A Strangeness in My Mind is Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s ninth novel, six hundred pages that took six years to write. Much of the ground work was in earlier novels such as My Name is Red and Snow, part of an already large and impressive body of fiction and non-fiction that earned him a Nobel Prize in 2006.
There were trails of allusion in the earlier works that could leave Western readers struggling. This epic new work is something else. Pamuk brings complex cultural currents lucidly to the surface, superbly assisted in the English version by a tone-perfect translator, Ekin Oklap.
To some westerners, Turkey is made opaque, frightening and perhaps even repellent by what we think we understand about it. Isn’t that the place with a 90 per cent Muslim population, with a history of brutal ethnic cleansing and war with its Kurdish minority, now run by an authoritarian president called Erdogan, a rampant Islamist to boot? A politician who has somehow co-opted the armed forces Turks could previously rely on to protect Ataturk’s secular republic by military coups from time to time, restoring elections after re-writing the constitution to rein in venal politicians and block Islamification?
But Turkey matters hugely to us all. We can’t afford to see it only through lazy and distorting simplifications. This novel is a powerful corrective. It tells from the bottom up the story of Istanbul’s expansion in a mere 40 years from a city of some 3.5m to a megalopolis of perhaps over 13m.
Mustafa and his son Mevlut, a bright but dreamy twelve-year old, are among the early migrants from distant poor villages, relying on dodgy title deeds to build unregulated slums on hills bordering Istanbul. The hapless Mustafa chooses to be a wandering street vendor. Worse, he invests his hopes in selling home-made yoghurt and a traditional mildly alcoholic, evocatively Ottoman drink called boza exactly when this trade is being eclipsed by mass production and fierier spirits.
Mustafa’s much savvier brother swindles him out of improvements, still dodgy, in family assets and prospects. Yet when he is in his fifties, son Mevlut still chooses to spend much of his low-earning time trudging to as many corners of Istanbul as he can still reach with his boza. Among his male relatives and friends, Mevlut is the only one who hasn’t achieved modest affluence or come to a bad end. The others are bemused by this apparently perverse faith, yet grateful for the many ways he has kept faith with them in spite of repeated betrayals by family and friends.
Early on, his cousin Suleyman cons him into eloping with the “wrong” girl: the first of many exploitative episodes. Indeed, the city expands in a tracery of misalliances and illicit connections – whether to electricity, parties, causes or patrons. Many of these turn out to be misconceived and unreliable.
Big events take place mostly off page. There’s the 1982 military coup, the 1999 earthquake that killed upwards of 17,000, the rise of the AKP and the Erdogan regime. Out of focus in the background, these nonetheless haunt one of the joys of the book: the sometimes acute and sometimes wayward commentaries of family members and friends. But preoccupied with their own detailed stitching and stitch ups, none really grasps the high-level goings-on or the really big deals they conceal. As for keeping things going, it’s the women – wriggling free of patriarchal power – who are smartest and most effective. Mevlut, meanwhile, manages to navigate crossfires of loyalties to nationalist Islamists, leftists and downright crooks. He is much more perspicacious about the world and himself than most give him credit for: no idiot savant he, no merely melancholic mystic. It is Mevlut who finds that the “wrong” girl has been the love of his life, Mevlut who eventually also finds himself married happily enough to the original girl of his dreams; and, unlike the others, it is Mevlut who finally and precisely recognises the limits of human comprehension, belonging and relationships.
This is truly an epic in precisely the terms Pamuk set for himself: an epic of precarious survivals rather than of glorious battles and triumphs: “an endless sea of details”. Prepare to be enchanted, to relish the wry humour and enjoy the deliberately slow flow of events. But most of all, prepare to think hard about what this great writer is telling us.
A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk (translator Ekin Oklap), Faber & Faber.