Wednesday, January 6, 2016

a strangeness (22)


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Mevlut Karatas, the uneducated street vendor at the center of Orhan Pamuk's luminous new novel, "A Strangeness in My Mind," never read William Wordsworth. He never paused over the English poet's description of being in the wrong place and time, experiencing "a strangeness" in his mind. Still, Mevlut understands the sensation. For Wordsworth, it meant feeling out of place in his Cambridge years. For Mevlut, it's more drastic. "There is a strangeness in my mind," he tells his new wife. "No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in this world."

This world is Istanbul, the true protagonist of Pamuk's ninth novel and the setting for most of his fiction. As protagonists go, the city proves a compelling one, a place Pamuk captures in precise, painterly images. His attention to detail allows us to think we could navigate this foreign metropolis without a street map. "I belong to this city," the 2006 Nobel laureate once told an interviewer. And, in turn, the city belongs to him. No other writer has captured with such authority the tension between tradition and modernity in Istanbul.

"A Strangeness in My Mind" reads seamlessly, part poignant coming-of-age story and part history of the city between 1969 and 2012. In this chaotic time, the population grew from 3 to 13 million people, many of them, like Mevlut, migrant workers. Pamuk skillfully tracks these years across a country that sits uneasily between Europe and Asia. Military coups and earthquakes compete with the turmoil that accompanies the rise of both fundamental Islam and unrestrained capitalism.

Pamuk sets Mevlut's tale within the framework of Istanbul's emergence as a modern city. Into this messy sprawl comes 12-year-old Mevlut, leaving his home in rural Anatolia to join his father on the Istanbul streets, peddling yogurt and boza. A running argument in the book concerns whether boza, a fermented wheat drink, is nonalcoholic in accord with Islamic law or whether it more closely resembles its linguistic cousin, "booze." Western readers may find this endless worrying odd. Why does it matter if boza contains a slight amount of alcohol, given that Istanbul legalized liquor sales generations earlier? The boza conflict is recognizably a metaphor for the conflict between secularism and Islam.

Mevlut tries for an education at the class-conscious Ataturk Boys' Secondary School, but, an indifferent student, he soon leaves to wander the streets at night delivering boza in the traditional way. "Boza was our ancestors' favorite drink," Mevlut proclaims. "I will sell boza until the end of time." This says a lot about his future, considering the drink already is a relic of the faded Ottoman Empire. Mevlut's vocation suggests a nostalgia for a past that modernization cannot easily erase.

In labyrinthine accounts of privatizing electricity service and speculating in real estate, the author examines the ethos of a city continually reshaping itself. The corruption in Istanbul's real estate market is a ruinous tale of greed that Pamuk offers as an object lesson in the way modernization brings misery to the lives of the poor.

The careless misogyny of Turkish culture simmers throughout the novel as well. When Mevlut's cousin decides to marry, he is torn between his desire for an independent woman and an obedient one who will show her subservience by wearing the headscarf. Even a village girl admonishes her father on the cultural attitudes toward women. "We are not for sale," she tells him angrily. Still, Turkish women are portrayed as virtual servants in their own homes.

In clever shifts of tone, Mevlut's family offers quirky first-person observations as a corrective to the third-person narrative of his life. Some of the accounts are amusing in that they reveal more about a particular narrator than the narrator intended.

Eager to escape their provincial village, Mevlut's family hopes to become not just successful but rich. However, city life is no day at the beach for these strivers. A feud between brothers over a piece of real estate reverberates through the years. Mevlut's thuggish cousins prosper while he, the naive underachiever, fails at every job.

The extended family figures also in a marriage plot worthy of Shakespeare, born from a case of mistaken identity. At a cousin's wedding, Mevlut falls in love with the bride's beautiful sister, a girl he thinks of as Rayiha. He doesn't see her again for three years, but, while in the army, he writes her hundreds of awkward love letters. When Mevlut returns to Istanbul, a cousin encourages their elopement. On the journey from Rayiha's home back to the city, Mevlut discovers he has eloped with the wrong sister, the middle one who actually is named Rayiha and who received his letters. It's the younger one, Samiha, he wanted.

Mevlut proves his worthiness by accepting Rayiha. To return her to the village would compromise her reputation. He determines he will love her, and, against all our western ideas of love and marriage, he does. The marriage is happy, for a time, but the question of the love letters consumes Rayiha. Did he write them to her or to Samiha? "Strangeness" often returns to Rayiha's question and to Mevlut's inability to answer it.

At the end of "A Strangeness in My Mind," you may not remember the manner in which the urban redevelopment initiative progressed, but you'll remember Mevlut. The unschooled, "poor cousin" of this epic struggles every day with the philosophical dilemma of how one should live. In this way, the human drama outshines the portrait of a fascinating city.

from here, the Houston Chronicle.

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