A Strangeness in My Mind – Orhan Pamuk

An hour later, when the train stopped at Afyonkarahisar station, Mevlut jumped off the carriage and bought some bread, two triangles of cream cheese, and a pack of biscuits. A boy was selling tea from a tray. They bought some to have with their breakfast while the train made it’s way along the river Aksu. Mevlut was happy to watch Rahiya as she looked out of the carriage window at the towns they passed, the poplars, the tractors, the horse carts, the kids playing football, and the rivers flowing under steel bridges. Everything was interesting; the whole world was new.

A story about a boy growing into manhood in a city that embodies his entire life, a love letter to a city that has steeped it’s authors soul, a love story or a story about family, all of these, or none of them at all? I’m not sure it really matters, A Strangness in My Mind is a beautiful long soak in Istanbul through the life of Mevlut the Boza Seller and his family.

I have been putting off writing this for so long, Pamuk’s masterpiece (that’s my humble opinion, I’m just throwing it out there) left me struggling to work out how I could write what I want to write without just rambling on (like normal really). I listened to an interview with Pamuk on Open Book on Radio 4, to better write this review. I’m at the point now where writing this seems more insurmountable than the book seemed when I first dipped into it’s seven hundred odd pages.

What do I want to write? That after reading Istanbul, I thought Pamuk was a bit weird, but after reading this I want to read more of his fiction (for me he’s the opposite of Paul Theroux, who’s travel books I prefer to his fiction). I love Mevlut. While reading the book I kept thinking that if more people in the world were like him, it would be a better place. Yes there’s a certain lethargy, a lack of ambition, but he thinks of others, he feels, he has a strong sense of family, loyalty, just the right amount of optimism, and above all, hope. His situation at the beginning borders on ridiculous, but his placid acceptance of his fate belies someone who knows himself and knows when perhaps it’s better to quit while you’re winning, and that, deep down, he knew he had in fact won.

They were having a cup of tea at the Mountain View way station, where their bus had stopped for a quick break in the middle of the night, when she finally asked him, “For God’s sake, what’s the matter?”
¬†“There’s a strangeness in my mind,” said Mevlut. “No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in the world.” “You will never feel that way again now that I’m with you,” said Rahiya wither maternal feeling. As Rahiya snuggled up to him, Mevlut watched her dreamlike reflection in the window of the teahouse, and he knew that he would never forget this moment.

I loved the gentle laying out of the story. It is not rushed, allowing the reader, and perhaps Pamuk himself, to linger and savour it. I loved the other characters interrupting the narrator to offer their side of what happened and why they did it. Yet the focus, although sometimes zooming out to Istanbul, never falls far from Mevlut. Out of all them in the end, apart from Mevlut it was Vediha that I loved, that was perhaps the strongest character in the story, who despite being very much in the background, eclipsed both her sisters and did what was best for the family, even if it was not the best for her personally. I will also mention Rahiya, who knows the misdirection but who pours herself into their marriage and children and who supports Mevlut as he moves from job to job, always dreaming of a good income and a nicer house.

A Strangeness in my Mind is a tale of the city through it’s food, kitchens, habits, and it’s street vendors, the yoghurt sellers, Boza sellers, Chicken or rice sellers.

Into a pot of boiling water, he would throw a spoonful of margarine and whatever was left in the fridge, such as carrots, celery and potatoes, as well as a handful of the chilies and bulgur they’d brought from the village, and then he would stand back and listen to the pot bubbling away as he watched the infernal tumult inside. The little bits of potato and carrot whirled around madly like creatures burning in the fires of hell – you could almost hear them wailing in agony from inside the pot – and then there would be sudden unexpected surges, as in volcanic craters, and the carrots and celery would rise up close to Mevlut’s nose.

Starting off as a short novel about a street vendor, Pamuk was soon questioning about where Mevlut had come from, how had he come to Istanbul? The story mushroomed out and while wandering (and wondering) on his Boza rounds, Mevlut is aware of the city changing around him. His stubborn love of tradition offering others a way of maintaining their past, as he calls out his refrain through the night. It is the ideal job for someone who’s mind constantly ponders. The dark empty streets of Istanbul gives Mevlut time to retreat into the strangeness in his mind and to try and make sense of it, sometimes he does, sometimes it eludes him, but for him the enjoyment comes from the wondering, not the knowing.

It’s almost as if while walking his rounds,¬†Mevlut and Istanbul become entwined, and although Mevlut can’t live without Istanbul, he is aware that it will carry on without him.

Their story is the deeply personal story of one person, told through their community, told through their city that will still resonate with any person in any city in the world that has grown through from migration and modernisation, and Pamuk has woven a deeply personal yet also universal story about a street vendor, a city, a family or a love, or all of them, or none at all.

On the nights when the clouds gathered low, they would reflect in the city’s lemon-colored light, like strange lamps illuminating it from overhead. Amid this tangle of lights, it was difficult to distinguish the Bosphorus unless some ship’s spotlights, like the navigation lights of far away planes, briefly flickered in the distance. Mevlut sensed that the light and darkness inside his mind looked like the nighttime landscape of the city. Maybe this was shy he’d been going out into the streets to sell boza in the evening for the past forty years, no matter how little he earned from it.

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