In 2008, two years after he won the Nobel Prize for literature, Orhan Pamuk published his monumental novel, The Museum of Innocence — a funny, canny, capacious book that, in wide screen and high definition, depicted a tale of unattainable love, obsessive longing and irrevocable loss. It was, for my money, Pamuk’s best book. I told him as much when I interviewed him for Hindustan Times. “I have told my friends that I think I will be remembered by this book,” Orhan Pamuk agreed.
After they won the Nobel, writers such as Ernest Hemingway, VS Naipaul and Alice Munro (to name only three) produced hardly anything comparable to their pre-Nobel oeuvre. Winning the prize at the relatively young age of 54 has made Pamuk, on the other hand, roll up his sleeves, flex his novelistic muscles, and get down to some serious business.
Because seven years after the towering achievement of The Museum of Innocence now arrives the hugely ambitious A Strangeness in My Mind, a sweeping, soaring, swooping bildungsroman, in equal parts a loving homage to Pamuk’s own city, Istanbul , and a celebration of the magic of the quotidian in that city.
The Istanbul that Pamuk has hitherto written about is the one inhabited by the Westernised, educated, affluent Turkish elite. It is a shimmering world of Bosphorous mansions, clubs and parties soaked in raki and hazy with cigarette smoke, a world the author knows only too well and has been a part of.
In the new novel, Pamuk moves away from that world. The protagonist, Mevlut, is a seller of boza, a traditional, mildly alcoholic Turkish drink. During the course of his life, he also works as a waiter, a chicken-and-rice seller and electricity meter inspector. He lives perilously close to penury, circumstances often threatening to send him teetering over the edge.
Despite his financial and personal worries, despite his friends and cousins shimmying up the ladder of prosperity (on occasion at his expense), Mevlut’s spirit remains unbroken. An optimism of the purest kind suffuses his nature. He deeply loves his wife and his daughters. And the pleasures of domestic life offer him great contentment.
The title of the novel comes from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, and Mevlut retains about him a kind of Wordsworthian innocence, a sense of awe and wonder at the world even in the face of doom-bearing change.
And change there is aplenty in Istanbul during the course of Mevlut’s life. As a boy of 12, he arrives with his father from the village, dazed by the bright lights of the big city. But that city begins to change — dramatically and dramatically swiftly — in front of Mevlut’s eyes.
Gentrification, urbanisation, mechanisation, politicisation and radicalisation: Mevlut observes, wonders, and absorbs the raft of changes sweeping through his city. Never does he lose his curiosity. Unable to get on to the bandwagon of upward mobility, his father dies, old, alone and embittered. Some of his friends and cousins succumb to greed and deceit. But Mevlut, a sometimes-put-upon Everyman, honest, incorruptible and illuminated by a fine moral intelligence, refuses to be dragged under. His constancy is a counterpoint to the dizzying change around him.
His life is inextricably woven together with that of the city he lives in. He is, in a sense, the city; and the city, in a sense is him. In the closing pages of the novel, Pamuk writes: “So this is how Mevlut came to understand the truth that a part of him had known all along: Walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head. That was why whenever he spoke to the walls, advertisements, shadows, and strange and mysterious shapes he couldn’t see in the night, he always felt as if he were talking to himself.”
Like James Joyce’s Dublin and Charles Dickens’s London, Pamuk’s Istanbul (as much in his memoir Istanbul as in his novels) is a living, breathing ever changing character. Making Mevlut indivisible from Istanbul is a sleight of hand Pamuk pulls off with authority.
There are occasions, however, when A Strangeness in My Mind lurches dangerously close to the mundane it is so fascinated by. Pamuk enlists street names, neighbourhoods, recipes and workings of land sharks in a laboriously documentary manner. One of the central characters dies. Before we have time to recover from the shock, we are offered page after page on how electricity is stolen in the city and how a meter inspector can catch the theft. One can see what Pamuk is trying (the novelist, like god, is in the details), but it does not always come off.
What does come off particularly well is the twinning of the historical and the humdrum. Events that shape a city (and a country) are shown through the prism of the humble Mevlut and the people who inhabit his world. The effect is at once epic and intimate. A Strangeness in My Mind is always limned by the emotional richness, slippery melancholy and empathy that Pamuk, in his unique way, brings to bear on his narrative.
The Museum of Innocence remains the book Pamuk will be remembered by. But A Strangeness in My Mind is an achievement on a colossal scale.