light gazing, ışığa bakmak

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

a strangeness (18)

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The essence of Orhan Pamuk’s writing is interaction: those that one has with one another, and those that one has with a place or a particular sliver of time. Mr Pamuk’s new novel A Strangeness in My Mind is about the life and times of its poor protagonist Mevlut Karatas, who comes from a small village to Istanbul to get an education and work as a street seller. The novel maps his days at the Ataturk Boys’ Secondary School, his infatuation and elopement with a girl he saw but once, his horizontal career trajectory from one low-grade job to another, his disappointments and ambitions, along with an ensemble of characters who surround him.

Through the changes in Mevlut’s life, what remains is the “strangeness” in his mind — a phrase Mr Pamuk borrows from William Wordsworth’s autobiographical The Prelude. This strangeness is never explicitly defined but can be seen as an insignificant street seller’s obsessive ability to introspect about his own life, and place within Istanbul. It is the inarticulate strangeness of grasping the purpose of one’s existence, of youthful idealism that believes in greatness, and eventually expresses itself in content mediocrity.

The novel captures the political landscape of Turkey over four decades, roughly from 1969 onwards. A detailed chronology at the end of the book emphasises the major events of the age. The military coup of 1971, the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the killing of the Alevis in the Maras massacre, among others, simmer vaguely in the background. Political discussions between the characters peek into the psychology of a class that is most impacted by politics and often dissociated from actively participating in it. The characters muse about the godless communists who speak for the poor and the capitalists who envision a different nation. They ruminate over the nature of secularism and the place of religion. However, they are neither radical participants nor ambitious supporters. Mr Pamuk portrays the interest and apathy of people far from the circles of power and influence, who are mere observers of their country.

The earlier translations of Mr Pamuk’s writings by Maureen Freely such as Snow, or The Black Book contain a poetic and languid quality within the prose. Others such as My Name is Red (translated by Erda· Göknar), or The New Life (translated by Güneli Gün) while exceptional, are also complex in their language, style and narration. However this particular translation by Ekin Oklap is simple and prosaic. The novel lacks the intricacies of Mr Pamuk’s earlier writing style, though at no point does that take away from its depth or story. Mr Pamuk’s narrative structure is unique. While the authorial narration is present and takes the reader through the plot, it is the fragmented first person accounts of different characters in the novel that adds perspective. Each, outside of revealing plotlines, is a representative of the diversity and conflict within a Turkish society in transition.

Istanbul emerges as a central character. If Mr Pamuk spends pages describing the huzun (melancholy) of the city in Istanbul — Memories and the City, he transforms Istanbul’s streets into a liberating space for his clandestine lovers in The Museum of Innocence. However in A Strangeness in My Mind, Istanbul and the alterations within it, reflect Turkey’s internal conflict. Locked between Europe and West Asia, Turkey, with its Kemalist ideology, represents a nation that bridged the divide between the east and the west, standing at the cusp of religion, democracy and secularism.

However, over the years, slow but noticeable changes in its democracy along with cracks in its secular nature become evident. Simultaneously, changes in Istanbul’s landscape – the architecture, the tastes in food and clothing of its citizens, and the shift in employment – exacerbate the conflict. This is particularly omnipresent in the lives of the poorer sections, who, while entrenched in the past, dream of a better future but have little access to it. Their illiterate, unskilled and decrepit present is unable to match the pace of the changes taking place in the urban spheres and their struggle is evident.

In 2006, Professor Horace Engdahl at the presentation of the Nobel Prize in Literature said Mr Pamuk had made Istanbul “… 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 recognise as their own.” Even a decade later, Mr Pamuk’s new piece of writing justifies that statement. He gives the reader (even one who has never been to his Istanbul) absolutely no reason to disagree.

from here, the Business Standard.

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