This article was originally published in Italian on Bookavenue
Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karataş, 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.
On the 9th of November 2015, Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk launched his last novel at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington. The first question by writer and journalist Elliot Ackerman was: why such a subtitle? Pamuk told an anecdote. During a lesson at Columbia University, where he teaches Art of the Novel, he said something like this: “…and as you know, Anna Karenina commits suicide”. A student interrupted him: “Professor! Please! Don’t’ spoil the ending!”
I imagined the scene in a Hollywood “Dead Poets Society” style: Professor Pamuk-Keating stops for a moment, his eyes and body frozen on the last sentence. He needs some seconds to realize, then he turns his back on the class and walks to the chair. He puts Anna Karenina on the table. Well, in truth he slams it on the table, then looks at the students again and says:
A. NOVEL. IS. NOT. ITS. PLOT. IS IT CLEAR?!
Yes, it is. Subsequently, he clarified the concept for his readers as well, in fact A Strangeness in my Mind opens with a subtitle of six lines and a first paragraph that sums up the entire story. Pamuk demonstrates that we will read a 500-pages book just the same. Because plot isn’t the heart of literature. The heart is that “uncanny” something – Pamuk defines it with the very word uncanny – on which the events glide like tiny paper boats on a stream. The heart of a novel is that spark because of which, after the last page, a shiver runs down our backs and a question comes to our mind: what is this story telling me about the human being?
Pamuk says he started writing A Strangeness in my Mind the way he starts all his novels: as a short story. “Joyce started Ulysses this way as well”, he says, “but my story was simple: a street vendor losing his job because of modernization”. However, when Pamuk began to interview Istanbul people in order to draw his characters, the story revealed itself as epic. Some international reviews even say it recalls Dickens.
The transition between tradition and modernity in Turkish culture is a central topic. Pamuk was interested in that period from the Seventies on, when Istanbul population rose from 2,5 to 16 billions. He wanted to speak about details. For instance, during the Fifties yoghurt was sold by street vendors who carried a yoke from which heavy trays hanged. On the contrary, at the beginning of the Seventies yoghurt began to be bottled into different containers and street vendors lost their job. However, during Pamuk’s childhood, the evening breeze still carried the voice of yoghurt and boza sellers into the houses. I imagined the street vendor climbing the stairs of the building and little Orhan looking at this man framed by the lit rectangle of the door, an image branded by fire in magic and in that uncanny something. Pamuk belonged to a middle-class family, while street vendors always were poor people from Anatolia who had come to Istanbul in order to sell yoghurt and boza to the middle and upper-class. Boza? It was “both an alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink”. Slightly alcoholic in truth, so all ethnic groups liked it. It was popular because, even if Islam prohibited it, everyone knew that 4 glasses of boza lead to the same result of 2 glasses of beer. Today, in Istanbul you can drink a little bit of everything: beer, boza, raki. “But it’s the voice of street vendors that made this possible”, says Orhan Pamuk. “A voice from the past”.
The protagonist of A Strangeness in my Mind is a street vendor of boza, Mevlut Karataş. It’s his the voice you will hear in the night of Istanbul: “Booozaaa! Booozaaa!”. Mevlut was born in 1957 in central Anatolia. At the age of twelve he follows his father to Istanbul, the city-world that during the following decades changes its face under the spell of a jinn. Mevlut will walk its streets every night for forty years carrying his yoke, his soul and a difficult Turkish identity on his shoulders. In Islamic Istanbul-Verona, young Mevlut falls in love with Rayiha as Romeo falls in love with Juliet: after seeing her at a party and without even knowing her. For three years he writes love letters to her until he kidnaps her in an exemplary Turkish elopement. However, during the escape, a thunder lights up the darkness and reveals that Rayiha is not Rayiha. A villain has hatched a perfect plot – perhaps has he written the entire story? – and Rayiha has never been that Rayiha with doe eyes (in effect, we should call that one Samiha), but exactly Rayiha. But who the heck is this Rayiha, then? Starting from a deceit (but perhaps it is the kiss of Fate), the life of an entire family unravels for four decades of history. Istanbul spreads at our feet like a carpet of lights, events, politics, loves, intrigues, and human passions.
“Is it a novel about immigration?”, asks Elliot Ackerman. “Turkish immigration”, answers Pamuk, “has covered great distances in comparison to Mevlut. Let’s think of Turkish people in Germany. However, under a certain perspective it also is a novel about immigration. I wanted to speak about these people going to Istanbul from Anatolia and building their houses with their bare hands. These Turkish houses were better than Brazilian favelas and Indian slums, but in essence they were slums and I regret I have entered them so late”.
However, Pamuk underlies that it is not a political novel. In the end you will find a chronology that intertwines both Turkish history and private events from the lives of the characters. For example, the event “27 March 19894, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan wins the local elections and becomes mayor of Istanbul ” is followed by the event “30 March 1994, Mevlut is mugged by a man and his son while selling out boza at night”. This tells us that it’s an historical novel, but on an individual basis. The readers wear an invisibility cloak and travel through time. We’re on Mevlut’s side when he looks at Istanbul’s lights for the first time. We’re with him when he looks at the city twenty-five years and 16 billion people after. We’re present when his daughters come to life but also when rumors say that there will be a great conditional amnesty for work done without planning permission and also when Duttepe Mosque is inaugurated. We’re in the courtyard of the military base when Mevlut begins the service and every time he wears the yoke and walks the streets. However, the chronology remembers us that there is a world outside: Cernobyl disaster, Tiananmen Square, First Gulf War, and the Twin Towers. Mevlut has no strong political ideas and thanks to this we can enter every door of old and new Istanbul. Pamuk didn’t want his protagonist to be sided with a particular party because he wanted him to speak both with Islamist, conservative and right-wing people, and with Alevi, left-wing, and secular people.
If it is not a political novel, says the writer, “this surely is my first feminist novel”. He has a laugh at Turkish males but surely raises their female counterparts. The female protagonists of A Strangeness in My Mind are independent, resolute, intelligent, and full of love. “If there is a political message in this novel”, says Pamuk, “it is: BE FRIEND WITH YOUR WIFE!”. However, the choice to make the characters speak in first person as if we met them in the streets of Istanbul, makes it above all a choral novel.
It can’t be a casualty if Orhan Pamuk received the fourth place among the world’s most influential voices of 2015. Moreover, the launch of this new novel was accompanied by the temporary exhibition in London of his Museum of Innocence, an event that closed just a few weeks ago. But the original Museum of Innocence is a museum designed and wanted by Orhan Pamuk. Opened in Istanbul in 2012, it represents a fragment of both humanity and Turkish identity. Don’t miss Pamuk’s Nobel Lecture either, that dates back to 7th December 2006. It will clarify for you what is the ineffable spark hold in A Strangeness in my Mind, why plot is not so important when you read a novel, and why Pamuk is right when he states that Istanbul is the centre of the world:
When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end to hone his craft – to create a world – if he uses his secret wounds as his starting point, he is, whether he knows it or not, putting a great faith in humanity. My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble to each other. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with his gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre.