In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.
― Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind

Writing in a recent post about Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, with its central character a bus-driving amateur poet who closely observes the special in the mundane details of the city he inhabits, reminded me that I ought to write something about Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s latest, The Strangeness In My Mind. Read in December, it has as its central character an Istanbul street vendor through whom Pamuk weaves the tumultuous history of that city in the last half-century. Indeed, it carries the lengthy subtitle, ‘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’. 

Without over-stretching the comparison, like Paterson the bus driver, Mevlut the boza seller is a man who tends to keep his own counsel, while each day observing minutely the currents and changes in the city that burgeons around him. A simple man, he has arrived at an intuitive understanding that the world, much too complicated to be comprehended in its totality, is made up of simple, knowable objects and events.

Mevlut arrives in Istanbul in 1968, aged 12, having migrated with his father from rural Anatolia. He is soon working the streets alongside his father, learning the old trade of selling low-alcohol boza, the drink of choice under Ottoman rule, that has slowly fallen from favour since the Turkish republic legalised alcohol consumption.

Good-hearted and lacking the ambition to make money like others in his family and many more of the new migrants who arrive in the fast-growing city during this disorientating period when Istanbul’s population increased from three to 13 million, Mevlut continues to walk the streets selling boza, a wooden yoke across his shoulders, two heavy trays suspended from each end. He wanders ‘the poor and neglected cobblestone streets on winter evenings crying ‘Boo-zaa,’ reminding us of centuries past, the good old days that have come and gone.’ Walking around the city at night, he begins to feel ‘as if he were wandering around inside his own head’.

A boza seller in Istanbul
A boza seller in Istanbul

When they first arrive from the village, Mevlut and his father share a one-room gecekondu, a self-built house on empty land, with a bare-earth floor and no services. Forty years later, Mevlut happily moves back into that same small, somewhat modernised, property with his second wife. In the intervening years, his uncle and other close relatives have become property developers, men of influence and wealth. Yet it would seem that it is Mevlut, mocked for his naivety and lack of enterprise, who has found the secret to a contented life – by keeping his aspirations modest and his feelings sincere.

The novel is encyclopaedic in its coverage of the rapid social and economic changes that transform Istanbul and the lives of its characters – many of whom take turns to speak directly to the reader, sometimes questioning Mevlut’s interpretation of events. Through these voices – of Mevlut, his father, his wife, his daughters or other friends or relatives – Pamuk orchestrates a symphony of a mutating city.

Boza, served with roasted chickpeas
Boza, served with roasted chickpeas

Like the peripatetic Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mevlut traverses a native city described with cartographic exactitude. But, whereas Bloom’s transits were confined to 24 hours, Mevlut’s wanderings span forty years, in the process mapping Istanbul’s political and demographic upheavals through the quotidian experiences of a chorus of its inhabitants. At the end of the book I discovered not only a detailed index of its characters but also a chronology in which historical events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 attack are recorded alongside occurrences in the lives of the main characters.

Pamuk has taken his novel’s title from Wordsworth’s Prelude and the poet’s idea that there are moments in time that we return to throughout our lives, moments that continue to nourish and sustain us. For Mevlut, such a moment is the instant when he glimpses a woman at a village wedding ceremony. Enraptured by her beautiful eyes, he spends three years writing love letters to her. She doesn’t reply but his cousin Suleyman tells Mevlut that she is interested in him, and agrees to help the pair elope to Istanbul. It is only then that Mevlut realises he has been tricked: he has been writing not to Samiha of the beautiful eyes, but to her plainer sister Rayiha.

But, making a decision which reflects his philosophical core, Mevlut decides to accept his fate, marry Rahiya and love her with the same commitment as he demonstrates in the daily work that circumstances also bestowed on him. The couple fall passionately in love, have two daughters, and live happily, more so than other couples in the story.

Through the story of Mevlut and the two sisters, as well as other courtships and marriages, Pamuk explores attitudes to marriage and relationships between men and women in Turkey – just part of his examination of a mutating cultural landscape, where old meets new and east meets west. Though change comes slowly, girls and women remain mysterious and unknowable beings for men, barely tolerated outside the home where they are assigned specific and limited roles.

Even as Istanbul is transformed by modernization, traditional customs and attitudes from the village – brought into the city by migrants like Melvut from distant provinces – continue to survive alongside the modern and secular attitudes of the new middle class. This is another theme of this sprawling and panoramic novel of more than 700 pages: as Mevlut’s life slowly unfolds he tries to steer clear of the ideological divide in Turkish life – glimpsed in the street battles between left and right, oppressive governments, military coups, and the slow emergence of Islamism which form the backdrop to his days. While friends and members of his family are swept up and changed by these developments he remains a hard-working street vendor, earning little, even as land speculation and big business transform the city around him.

A Boza seller in Istanbul
A Boza seller in Istanbul

The changes which he observes taking place around him disturb and disorientate Mevlut. In this description of his state of mind, Pamuk captures the sense of disequilibrium which affects anyone who has spent a lifetime walking a city’s streets which have slowly morphed into a place entirely different to the one lodged in the memory. (One of the epigraphs with which Pamuk prefaces a chapter is from Baudelaire: ‘The form of a city/Changes faster, alas! than the human heart’.)  As I read the following passage I recognised something familiar, a feeling that I often get now as I walk around parts of Liverpool that have been utterly transformed in the last two decades:

Some nights the city seemed transformed into a more mysterious, menacing place, and Mevlut couldn’t make out whether he felt this way because there was no-one waiting for him at home or because these new streets had become imbued with signs and symbols he didn’t recognise: his fears were exacerbated by the silence of the new concrete walls, the insistent presence of a multitude of strange and ever-changing posters … […] As he revelled in the sensation of meeting the present moment as if it were a memory, he would shout ‘Boo-za’ and feel that he was really calling out to his own past. […]

It was as if the city’s old, mossy walls, its ancient fountains covered in beautiful script, and its wooden homes, twisting and rotting to the point of leaning on one another for support, had all been burned down and wrecked into nothingness, and the new streets, concrete houses, neon-lit shops, and apartment blocks taking their place had been built to seem even older, more intimidating and incomprehensible, than any place before. The city was no longer an enormous familiar home but a faithless space in which anyone who got the chance added more concrete, more streets, courtyards, walls, pavements, and shops.

