Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Book Review: A Strangeness In My Mind

Mevlut Karatas is “a songbird of the street", a vendor of a mildly alcoholic, yogurt-based drink called boza whose two syllables, sung by him in the farthest corners of Istanbul, make up a sonic universe at once plebeian and poetic.

The slow-walking hero of Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, his first in seven years, belongs to the opposite end of the social spectrum from Kemal, the upper-class businessman whose travails in love and love-record-keeping were so vividly evoked in 2008’s Museum Of Innocence. Mevlut’s world is much grubbier and his life-focus, like that of so many new immigrants to the city, constricted by the daily battle for survival. But what Mevlut lacks in means, he makes up for in manner. The grimness of his circumstances is balanced out by his innate capacity for happiness and his love of an urban universe whose moods he observes as closely as his own.

But just as Pamuk’s protagonists are continuously provoked and unsettled by Istanbul, his readers too are always confronted with a challenge from his novels. Not so much from the material of his stories (which are narrated with such lucidity and suffused with so much feeling that they draw us in immediately) as from their shape. The most abiding feature of his aesthetic is his awareness that while lives proceed in a linear way, life stories need not do so and can in fact be made more intense and more satisfying—even more truthful—when subjected to the pressures of loops, contrasts, and switches of perspective. One senses that for Pamuk the novelist’s challenge is not just to tell a story, but to tell each story in an unusual way and yet convince the reader that it cannot be told in any other way.

So, although A Strangeness In My Mind tracks Mevlut’s life in Istanbul—and Istanbul’s life in Mevlut—from the time he arrives in the city as a schoolboy, all the way into his early 50s, the story begins in medias res, with a couple of episodes from his youth and middle age. Much later in the book, we see him growing into the man we have already met at the beginning, radiating the persuasive power both of a human being with a unique disposition and dilemmas and a character in a novel that is using him to generate a life and time-scheme and house of meanings of its own.

At the heart of the plot is a fascinating, endlessly ramifying incident that reveals a great deal about the nature of love, imagination and time (perhaps the three most important words in Pamuk’s fiction). At a wedding, Mevlut comes face to face with one of the sisters of the bride and falls in love right away. But when he asks one of his cousins who she is, he is given the name of her less attractive sister Rayiha, and proceeds to blur the name of one sister and the face of another for years. Unable to contemplate spending his life with anyone but “Rayiha", he pours out his feelings for the distant girl back in his village into words, writing her love letters with copious help from his friends and letter-writing manuals.

Knowing that in a world of arranged marriages, his status as a humble street vendor counts for almost nothing, he eventually suggests to his beloved, again by letter, that they elope. She consents to the plan. In the dark of night, they make their getaway. It is hours before Mevlut has the long-anticipated pleasure of seeing the face that has served as an icon for his soul for so many years. The shock is almost as soul-crushing for the reader as the hero. It is not the face he had desired.

But has the love story therefore ended, or begun? Miraculously, exhibiting the capacity for empathy that makes him in turn such a sympathetic character, Mevlut cannot bring himself to disappoint the real (to him, the fake) Rayiha. He subdues the strangeness in his mind—the sense that his life’s greatest project has gone totally off the rails—and sets himself to the (not wholly unpleasant task) of being a husband to this not unattractive woman who has dreamt about him for years only because of his own letters.

In time, he figures out how he was deceived: The cousin who misled him wanted Rayiha’s more beautiful sister, Samiha, for himself. It is one of many occasions in the novel when Mevlut realizes he has been made a pawn in someone else’s great game—and then that his own capacity for happiness remains undiminished. Before long, he has fallen in love for a second time; he feels like someone “who has been admitted into paradise by accident". Rayiha becomes the faithful and adept partner in all his life’s humble projects: the building of a house, the preparation of food and boza to generate a livelihood, and the interpretation of inexhaustible Istanbul. But what time gives, it also takes away.

Pamuk is one of those writers who loves to “do voices", and therefore prefers to write his novels in the first person—sometimes from a single point of view, as in Snow and The Museum Of Innocence, or in the more radical revolving-door narration of My Name Is Red, where each chapter had a different narrator. But classical third-person narration has its own pleasures and freedoms, and all these possibilities are combined in A Strangeness In My Mind into a compelling new form. Although Mevlut’s story is narrated in the third person, many of the other characters in the book interrupt the story, like ants swarming over a piece of bread, to deliver vivid little monologues and reminiscences and maxims of their own, often addressing the reader directly.

Sometimes their tales have nothing to do with Mevlut, meaning that the story achieves a kind of equipoise between the preoccupations of Mevlut and those of the small society of family, friends and customers of which he is a part. Most crucially, since Mevlut is the only character who is never seen speaking about his concerns in this way, he retains a core of mystery and even majesty—as if the narrator, in taking on the task of interpreting him, were also admitting the impossibility of sketching all the shades of his soul. Perhaps—to adapt one of Leo Tolstoy’s dictums—all unhappy persons are alike in verbalizing their discontent, but each happy person radiates a mysterious serenity that both demands and defies interpretation.

Among the great advances made by Pamuk in this novel is his attention not just to the moral and material nuances of urban life, but also the municipal ones. He shows us how immigrants, in aspiring for a better life, drive the ferocious energies of a city; how networks of power and influence emerge in neighbourhoods; how land is grabbed and claims for space are negotiated; what kinds of arcane knowledge and cunning stratagems go into the work of civic administration. At one point, Mevlut realizes that “this city where he’d spent forty years of his life, where he’d passed through thousands and thousands of doors, getting to know the insides of people’s homes, was no less an ephemeral thing than the life he’d lived here and the memories he’d made."

Pamuk’s novel is not just the story of a fascinating man in a city, but that of a fascinating city in a man.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novels Arzee The Dwarf and the forthcoming Clouds.

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