light gazing, ışığa bakmak

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

a strangeness (23)

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bel laureate Orhan Pamuk has written about his native city many times, most recently in the memoir "Istanbul" and a 2008 novel, "The Museum of Innocence." He always seems to have more to say, however, and he taps into a new vein of tenderness in "A Strangeness in My Mind," the story of a dreamy village boy who finds his true home in the metropolis.

Mevlut's Istanbul simmers with distinctively Turkish, political, ethnic and religious tensions that lead first to a 1980 military coup and eventually to the rise of an Islamist party. But as he rambles across the city as a food vendor, he reveals to readers an urban landscape familiar to all city dwellers: a place of marvelous diversity and unexpected intimacies; of relentless change sparked by immigrant influx and real estate development; of modernization that brings electricity and running water to the slums but also destroys historic neighborhoods and ways of life.

All these social developments, reported in deliciously Dickensian detail, are refracted through the experiences of Mevlut, who comes to Istanbul at age 12 in 1969 to work after school with his father, selling yogurt and a traditional fermented beverage called boza. Street life proves more compelling to Mevlut than education; he never finishes high school, and even after the yogurt trade is taken over by companies distributing directly to shops, he continues to traverse Istanbul after dark crying "Bozaaa," placing his wares in baskets lowered from windows, or climbing stairs to deliver it in person to a cross-section of the city's population. From religious fundamentalists to secular intellectuals, they are all moved by this living reminder of "the good old days that have come and gone."

Mevlut is no operator like his cousins Korkut and Süleyman, who quickly find a patron in Hadji Hamit Vural, a baker-turned-contractor. Vural makes his fortune in the hills surrounding Istanbul, where former villagers are flinging up ad-hoc settlements. The city limits expand, and the immigrants' illegal houses are replaced by Vural Holdings' high-rise apartment buildings; Korkut and Süleyman prosper, dabbling in right-wing politics along the way. Meanwhile, Mevlut holds down a variety of day jobs and maintains his nocturnal rounds selling boza.

He can't really explain his fidelity to this dying occupation until shortly before the novel's close: "The light and darkness inside his mind looked like the nighttime landscape of the city," Mevlut muses. "Walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head."

Readers who have followed him this far, absorbed in his thoughts yet cheerfully responsive to everyone he meets, already know that Mevlut's easygoing nature makes him a nonstarter in the race for worldly goods. He's an amiable Everyman, viewed with affection even by those who consider him naïve. How can you not like someone who runs away with the wrong woman, but honorably marries her anyway?

That's the verdict of the chorus of voices Pamuk weaves into his third-person narration to further elaborate Mevlut's personality and its impact on others. They show him mostly oblivious to people's scheming, yet frequently stymieing it with his sheer good nature. His marriage is the prime example. At Korkut's wedding, Süleyman tells Mevlut that the pretty girl who catches his eye is the bride's sister, Rayiha. She's actually Samiha, the beautiful youngest, whom Süleyman wants for himself. For three years Mevlut writes love letters to Rayiha; he doesn't realize his mistake until well into their elopement (arranged by Süleyman to take place after dark), when a flash of lightning illuminates her face. Why doesn't Mevlut say anything? wonders Süleyman, who becomes even more frustrated when he fails to win Samiha. But Süleyman can't alter that Mevlut loves his wife and their marriage is genuinely happy.

At least, as happy as it can be in a patriarchal society whose restrictions Pamuk matter-of-factly but scathingly depicts as scarring the lives of his female characters. The angriest is Vediha, Korkut's wife, who delivers a four-page rant about being treated like a servant, if not a slave, by the men in her family. The most ambiguous is Melahat, a nightclub singer who challenges Süleyman's machismo but gives up her less-than-stellar career to be supported as his mistress; he eventually marries her even though she drinks alcohol and won't wear a head scarf.

There are no uncomplicated human beings for Pamuk, who takes as one of his principal themes here the gulf between what people say publicly and think privately. That divide is sometimes a matter of self-preservation, as witness the novel's many allusions to police torture, political executions and ethnic massacres while its characters negotiate 43 years of Turkey's turbulent history.

Yet for all the losses and sorrows Pamuk's characters endure, "A Strangeness in My Mind" is poignant rather than desolate, in keeping with the indefatigable spirit of its flawed but lovable hero. "I will sell boza until the day the world ends," Mevlut declares, still delighted at age 55 to roam the streets of a city that constantly evolves and always enthralls.

from here, the LA Times.

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