Curved street in winter, Istanbul: photo by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Curved street in winter, Istanbul: photo by Nuri Bilge Ceylan

In the near-present of the story’s conclusion, Mevlut is driven in a friend’s old car along the streets he once walked:

Mevlut liked to … daydream as he sat in the front seat of the Dodge, watching hundreds, thousands of lights shining out of cars and windows; the depths of the dark, velvety Istanbul night; and the neon-coloured minarets going past. Mevlut used to toil on foot through mud and rain, up and down these very same streets, and nowhere they were slipping right through with ease. Life, too, slipped by in much the same way, speeding up as it ran along the tracks laid out by time and fortune.

I have never been to Istanbul, but in this haunting novel, Pamuk has once more built the city in my imagination. Pamuk’s Istanbul has haunted my imagination since I first read My Name is Red, set in the late 16th century, when miniaturist painters are required to produce work in the new perspective-framed ‘Frankish’ style. Like his recent The Museum of Innocence, it featured scenes in the darkened lanes and alleyways of midnight Istanbul. Now, with A Strangeness in my Mind, he has conjured a picture of the myriad ways in which the city has been transformed in the last forty years. Even more, like his magnificent earlier novel The Black Book, set in the decaying and repressed Istanbul of 1980, and Snow, a thriller of great contemporary relevance in which a westernised journalist arrives in the remote town of Kars where Islamists are set to win provincial elections, he opens a window onto the cultural divisions and political tensions that have haunted the Turkish republic since its foundation – and still do, to this day.

Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul in 2014
Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul in 2014

As Simon Tisdall observes in today’s Guardian, ‘The New Year’s Eve attack on an Istanbul nightclub concluded a dreadful year for Turkey, during which the country was shaken by a failed military coup, a policy setback in neighbouring Syria and a string of terrorist atrocities.’ The wave of repression that followed the failed coup in July, including the jailing of thousands of alleged conspirators and a ruthless crackdown on the judiciary, academia and the media, filled me with concern for Pamuk’s safety.

In September, in an open letter published in the Guardian, Orhan Pamuk, along with prominent international personalities including actress Emma Thompson and authors Margaret Atwood, JM Coetzee and Elena Ferrante, called on Turkey to release the author Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet, just two high-profile victims of the post-coup purge. The letter began:

We the undersigned call upon democrats throughout the world, as well as those who care about the future of Turkey and the region in which it exerts a leading role, to protest the vendetta the government is waging against its brightest thinkers and writers who may not share their point of view.

In an interview with the New York Times at the beginning of December, Pamuk noted that those novelists who were in jail were detained primarily because of their journalism:

Asli Erdogan, whom I admire a lot, is emblematic, and her case is heartbreaking. She only did a symbolic act of lending her name to a newspaper as an editor. It is not easy to accept that a great literary critic, Necmiye Alpay, who educated the Turkish readership about the intricacies and glories of the Turkish language in her book columns, is in prison for being a ‘traitor’. It is also hard to believe the government newspapers’ claims that these writers whom the Turkish public are reading, discussing and enjoying at least for the last 20 years are ‘terrorists.’

Most are being held under pretrial detention under a state of emergency declared after the coup attempt. ‘If there is evidence against them, they should be tried,’ Pamuk insisted, ‘not put into prison before the verdict.’ Pamuk himself has had several run-ins with the Erdogan regime:

I had various troubles with the government and court cases, not because of my novels but because of my interviews and random brief political essays. Journalist political commentary is dangerous in Turkey, and after the failed coup, the situation of free speech got worse.

In his novels, Pamuk constantly returns to the tension between Eastern and Western impulses in Turkey’s culture and politics. Speaking in an interview for the Paris Review in 2005, he said:


I’m an optimist. Turkey should not worry about having two spirits, belonging to two different cultures, having two souls. Schizophrenia makes you intelligent. You may lose your relation with reality – I’m a fiction writer, so I don’t think that’s such a bad thing – but you shouldn’t worry about your schizophrenia. If you worry too much about one part of you killing the other, you’ll be left with a single spirit. That is worse than having the sickness. This is my theory. I try to propagate it in Turkish politics, among Turkish politicians who demand that the country should have one consistent soul – that it should belong to either the East or the West or be nationalistic. I’m critical of that monistic outlook.

When the interviewer put it to Pamuk that by tending to romanticise Istanbul in his novels he seems to mourn the loss of the Ottoman Empire, Pamuk replied:

I’m not mourning the Ottoman Empire. I’m a Westernizer. I’m pleased that the Westernization process took place. I’m just criticizing the limited way in which the ruling elite – meaning both the bureaucracy and the new rich – had conceived of Westernization. They lacked the confidence necessary to create a national culture rich in its own symbols and rituals. They did not strive to create an Istanbul culture that would be an organic combination of East and West. … What they had to do … was invent a strong local culture, which would be a combination – not an imitation – of the Eastern past and the Western present. I try to do the same kind of thing in my books. … Slavishly imitating the West or slavishly imitating the old dead Ottoman culture is not the solution.

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3 thoughts on “Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: the streets of Istanbul transformed

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