A Strangeness in My Mind, which can also be an apt description of my mind at times, by Orhan Pamuk is a hefty almost 800-pager novel about the life of an Istanbul boza seller Mevlut. While the book is ostensibly about Mevlut’s life story from childhood to watching his own children marry, in reality, it is also about Istanbul, the famed city on the Bosphorus which is as much a character in the novel as Mevlut.
I’ve never read a book by Pamuk before, though I’ve read a lot of good things about the 2006 Nobel Literature Prize winner. All I can say is I was not disappointed.
A Strangeness in My Mind starts off with Mevlut’s elopement with his future wife Reyiha from his childhood village as they tear through a forest in the dark to escape with his cousin to Istanbul. Having written love letters to Reyiha for two years after first spotting her at a wedding, Mevlut is filled with elation and anticipation. On the way Mevlut realizes a potentially astonishing mistake, but decides to live with it and bear the consequences. Some of you may be able to figure out what happened from what I wrote. But yet, this mixup does not play as a big a part in Mevlut’s story as you’d expect. The book is written in both third-person narrative and first-person accounts from the various characters except for Mevlut himself.
The book is divided into sections corresponding to stages in Mevlut’s life over four decades from 1969-2012, and after the elopement above, goes back to his youth years. Having come to Istanbul as a youth to help his father sell yogurt on the streets, Mevlut flunks high school and fails to get into university and settles down to a life of hard toil like his father. But while he goes through a series of jobs waiting tables or selling food on the streets as an illegal vendor, Mevlut is not filled with bitterness or disappointment. There’s a charm about his naivete and humility, which manifests itself in his lasting desire to sell boza, a slightly alcoholic fermented wheat drink, on the streets at night, regardless of whatever his day job is. It is not an easy or admirable job, and at the same, fewer people engage in it as the popularity of beer and wine seemngly make boza obsolete, which is why Mevlut’s nightly wanderings often provoke nostalgia among residents of the areas he sells in and he is never unable to find customers.
At the same time as Mevlut grows up, the city of Istanbul develops into a wider, larger, noisier and more bustling metropolis, with more people coming every year from all over the country, mirroring the fate of large cities around the world. Pamuk clearly knows his native city and he writes about it with much tenderness and detail, describing the various neighborhoods and districts right down to their characters. Pamuk makes us familiar with Duteppe and Kulteppe and the Ghazni Quarter . Real-life events like coups, crackdowns and political gang warfare also feature in the story, giving us a taste of Turkish political turbulence, some of which was echoed recently earlier this year with the “coup” that was quickly ended by the government.
The irony is that Mevlut’s life is not very eventful and actually quite simple, whereas in contrast, his friend Ferhat, a former socialist, and his wily and troublesome cousins are more interesting characters. Making things more complicated are the wives of Mevlut and his cousin Korkut, who are sisters and their beautiful sibling, who plays a major but understated role in the story. However, despite the mix-up that happened at the beginning, Mevlut comes to realize that the result is all he needs. A Strangeness in My Mind may have felt a little banal in some parts, but overall it is an absolutely engrossing story about love, devotion, perseverance, humility and of course, Istanbul.