There are several things a novel about contemporary Turkey needs to do: it must show the multitude of personal perspectives and the slippery nature of the truth; it must reflect the tensions between left and right, religion and nationalism, which divide the country; it must find a way to make sense of all this complexity without resorting to simplistic explanations. Orhan Pamuk’s latest answer to the above is a sprawling 599-pager called A Strangeness in my Mind:
“Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karataş, 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”.
(For the benefit of the uninitiated, and since it plays such a prominent part in the book, boza is a drink made from fermented cereal – usually corn. The only word I can think of to describe its taste is ‘unusual’. It holds a special place in the national psyche, conjuring up memories of cozy winter evenings and ‘the good old days’.)
Mostly narrated in the third person, following Mevlut, other characters constantly pipe up to have their say and flaunt their version of events. So any given chapter could be written in a combination of third person, and pop up contributions from one or both of Mevlut’s cousins, Mevlut’s friend, his aunt, and his sister-in-law. More minor characters also get to have their say now and again. This could have resulted in fragmentation, but it actually works well.
Mevlut moves to Istanbul from a village in central Turkey as a child in the 1960s, to go to school and to help his father selling yogurt and boza on the streets. Istanbul at that time was a very different place: just 3 million inhabitants (it now has around 15 million), and land for the taking. Distribution of goods and services was carried out by street vendors such as Mevlut’s father, who roamed the streets calling their wares, covering tens of kilometres every day. Residents of apartment buildings would call down when they needed something, either inviting the seller to come up, or lowering a basket from the window.
As Mevlut finishes school, buries his father, gets married and raises his children, Istanbul changes around him. Hand built illegal dwellings are replaced with concrete apartment blocks, artery roads cut through residential neighbourhoods to connect different parts of the city, yogurt starts to be made in factories and sold in glass pots. Governments change, military coups come and go. By the end of the novel in 2012 Mevlut is one of a dying breed. It’s the written equivalent of a time lapse film of Istanbul through the recent decades. More than this, it’s an insider’s view, documenting the numerous rumours and legends which Istanbul residents will start to tell if you sit down for a tea.
So we have established that A Strangeness in my Mind is an important and worthy book, possibly one of the most successful as far as the criteria for a Novel About Contemporary Turkey are concerned, but is it any good? Reading Pamuk used to be like eating crustaceans – a whole lot of effort for each morsel of meat. But A Strangeness in my Mind is altogether more approachable than Pamuk’s earlier work (I’m thinking Snow, or My Name is Red). Lumbering prose has been replaced with cleaner, more elegant constructions (the change in translator might have helped on this count). Conversations between Mevlut and his sophisticated, more educated customers are an effective device for examining complex arguments while keeping things simple. It’s also – and maybe it fails a little on this count – an attempt to show that Istanbul’s shiny new shopping malls, international coffee chains and restaurants with Bosphorus views have nothing to do with a good part of the city’s inhabitants for whom life is a constant struggle to get to the end of the month. Despite our being privy to his innermost thoughts, poor Mevlut remains a projection of a man, and his experiences seem observed rather than empathised.
“Mevlut had been in Istanbul for twenty years. It was sad to see the old face of the city as he had come to know it disappear before his eyes, erased by new roads, demolitions, buildings, billboards, shops, tunnels, and flyovers, but it was also gratifying to feel that someone out there was working to improve the city for his benefit. He didn’t see it as a place that had existed before his arrival and to which he’d come as an outsider. Instead, he liked to imagine that Istanbul was being built while he lived in it and to dream of how much cleaner, more beautiful, and more modern it would be in the future.”
Any Cop? An ode to a city and way of life which is changing rapidly; faithfully observed, never romanticised. If you’ve found Pamuk’s writing too heavy in the past it may be time to give it another chance: this huge brick of a book is utterly engrossing.