Knopf Books, October 20, 2015.
I have loved some of Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk’s novels (Snow, My Name is Red), but recently I have read a couple that I did not enjoy as much. Pamuk’s work all seems to have a similar tone and atmosphere, with a narrative voice that blurs together between books – and all of them star the city of Istanbul. On reading other reviews of this latest novel, I have noticed that people enjoyed it most when they had read other books by Pamuk – as if this new book is enhanced by his body of work as a whole. I do think that his books create layers of description, setting and voice; that being said, I wouldn’t recommend this book as the first one to read, although I still really enjoyed it.
A Strangeness in My Mind is organized using an interesting technique: the main narrative flow is interrupted by snippets of first person commentary, as if these characters are being interviewed by the author. Later in the novel, the narration is taken over completely by these multiple characters. At first I did not like the style of writing, but it grew on me, and became more interesting towards the end. Having multiple perspectives of the same event is always fun for catching out unreliable narrators.
The novel tells the story of Mevlut, a young man who comes to Istanbul from the Turkish countryside, determined to make his fortune as a street vendor. He has many jobs throughout his long life, but the most meaningful is his work selling boza, a traditional fermented drink. In addition to the creative narration, the novel jumps around in time: in Part One we are told in only a few pages that Mevlut was once in love with a girl he had never met, and he wrote her love letters for three years. He decides to elope with her in secret – and that is when he realizes that the girl he was writing to is actually his future wife’s sister. In the next several sections, these events and the time leading up to them are all examined in detail.
The remainder of the book leads us through Mevlut’s life, including a feeling of “strangeness” that seems to continually haunt him. He grows to love his accidental wife and their two daughters, but he always feels that something is missing. Moving from job to job, searching for meaning in politics and religion, Mevlut tells his wife, “[t]here is a strangeness in my mind…[n]o matter what I do, I feel completely alone in this world.” (P. 228) He feels different from everyone else – but then, who doesn’t?
This is a coming-of-age story that lasts a lifetime, with Mevlut constantly trying to find himself. Through Mevlut’s wandering the city streets as a boza vendor, it is also an exploration of the city of Istanbul, and its continual evolution. The city witnessed the movement from traditional rural life to modern urban living, changing the socio-political situation in Turkey throughout the twentieth century. These changes have culminated most recently in the influx of Syrian refugees. Mevlut, and by extension the city of Istanbul, attempt to reconcile modern life with the long history of the city – the familiar streets become strange as they rapidly change.
Mevlut learns to adapt with his city. He sees it for what it is – his is not a misty-eyed adoration of Istanbul, but he loves it regardless. He also learns to balance his public and private lives, showing one self to the world, and keeping his “strangeness” inside his mind. He is aware of the compromises in his life, and he finds ways to live with them. One metaphor for this is his selling of boza: it is a fermented, mildly-alcoholic drink, yet people deny this and drink it anyway. Mevlut’s friend argues that “boza is just something someone invented so Muslims could drink alcohol, it’s booze in disguise – everyone knows that.” (P. 269) Yet Mevlut is happy to lie and tell people it is non-alcoholic, thus taking the sin onto himself.
Pamuk tells Mevlut’s story in simple language, which is best to record the complex plot and multiple main characters. The novel can be read on so many levels, and it is enhanced with new ways of looking at Mevlut’s life story. I am enjoying it more as I reflect over its many layers, and I highly recommend Pamuk’s work as a whole.
I received this novel from Knopf Books and Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.