A Review of Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind”
It’s no secret that Pamuk’s infatuated by his city, Istanbul. To be fair, infatuation is a wrong word — It doesn’t last decades, even years — love bordering on obsession probably is more apt. What else could explain his ode to the city, Istanbul: Memories and the City, intertwining personal history, with the streets and shops, the sights and sounds, of the city, loving tribute to a city he grew up in? And yet, being the story-teller that he is, his non-fiction work about the city doesn’t do justice to the city, as it’s preoccupied with how it affected him, growing up.
It’s been over a decade since he wrote that one, though, and a perfect time for a sequel of sorts. And so we have : A Strangeness in My Mind, a love-story on the surface, but really a tale of the city, which just refuses to become a backdrop to an engrossing story of Mevlut — from his small-town beginnings, to a drop-in-the-ocean existence in a metropolis bursting at the seams; underlined by his strange love that lasts a lifetime, and his travails, his naivety, and the tragedies that punctuate his life with a deadpan regularity. Through all of it, the city keeps on raisesing its head, both figuratively, and formatively (through mosques, and houses, and skyscrapers) every now and then, as Pamuk moves Mavlut’s story along with the story of his beloved city.
While Istanbul (the non-fiction), is more interested in the spaces, and the temperament, and the overwhelming feel of the city, and that too, for someone living on the more Europeanized side of the Turkey’s cultural fault-lines; in Strangeness, Pamuk takes more interest in the evolution of the city from the point of view of those on the other side of those fault-lines: the peasants, who flocked to the city in search of opportunity, the daily-wage earners, the communists and the Islamists, the housewives, and the uncles, and the mothers, and the customers, and the religious gurus … It’s a vibrant picture of a city that Pamuk painted gray in his earlier work. Not that gray is used sparingly here either.
Mevlut comes to Istambul, already a dauntingly big city for someone coming from a village, and watches it grow to a megapolis, transforming people around him, in more ways than he could have imagined; while he tries to hold on to a trade that’s already on the decline (a boza [a fermented drink, possible etymological origins of the English “booze”] seller), even in his father’s time. Mevlut, who finds his love-of-life, thanks (!) to a cruel trick played by a cousin, never really comes out the trumps in life, which isn’t that unexpected knowing Pamuk’s fatalistic view of existence (at least what comes out as one, from his books), where happiness is always fleeting, and melancholy (or huzun, as his other Istambul book educates us about) enduring; with his quintessentially un-heroic (but also un-villainous) characters. But as he struggles with, and then begins to accept the whole existential strangeness, inside his mind, as exemplified by his tortured love/life story, and outside — in the streets, and back-allies of the ever changing city. In Istambul (the non-fiction), Pamuk tries to capture “hüzün” of the city in words, and images. He almost succeeds. But here, he paints with it, and it’s hard to miss. If one goes back to the “Memoir” now, one would get it right-away.
In terms of the narration, Pamuk resorts to a mix of third person narration, with the multi-narrator technique that he so well employed in his best book to date: My Name is Red. That technique, in its measured application, works very well for this one too, as it gives a glimpse into more lives, more point-of-views, and builds a context to assess Mevlut’s struggles, and tiny triumphs. And Pamuk is in fine form here, with a countenance of a test match specialist batsman who is reassured that time is on his side. Which means, for many, it is too slow for their comfort. Not me. I like books that water the plant, and wait patiently, for the bloom to come. And if you have time too, then Pamuk is enormously rewarding. The hüzün and the grays not withstanding.