The title for Orhan Pamuk’s novel comes from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, continuing with the famous ‘A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.’ It’s somewhat grandly subtitled ‘Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.’
Boza is one of those mild old alcoholic drinks fast disappearing from the world – seems everyone wants to get blootered and go clubbing. For many years sold by street vendors, now it is made in factories and offered in supermarkets, one of many changes observed and lamented by Mevlut in the course of his life. Not because there’s anything wrong with factory-made boza, but because the disappearance of the street vendors and their cries is one more historical impoverishment in the life of a city which is, if anything, an embodiment of history.
Pamuk attempts to place us in a recognizably ‘big’ novel: Mevlut is a poetic, painterly icon as much as he is the protagonist, crying his “booozaaa” like a Papageno. He continually reminds his customers, most of whom are getting on and appreciate the old ways, that it’s the voice, the emotion of the boza seller that matters. Boza is woven into the fabric of the book, along with corruption, Kurds, Anatolia, Kemal Ataturk, cigarettes, the wares of other street hawkers, political posters, electrical power thieves and capitalists little and large. This is a city where the brand of cigarette you smoke lets everyone know exactly what government department you work in; the way you cut your moustache advertises your politics.
Mevlut is a plain person, possessed of the calm of the honest. He watches life slowly pass, even as oppressive governments, coups and earthquakes try to dent his existence, and the neurotic excesses of globalism swallow up his family and friends. He remains an extremely hard-working small businessman, selling at various times not just boza, but yogurt, chickpeas, chicken and rice, and ice cream in summer. He has a profound fear of dogs, which becomes an amusing leitmotif in the life of a peddler. When still a schoolboy, he takes to selling lottery prizes with an edgy pal called Ferhat, who becomes a Communist, and later, a government inspector too upright for his own good. Mevlut tries all his life to steer clear of the deep ideological pits of Turkish life – in this he mostly succeeds, too. There’s a funny side and a grim political one to each development in his existence.
Things start to get interesting when he’s tricked into marrying. At a wedding, he and his cousin Suleyman become infatuated with the same girl. Mevlut’s not sure of her name (of course he can’t ask her) and Suleyman fools Mevlut into writing letters to the girl’s sister. These billets doux are based on some mouldering guides to writing love letters, and the sister falls for them. Again with Suleyman’s help, the pair elope. When Mevlut realizes he’s now in possession of the girl he didn’t want, an extraordinary thing happens: he decides to love his bride as determinedly as he goes out to sell his goods. She returns his passion and they live extraordinarily happily, much more so than other couples in the story. They even make love through Ramadan.
This is where this novel succeeds, in examining compassionately and thoroughly the bad state of affairs between men and women in the western/nonwestern place that Turkey is. Girls and women literally cannot be apprehended; they are completely mysterious, alien beings. They are, in fact, only barely tolerated. This of course leads to trouble: when Mevlut is young, all he can do is masturbate to an extent worthy of Alexander Portnoy. He can barely imagine or even guess at women. He also develops a serious stalking habit.
Hadji, one of the grosser depressing businessmen in the book, puts it this way: “There are two kinds of love in our land. The first kind is when you fall in love with someone because you don’t know them at all. In fact, most couples would never fall in love if they got to know each other even a little bit before getting married. This is why our Blessed Prophet Muhammad did not think it was appropriate for there to be any contact between the boy and the girl before marriage. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that, when they have a whole life to share between them, and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.” So part of the purpose of A Strangeness in My Mind is to argue that this kind of union can work, perhaps almost as often as not.
However, one isn’t always convinced that Pahmuk himself is blameless on this. For every stab he takes at the enormous, sad gulf between men and women in Turkey, he relishes icky characterizations of women by men (another effect of having no contact with them, of course). 1961 Opels “looked like spiteful women whose mouths had turned to stone in the middle of an evil cackle.” Women are allowed to grouse about men, a little, but the effect isn’t the same.
One delight in reading this is to encounter, to a slight extent, the Turkish alphabet, a charming and useful thing. The novel unfolds chronologically, but in order to vary this Pamuk resorts to an odd formula. There are occasional breaks in the narrative in which the major characters quibble with minor aspects of the action. It’s very hard to tell how these utterances are meant. Could they be notes on the novel in Pamuk’s own pocket? A scolding of himself? Is the reader being addressed? Why aren’t these the springboards for real digressions? Most of the time it’s no surprise to learn what we do when these characters take us aside. Too often for comfort, promising figures appear who don’t amount to much, and at times it can all feel less like a novel than a lecture.
In the end, Mevlut stubbornly sells his stuff, loses a wife, gains another, tries to live honourably and, on balance, succeeds in these things. He’s lived infinitesimally against the background of Istanbul, which you might have expected to be more frightening and interruptive than it appears here. Pamuk’s novel only attempts occasionally to convey the essential life of the place.
Is Mevlut anything other than a nostalgic? Valuable old things everywhere are disappearing; any resident of the UK will readily identify with his feelings of loss. This isn’t Ulysses, or even Gone with the Wind, yet its fighting weight is about the same: I had to tear my proof copy in half in order to read it without hurting myself. You wonder in the end why this huge stage, containing lots of Asia and most of the twentieth century, had to be claimed just in order to relate a little life.
(This review first appeared in The Herald, Sept. 26, 2015)