Not For That Hour, Not For That Place: On Orhan Pamuk’s A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

As far as street vendors go, Mevlut Karataş is not quite as despondent as The Decemberists’ Eli (the Barrow Boy), nor is he as manic as John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly. Mevlut is a hard-working Turk who shoulders his yoke for “thirty kilometers every day carrying thirty, maybe forty kilos on [his] back,” broadcasting his product through the streets and alleys of Istanbul, an unwavering croon for a treat that has fallen out of favor: “Boooooza.” Made from fermented wheat and topped off with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas, boza is the nostalgic motif of Orhan Pamuk’s new novel, A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND. The Nobel Prize winner foregrounds decades of Turkish transitioning (1969-2012) —socially, culturally, and politically—with the gradual obsolescence of this once-beloved drink, thus anachronizing his toiling protagonist.

It is a picaresque novel with a roving point of view. While the narrator gives preferential treatment to Mevlut—the lovelorn boza seller who struggles to place himself within the context of a dynamic family, society, and country—there are other characters jockeying for airtime. Regular perspectival pivots incorporate commentary from the likes of Mevlut’s father, uncle, cousins, friends, wife, sisters-in-law, and father-in-law (among others). While these shifts are inherently post-modern, they read like seamless documentary interviews interspersed throughout the main narrative. The device allows secondary characters to clarify, justify, embellish, vent, amend, or append to Mevlut’s biased perceptions. At their most effective, the opposing apertures become ironical as when Mevlut’s cousin Korkut negotiates a bride price with his future father-in-law, Abdurrahman Efendi. Most crucially, though, the shifting point of view is doggedly inclusive, dramatizing the local (a grudge between the Karataş and Aktaş clans) and global (the chafing between nationalists and communist militants).

Tickets to see Orhan Pamuk present A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND on November 5 are available here >>

Set against the backdrop of Turkey’s precarious nation-building—Mevlut is a Central Anatolian villager-cum-urbanite in a newly sprawling Istanbul—the collective narration becomes a fractured harmony, a form a literary pluralism. As with Pamuk’s SNOW (2004), in which the omniscience occasionally lifts its veil to reveal character, it is the characters (not the author) who marshal the discrete parts of A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND into a veracious architecture. Pamuk is there too with a gauntlet of twelve epigraphs, a rigorously titled and subtitled table of contents, a family tree (spanning seventy years), and an index of characters. It is self-consciously epic, yes, but the characters are in constant possession of the pen.

Upon falling in love, for instance, Mevlut recruits his rascal friends to collaborate on a series of love letters. For weeks, they meticulously compose the first missive, settling on overheated similes like: “Your eyes are like ensorcelled arrows.” Due to the characters’ belabored selection of language, not to mention Mevlut’s unfettered love, Ekin Oklap’s translation from the Turkish feels particularly consequential in this section (despite learning, in the first pages, that Mevlut will botch his elopement and marry the wrong Efendi sister).

Like Rohinton Mistry’s A FINE BALANCE, this novel finds equilibrium when it infuses small rations of mirth with its prevailing melancholy. On the most solitary of nights, when it seems the boza seller will only attract wild dogs, he need only glance upward to realize he is not just a luckless vendor, but also a cultural signifier: there are dozens of pining witnesses, people who spend their evenings “gazing out the window at the boza seller on the pavement, waiting for him to arrive, listening to the feeling in his voice, and drinking his boza as they [remember] the good old days.”

A Strangeness in My Mind Cover Image
By Orhan Pamuk, Ekin Oklap (Translator)
ISBN: 9780307700292
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - October 20th, 2015

Lawrence Lenhart holds an MFA from The University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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