evlut is 12 when he arrives in Istanbul. It is the summer of 1969, and he has left his mother and sisters back home in the Anatolian village to join his father, Mustafa, selling yogurt and boza on the city’s maze of streets. They walk for hours, his father with a wooden yoke across his shoulders, two heavy trays suspended from each end, calling out their wares. Their voices carry through open windows, and housewives invite them into their kitchens, or lower a wicker basket on a rope through a window.
Within a few years, people have begun to buy yogurt from their grocer, but the market for boza remains good enough for Mustafa and Mevlut. Even then, the traditional low-alcohol drink made from fermented wheat has mainly nostalgic value: many of their customers buy into the ritual of the thick, soupy liquid poured into a glass, sprinkled with cinnamon and a few roasted chickpeas on top, rather than its sometimes sweet, sometimes sour (acquired) taste.
But boza is more than a business for Mevlut: it is a way of life and a vocation, his one constant through years of unprecedented change and transformation. Mevlut sells boza when he is a schoolboy and a newly-wed, when he is a young father and, later, a widower.
Meanwhile, Istanbul grows into a city of 10 million, with skyscrapers and shopping malls, and women who don’t wear headscarves. Come what may, once evening falls, Mevlut shoulders his load of boza and sets off on his meditative forays through the back streets, because “walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head”.
A Strangeness in My Mind is Orhan Pamuk’s ninth novel, a family saga that is as much an elegy to Istanbul as to its generations of adopted residents. Pamuk, who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, has written about his hometown before, of course, but Mevlut’s Istanbul is a very different place to the world of bourgeois intellectuals, Western aspirations and faded wealth portrayed in Pamuk’s autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the City (2009). Yet both are infused with the same distinctive melancholy, a sense of the inexorable march of time and a remembrance of things lost.
When they first arrive from the village, Mevlut and his father share a one-room gecekondu, or slum house, with a bare-earth floor and a hole-in-the-ground loo. Forty years later, Mevlut happily moves back into that same gecekondu with his second wife. In the intervening years, his uncle – his father’s brother – and his cousins have become property developers, men of power and wealth. Yet it is Mevlut, the naive boza seller, who seems to have worked out the secret to the good life, by keeping his aspirations modest and his feelings sincere.
Pamuk begins the story in 1982, when Mevlut elopes with Rayiha, the middle daughter of another yogurt seller from Anatolia. That Mevlut had fallen for the youngest daughter is something he realises only when it is too late, and he and Rayiha are already in transit to Istanbul. But Mevlut responds with characteristic quiet acceptance of his fate, and is rewarded for his doggedness with years of conjugal bliss.
Pamuk then spools back to Mevlut’s arrival in Istanbul and follows the chronology of his brief education, flirtation with political activism, his years as an army conscript, and his decades as a humble employee in the catering industry. The novel’s coverage is encyclopedic and exhaustive, and – at times – exhausting to read, on account of the dense accretion of details. There is a doggedness to the style, too, which shows no desire to dazzle, but is as workaday as the novel’s characters.
Those characters take turns to speak directly to the reader, but unlike most polyphonic novels, there is little postmodern playfulness in this approach, and only on occasion do the different narratives tell differing stories. Whether it’s Mevlut, his father, his wife or his daughters speaking, it’s one voice we hear, full of wonder at a city that has become home to them all.
Elena Seymenliyska for the Telegraph.
light gazing, ışığa bakmak