Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel has rightly been called a love letter to his home city of Istanbul, but this may mislead unfamiliar readers; for the pages convey neither swooning adoration nor healthy affection, but rather Pamuk’s compulsive fascination with this place.
Through the eyes of his sensitive protagonist, he takes us on a street-level tour of the city he knows so well, meticulously pointing out all of its ugliness, cruelty and superficiality, while simultaneously entreating us to fall head over heels. It’s the perfect introduction to modern Istanbul for the armchair traveler; whether or not it will inspire you to visit is perhaps another matter.
The epic narrative traces the life and times of Mevlut, a migrant worker who walks the rapidly developing neighbourhoods of Istanbul selling a fermented drink called ‘boza.’ Popular during the more-strictly-Islamic Ottoman period, it is already well out of fashion even at the start of this decades-long story.
Mevlut’s boyish innocence and unfailing decency probably makes him the least-complicated yet in Pamuk’s long sequence of leading men, and he is certainly the most likeable. While things never exactly go his way, he somehow remains an enviable figure in contrast to his demonstrably successful relations who generally exclude him from their perpetual machinations. He himself doesn’t get it until the very last sentence of the book, but the reader understands that his happiness lies in his limited ambitions and ability to find the joy in small pleasures.
He however belies the novel’s overall complexity, with its sizeable cast all jostling for our attention. This is at times almost literal as, more than ever before, Pamuk permits a range of characters to speak directly to the reader, cheekily challenging or supplementing Mevlut’s narrow perspective. It’s wonderfully done and even those with mere walk-on roles emerge as nuanced and sympathetic figures.
You do get the sense that what happens to Mevlut’s family isn’t actually all that important. While there is a lot of plot, there aren’t any twists to speak of and it’s largely given away in two short non-chronological chapters at the very beginning. The narrative style is genteel (‘Dickensian’ according to one reviewer) and Pamuk even seems to enjoy removing any possible surprise by concluding his chapters with phrases like ‘it was the last time Mevlut would ever see him alive.’
This serves to draw out the author’s true story; which is the evolution of his city. The hero’s simplicity makes him an ideal window onto the streets of Istanbul, and the feeling that his life is pre-destined mirrors the seemingly inevitable encroachment of concrete and asphalt into his physical environment. Mevlut’s profession in particular provides ample opportunity for Pamuk to reiterate his presentation of Turkey as a country trapped between modernity and nostalgia, frantically scrambling forward while simultaneously looking back with regret.
Reading his earlier novels, I’ve occasionally (perhaps more than occasionally) had the feeling of being dragged kicking and screaming down the rabbit-hole of Pamuk’s latest obsession, with any light impossible to discern through the layers of detail. But it seems Pamuk has mellowed with age, or at least worked out how to hide the worst of his neuroticism.
Traces of the old style do peep through (e.g. an extended chapter on the history of electricity consumption in Istanbul), but in the context of this long novel they are mostly welcome microcosms which help to illustrate his wider themes. Perhaps most noteworthy is that, for the first time, Pamuk has given us some easily relatable characters and introduced a warmth and lightness to his writing which has so long eluded him. Indeed, the interjection of competing voices throws up moments of genuine humour which I previously wouldn’t have though him capable of.
For anyone new to Orhan Pamuk, this novel is the ideal place to start before considering a dive into the far more complex work that preceded his Nobel Prize. He is a writer many struggle with but who undoubtedly has a lot of great value to say, so this latest and least challenging work is a fabulous addition. I look forward to whatever he has planned for us next.
-Review by Thomas Baylem
‘A Strangeness in My Mind’
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Orhan Pamuk struggled to find the right career for himself when he was a young person. As a high school student at Istanbul’s Robert College, he wanted to become a painter. He studied architecture for three years in college. Finally, giving up both of those ideas, he majored in journalism at Istanbul Technical University but never pursued writing journalism.
At age 23, Pamuk decided to become a novelist. He has been writing for over 40 years and he has never done any other job or career other than writing. With ten novels published, he has won numerous awards, the most prestigious of which is the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the first Nobel prize awarded to a Turkish citizen.
Thomas Baylem is a British expat living in Istanbul who has read through almost the entire Orhan Pamuk canon since his arrival last year. Before moving to Istanbul, he received a B.A. in history at St. Andrews University in Scotland.