Saturday, January 21, 2017

Istanbul: "A Strangeness in My Mind"

Orhan Pamuk's novel A Strangeness in My Mind offers a very simple story about Istanbul residents in a very poor neighborhood from the 1960s until almost the present. An omniscient narrator alternates with short stream-of-consciousness texts by the many characters. Each text begins with the speaker's name, which means the reader is never confused about which one is speaking!

The narratives, in all their simplicity, invoke beautifully ambitious themes. The main character, Mevlut, has "a strangeness" in his mind that leads him to try to understand his own agency in creating his life -- though he's a very simple, poor, and not very successful man. Further the novel tells the overarching story of the unique city: especially the incredible growth of modern Istanbul -- "what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes." (p. 107).

At the end, the following reflexion by Mevlut:
"Throughout the happy years of his marriage to Rayiha, though, he’d always thought that Istanbul would never change, that all his hard work out on the streets would gain him a place of his own someday, and that he would learn to adapt to the city. All this had happened, to an extent. But ten million other people had joined him in Istanbul over the past forty years, latching on as he had to anything they could find, and the city had emerged transformed. Istanbul’s population had been only three million when Mevlut had first arrived; now, they said there were thirteen million people living there." (p. 556)
Mevlut was born in an Anatolian village, and brought to Istanbul by his father, while his mother and sisters stayed behind. His father's brother was cleverer than his father: while Mevlut and his father remain in the poorest one-room hovel in a shantytown, the uncle and his family move to a much nicer place, though also in a squatters' area. Like millions of migrants into Istanbul, they all have to figure out how to make a living in a desperate and corrupt environment. In Mevlut's case, almost everything he did was related to selling food and to loving the many and varied neighborhoods of his beloved city.

Mevlut's father worked as a street vendor selling yogurt, carrying heavy containers from a wooden yoke across his shoulders. But factory-made yogurt became easily available in markets and groceries, and his father was crushed. Mevlut continues as a street vendor, mainly selling boza, "a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat, with a thick consistency, a pleasant aroma, a dark yellowish color, and a low alcohol content"(p. 18). People liked to have boza delivered at night, and Mevlut loved wandering the streets until near midnight -- "walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head." (p. 579).

On his rounds, Mevlut would call out "“Goooood boozaaaaa.” Customers would invite him into their homes or lower a basket with a container for him to fill:
"Back in 1969, when Mevlut first started working with his father, housewives who preferred to stay indoors would use the basket for purchasing not just boza but their daily yogurt, too, and even various items from the grocer’s boy. As they did not have telephones in their homes, they would tie a little bell to the bottom of the basket to alert the grocer or a passing vendor that they needed something. The vendor would, in turn, ring the bell and rock the basket to signal that the yogurt or the boza had been safely placed inside. Mevlut had always enjoyed watching these baskets make their way back up: some of them would sway in the breeze, bumping into windows, branches, electrical and telephone cables, and the laundry lines stretched between buildings, and the bell would respond to each collision with a pleasant chime. Regular customers would put their account ledger in the basket, too, so that Mevlut could add the day’s yogurt to their tab before sending the basket back up. ... But Istanbul had changed so much over the past twenty-five years that these memories now seemed like fairy tales to Mevlut."(pp. 18-19).
Mevlut also tries selling from push-carts. He offers ice cream for a while; later, chicken with rice and chickpeas, with the help and support of his loyal and much-beloved wife. As the Istanbul authorities and the changing economic conditions make life more and more difficult for street vendors, Mevlut works in restaurants -- food plays an enormous role in the novel. I would love to explore the way that Mevlut deals with his "strangeness," seeking to understand his fears and how his choices create his life or how things might be due to chance, or "Kismet." But I don't think I can do justice to this amazingly marvelous novel with its combination of complex and simple themes.

Here's the most direct statement in the book about the fusion of Mevlut's life and that of the city:
"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." (p. 318). 
The character Süleyman in A Strangeness in My Mind -- "We went to the Tarator Seafood Restaurant in Sarıyer
and sat in a corner away from the fish tank. Our fried mussels hadn’t arrived yet, and we were already on our second
glass of rakı, all on an empty stomach..."(p. 254). Photo of a seafood restaurant in this location, from my visit there in 2006.

"Among the younger generations there was now a regrettable misconception, fueled by newspapers and TV, that street food was 'dirty.' Milk, yogurt, tomato paste, beef sausage, and canned vegetable companies kept bombarding people with advertisements about how 'hygienic' their products were and how everything they sold was machine processed and 'untouched by human hands...'" (pp. 333-334). Photo of a grocery shop in a residential neighborhood, from my visit.

The New York Times reviewer, with whom I essentially agree, put it like this:
"The primary theme in Mr. Pamuk’s work ... is mental dislocation — life lived between the competing attractions of Western and Eastern values, between secular doubt and religious conviction. That’s true here, too. Mevlut is pulled, at trying moments, toward a deeper engagement with Islam. But 'A Strangeness in My Mind' wears this topic lightly. The book is a hymn to life’s physical and mental chaos, not to the harmonies faith would impose." ("Review: Orhan Pamuk’s ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’" by Dwight Garner, October 20, 2015)


Claudia said...

Good review, I'd like to get the book. We were listening to that song not too long ago, about Istanbul, and how it was once Constantinople. Catchy tune. But even before that it was Byzantium.

Beth F said...

It was really good book, I thought. And lots of food references. I remember looking up boza on the Internet.

Vicki said...

Sounds like an interesting book.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

I've never read an Orhan Pamuk book, I should try this one.

Esme said...

You have made me want to read this book-thaink you.