling the poet's alienation from his deadening university surroundings.
Wordsworth's poet opts to light out for the countryside, thereby "returning" his estranged mind to itself in a dialogic exchange with nature, which shapes and is in turn shaped by his imagination. A similar dynamic is at work here, with Mevlut — for all his differences from Pamuk in terms of background and class — functioning as the novelist's surrogate.
Pamuk once described the novelist as an outsider and voyeur, using his imagination to reshape reality. Mevlut uses his imagination to revise the past and make peace with the present, creating the world we read through this book. It's an impressive performance, albeit as understated as Mevlut — and therefore as readily underestimated as he is by most of his Istanbul customers.
None of this novel's characters are as alive as Mevlut himself — even though many speak in the first person, to us as well as each other, in a muted echo of the dazzling polyphony in Pamuk's masterpiece, "My Name is Red" (2001). And the plot these characters inhabit often feels capricious and arbitrary.
But this is Mevlut's story, not theirs. And at his best, this humble boza seller and his transfiguring imagination underscore why we're drawn to the Nobel-winning double who has imagined him.
Mike Fischer for the Journal Sentinel.