I was reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow in London recently, when a Scottish man stopped me to say how much he’d enjoyed it – ‘best book ever’, he said. No-one, Scottish or otherwise, had ever done that to me before. But the man went on to say that he’d found another of Pamuk’s books My Name is Red disappointing (I think he used stronger words). I protested, but suggested he try The Museum of Innocence. I hope he does. But, regardless – Snow? Best book he’s ever read.
This ambivalent response is common, a function of the fact that Pamuk approaches every new book as a challenge to do something different. But A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) looks, at first, to be treading familiar ground. Pamuk returns to the theme of his memoir Istanbul: the city itself, and the way in which it has changed as Turkey has modernized. Pamuk’s formal hallmarks are all present: balance, limpid prose, a wicked sense of humour and a playful propensity to shift perspectives.
Strangeness is a new departure. The scope of the book is astonishing. The story is told through the life of Melvut, a gentle, naïve, migrant from Central Anatolia who spends his life walking Istanbul’s streets selling ‘boza’ a fermented yoghurt drink, and pondering on thoughts about fate inspired by his love for his wife, Rahiya, who he eloped with after having written her love letters for three years, but having only seen her once. While Melvut’s friends and family scramble to gain a foothold in modern Istanbul, he watches the city change beyond recognition, as wave after wave of migrants arrive and the slums become high rises Pamuk documents the development of Istanbul, and Turkey itself, over forty tumultuous years, with politics, religion and the relations between the sexes gliding on and off the stage.
Yet Strangeness never feels burdened with the expectations of a ‘state of the nation’ novel, or an experiment in Realism with a capital R. The background, while invariably fascinating, remains background. Melvut is always more concerned with his family and the city itself. Pamuk talks as engagingly about the loneliness of old age, and teenage masturbation as he does about Islamists, or ethnic politics in the suburbs. Often, the narrative voice loses itself in details of urban life, building sites, the contents of fridges, the history of electricity scams or, memorably, a tanker of sheep that runs aground in the Bosporus (with amusing consequences).
If the plot is kept moving by anything it is Melvut’s love for Rahiya and his search for an explanation to the ‘strangeness in his mind’. Why is he so drawn to the streets? Why is he so afraid of stray dogs? But the freedom and sympathy with which Pamuk moves through Melvut’s world means that he never needs to resort to the normal weights and pulleys: problems come and go unexpectedly, taking on more or less significance in unpredictable ways. Although Melvut has his share of hardships, he’s also almost permanently good natured and if this optimism starts to drag, which inevitably it does, Pamuk is always ready to jump into the heads of friends and family members, who address themselves from the page, boldly, secretively, always contradicting one another and arguing for their right to be heard.
In My Name Is Red Pamuk impersonated a tree, a dead-man and – brilliantly – a coin. In Strangeness he limits himself to people, but within those limits he’s at his most promiscuous, chopping and changing perspectives within scenes – though never at the expense of the reader. Most engaging are the women, who are invariably wiser than their men. Pamuk recounts the frustrations of domesticity, but also shows how they take ownership of their lives within these constraints. It soon becomes apparent that it is Melvut’s sister in law, Vediha, who is holding the extended family together.
There is no obvious agenda to any of this, which can become disorientating. But there is a definite thread running through Strangeness: the peculiarity of fiction itself, that ‘strangeness in the mind’ which compels someone to dream up whole worlds. Elsewhere, Pamuk has talked about how he has spent his life ‘narrating the streets of Istanbul’, and about how he feels that the city, its rapidly changing streets, the melancholia of the old buildings, the day-to-day life of the people that work there, has become a part of him, to the extent that he feels he has dreamt the whole thing up; the ultimate romantic vision, if you like, but also one laced with a sense of unease. If Pamuk has dreamed up Istanbul, what is it that he loves beyond his own powers of invention?
Pamuk’s achievement in Strangeness is to square this circle through a tremendous concentration of empathy. As Melvut’s best friend Ferhat, a meter reader, remarks, in a phrase a novelist would die for, ‘everyone in this city has a heart, and an electric meter.’ Pamuk has set all these hearts going, but they appear before the reader as completely human (no small task). Melvut is often struck by how it is ‘difficult… to tell the truth and be sincere at the same time.’ Difficult, A Strangeness in My Mind, seems to suggest, but not impossible.
By Jeremy Wikeley