Review: A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

A Strangeness in My Mind [2014/15] – ★★★★

“Street vendors are the songbirds of the streets, they are the life and soul of Istanbul” [Orhan Pamuk/Ekin Oklap, Faber & Faber, 2014/15: 33].  

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016, A Strangeness in My Mind tells the story of Mevlut Karataş, a street-seller in Istanbul. From his childhood in a poor village to his children’s marriages, we are taken on the literary journey of his life, introduced to his uneasy relationship with his cousins Korkut and Süleyman, his stoic friendship with rebellious Ferhat, and, more importantly, to his marriage with Rayiha, which occurred under rather peculiar circumstances. The main aim of Pamuk in this book seems to capture a life and a way of life through the years, showing the daily happiness and struggles or ordinary people living in Istanbul, while demonstrating the changes that Istanbul has undergone through time, including its socio-economic and political situation, expansion and modernisation. Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind is closer to an overlong “docu-fiction” and over-indulgent bibliographical non-fiction and, in truth, is a bit far from that exciting literary novel that would make the reader hungrily turning the pages or would impart to them some true insight or reveal some Pamukian complexity. However, where the book truly shines is in a loving, nostalgic and painstaking reveal of the life of a street-seller, a profession that is rapidly dying in large cities. Pamuk’s emphasis on the mysteries and intricacies of this moribund craft, together with his touching tribute to Istanbul of the past, is to what makes this novel so compelling – ultimately.

This family saga, which is often told from multiple perspectives, spans from 1968 to 2012, and Pamuk pretty much tells the whole story of his 700+ page book in a first few sentences, giving most of the plot away, minus the details: “This is a story of the life and daydreams of Mevlut Karataş, a seller of boza and yogurt. Born in 1957 on the western edge of Asia, in a poor village overlooking a hazy lake in Central Anatolia, he came to Istanbul at the age of twelve, living there, in the capital of the world, for the rest of his life. When he was twenty-five, he returned to the province of his birth, where he eloped with a village girl, a rather strange affair that determined the rest of his days: returning with her to Istanbul, he got married and had two daughters; he took a number of jobs without pause, selling yogurt, ice-cream, and rice in the street and waiting tables. But every evening, without fail, he would wander the streets of Istanbul, selling boza and dreaming strange dreams” [Pamuk/Oklap, Faber & Faber, 2014/15: 3]. But, then, the interest is still there because, in this case, the reader may not be interested in whether this or that event actually happened, but eager to find out how it happened, and why did it occur. So, Pamuk then decides to change his story timeline a little bit, and opens his book with an exciting moment of one dangerous elopement of secret lovers (Mevlut and Rayiha) in the dead of night.

For the majority of time, we read about Mevlut working through the years in such occupations as shepherd boy, soldier, waiter, cashier, parking lot attendant, and electricity meter inspector, and, of course, always as street-seller. At one point, Mevlut is a frightened little boy helping his father sell boza and yogurt on the streets of Istanbul, at another, he is a solitary and lonely young man with the usual hopes and dreams, writing to a girl he saw only once, and yet at another, he is a happily married man doing a job he loves. The novel hinges on the likeability and ordinariness of Mevlut, a bit naïve and optimistic Turkish man, who clings to past tradition while being influenced and standing a bit in awe of all the western influence and modern, capitalistic developments. Though the author takes some time to tell us about various situations as it concerns Islamists, Kurds and left-wing-intellectuals in Mevlut’s area, and there are plenty of book scenes involving corruption and bribery as it concerns land and electricity issues in Istanbul, it is also clear that Pamuk is much more passionate about his story than his reader ever hopes to be, especially a reader who is not originally from Turkey.

Turkish Street Seller by Carol Bostan

However, Pamuk does capture the magic of Istanbul’s street-life before modernisation, and these scenes, as well as scenes of courting rituals and elopements, are transportive. Mevlut’s love for his job is evident as he tells in this story: “It’s the emotion in the seller’s voice that really sells the boza” [Pamuk/Oklap, Faber & Faber, 2014/15: 29].There are at least five different conversations in the book about whether there is or there is no alcohol in boza (a fermented malt drink) – there is, and a moving Bicycle Thieves-scene whereby Mevlut searches for his lost cart which is essential for his employment. There once existed a special one-to-one relationship between a street-seller and their customer before full-blown capitalism, urbanisation and modernisation knocked on Turkey’s door. Mevlut sees freezers, advertising, and changing shopping and marketing trends impacting his simple trade, and though he is unable to “catch up” fully with these developments, he still views them as a sad, but inevitable outcome of general progress, and perhaps even a good development for the whole of Turkey in the long-run.

The title may hint at some metaphysical mystery, but, in fact, there is little of this sort in this novel, apart from such occasional sentences as “all the happiness and beauty that life had to offer only revealed themselves when his mind drifted off into fantasies of a world far removed from his own” [Pamuk/Oklap, Faber & Faber, 2014/15: 170]. There is also an attempt by the author to make a statement on the gap between one’s illusions, hopes, and dreams, on the one hand, and one’s ultimate reality, on the other (such as Mevlut staking his whole life on one fleeting moment with a stranger), which may be as fulfilling in the end, but this thesis does not come across as convincing in this story as Pamuk undoubtedly wanted it to be. Apart from the historical context, one other thought-provoking element in this novel is probably the “elopement twist” that happened early in Mevlut’s life and which Pamuk put at the start of his book to “hook” his reader.

A Strangeness in My Mind is a far less complex and intellectual work than the three previous books I read by this author – My Name is Red, The Black Book and The White Castle, which all shine with thrilling complexities and uncanny insights. In comparison, A Strangeness in My Mind is a much simpler story, a traditional family saga, though also the one that pays a special tribute to Istanbul in transition. If you forgive the book’s excessive length, sporadic sentimentality and over-indulgence in details, A Strangeness in My Mind may prove to be a fascinating read regardless, demonstrating once again that Orhan Pamuk is a masterful, Scheherazade-like story-teller, weaving narratives that engross, move and inspire. 


5 thoughts on “Review: A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

  1. Everything in me opposed reading this book. But I decided to read it. To say that the book captured me is to say nothing. She made a stunning impression. Such an exciting person as a whole story is difficult to recall. Moreover, it was strange to me that I was originally configured negatively.
    It was unexpected a very pleasant surprise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! Yes, Pamuk does not disappoint and is always memorable. I do have to admit that I prefer him more Kafkaesque and complex, rather than him wearing this traditional saga hat. But then I do feel the most comfortable with existential literature, and I guess that’s just a testament to Pamuk’s versatility that he is capable of different narratives, though it is obvious where his true passion lies – Turkey of the past and its relations with the progressive West!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agree. his passion is Turkey. he loves his country very much and is immersed in its worldview, in its structure, in its realities, in its traditions, in its complexity. he loves his country in all its manifestations and can describe it very truthfully, sincerely and clearly. and also the fact that he can analyze and masterfully generalize makes his talent even more versatile.
        I, frankly, was interested in touching and trying to feel the eastern mentality that is present in every word of his.

        Liked by 1 person

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