Though otherwise accurate, the subtitle to Orhan Pamuk’s new novel — “Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 From Many Different Points of View” — makes the book’s complicated ambitions appear simple, if not quaint. “Have no fear,” it seems to say, “we’ll merely be synthesizing over 40 years of modern history from one of the most culturally tumultuous cities in the world, while also following a large cast of characters crossing lines of class, politics, religion and gender, all of which will collect around a lowly street vendor’s ‘adventures and dreams.’ What could be breezier?” In fact, the truth of “A Strangeness in My Mind” lies somewhere between Pamuk’s playfulness and my knottier version — for this is a book that champions simplicity even as it wrestles with the complexity of an ever-changing city, and attempts to manage as plainly as possible a necessarily sprawling tale.
Its hero is Mevlut, and like other Pamuk characters, he is caught between worlds. The conflict between tradition and modernity in Turkish culture is the major subject of Pamuk’s career (his citation for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature reads, “Who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures”), and his protagonists do double duty as both products of, and windows onto, their historical moments. In Pamuk’s gallery of Turkish Everymen — including Ka in “Snow,” Kemal in “The Museum of Innocence” and Black in “My Name Is Red” — Mevlut stands out as the most sentimental, purest of heart and humblest of aspiration. If he were an archetype, he would be the wise fool. His cousin Suleyman thinks him an inexplicable simpleton; his communist friend Ferhat says “he’s a bit of a weirdo, but he’s got a heart of gold”; his sister-in-law calls him “cute as a little boy” — yet these and other infantilizing comments serve only to show how poorly others understand Mevlut’s inner complexity. He struggles to understand himself, the “strangeness” in his mind, a cloudy anxiety that only partly clears by the book’s end. In the meantime, we learn about Mevlut’s two great loves, both introduced in their own short opening chapters.
Chapter 1 gives us Rayiha, whom he marries in a plot straight out of a Shakespearean comedy: a cousin’s wedding, youthful love at first sight, a bit of trickery by which Mevlut is led to elope, not with the woman of his dreams, but with her less attractive sister. Though realizing his mistake in time, honorable Mevlut sees the marriage through and finds a truer love than the blind passion he’d first pursued. Fortunately, Pamuk’s story line doesn’t stop on this moralistic high note but pushes on, evolving into a complex psychological drama as the repercussions of the initial “trick” work their way through decades of Mevlut’s life, and providing a boost of plot whenever the novel needs it.
His second love is wandering Istanbul at night selling a fermented-wheat beverage called boza. Boza, we learn, was “the drink of choice under the Ottomans,” but lost prominence in the 1920s, when the Turkish republic was founded and wine and liquor were made legal. Mevlut already understands that the drink is anachronistic, that he is a “living relic of the past that had now fallen out of fashion,” a vendor of nostalgia. Yet he is also a believer — in God, seemingly, but mostly in boza. “Just because something isn’t strictly Islamic,” he argues with a friend, “doesn’t mean it can’t be holy. Old things we’ve inherited from our ancestors can be holy, too.” Nor is boza only religious, but political as well: When the modern rise of the religious Islamic party threatens to bring about a ban on alcohol, Mevlut’s first thought is that it would make people appreciate the importance of boza and improve his failing business. For Mevlut, all of life can be arrived at through boza — and this would seem to be the essence of his wisdom. Unlike the “thousands of people” he’s met on the streets of Istanbul who chase after the illusions of modernity and ineffable measures of success, and who “invariably believed that behind every drama and in every battle there was always someone else pulling the strings,” Mevlut intuitively understands that the world, though too complicated to be comprehended in its totality, is nonetheless made up of simple, knowable objects and events.
Whether or not this is useful wisdom, for Pamuk the vision of life as a complex web of knowable things provides a terrifically interesting way to write a book. As we leave those introductory chapters and jump back to Mevlut’s childhood, and as the next 550 pages proceed in “David Copperfield” fashion — through his education, his various jobs, his military service, a long stretch of chronic masturbation and eventually his love affair and marriage and the ensuing plot — Pamuk finds opportunities everywhere to expand out from Mevlut into the web of associations that compose his reality. Most delightful are first-person monologues by the characters themselves, who interrupt the novel’s primary third-person narrative to offer their own two cents. These asides are as ontologically slippery as it gets, for while the book’s main narrative is in past tense, the characters speak from back in the present tense of the past-tense action, cheekily pleading, “Don’t write that down either, because it’s just not true” or “I can sense that you’ve been talking about me all the way from this table in the village coffeehouse where I am dozing in front of the television.” It’s very funny, while also allowing into Mevlut’s tale the colorful voices and contending perspectives of the world around him.
But Mevlut’s Istanbul is more than just people, and Pamuk also pulls into his novel the physical history of the city. Beyond a fateful account of boza, we are given whole epics of real estate, chronicles of construction projects, a “History of Electric Consumption” and much else. In these moments, “A Strangeness in My Mind” becomes a tremendous concatenation of voices and places and politics and culture, gathered around a melancholy hero and a winding psychological plot.
None of which is to say the novel is encyclopedic or exhaustive. It’s not Joycean, Wallacean or Pynchonian in ambition. The lives of characters and the history of the city come to us as side views from Mevlut’s story, forays that imply a larger world but never stray too far into it, or too far away from Mevlut’s melancholic disposition. That disposition is so relentlessly modest, and Pamuk’s rendering so unerringly genteel, that at times the book’s congeniality feels heavy-handed. There’s no horror in these pages, only history; no madness, only “strangeness.” The satire does not bite enough to be satire, the tragedy does not bite enough to be tragedy; basically, no biting occurs. (The recurrence of Mevlut’s fear that street dogs will bite him is not an exception, but a case in point.) What occurs instead are virtuosic craft, intellectual richness, emotional subtlety and a feeling of freedom that comes from a narrative that finds its most meaningful moments in the side streets of storytelling.
Martin Riker for the NY Times.