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Pamuk: Under the Spell of Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk; drawing by Pancho

Uniquely among cities, Istanbul bridges two continents. It lies on the southeast frontier of Europe, while its suburbs expand across the Bosphorus straits into Asiatic Turkey. From a European viewpoint, the city may be the site where Asia begins; from the Turkish hinterland, it is the start of Europe. For a millennium and a half it was the fulcrum of two great Eurasian empires, the Byzantine and the Ottoman, and although it is no longer the nation’s capital—Atatürk rejected the city for Ankara—it remains Turkey’s cultural and economic heart. Now its ruptured geography exemplifies the country’s contending identities: the ambivalence toward both Europe and its Asian neighbors, the rankling sense of exclusion and the bursts of patriotic pride.

The metropolis has found its celebrant in Orhan Pamuk. Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, he is the preeminent Turkish writer of his time, and the witness to a city that his descriptions saturate in the subtle melancholy of hüzün, an aura steeped in yearning and disillusion. In his Istanbul: Memories and the City, he recorded an ambience inseparable from his childhood, the nostalgia for a fading patrician world of decaying villas and old families grown irrelevant. He is the poet of the city’s strangeness: of its damp back streets, its ferries calling through fog, a place inhabiting its own ruin. In The White Castle and My Name Is Red he made loving play with its Ottoman history, and returned to the upper-middle-class milieu of his own experience in The Museum of Innocence, published in 2008.

So it is initially surprising that his new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, is set not in Istanbul’s historic heart, but in the modern suburbs and slums that smother its surrounding hills: home to a flood of immigrants from Asiatic Turkey seeking a better life than their rural villages afford. These are a tough, adaptable people, who have transformed the multicultural metropolis of an earlier generation—once embracing thriving communities of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews—into a rougher and more contentious place. Now the city’s immigrants outnumber the native-born by three to one.

Pamuk’s attention to rural immigration—the source of Istanbul’s most glaring social problems—suggests a move toward conventional realism, exploring as he does the city’s most workaday dilemmas. But he has written scathingly about his country’s generation of socially concerned writers and his need to escape their tradition. “They were flat realists, not experimental,” he told an interviewer in 2005.

Like writers in so many poor countries, they wasted their talent on trying to serve their nation…. I did not want to be like them…. I had never aspired to the social-realist model….

Elsewhere he has written of his delight at jettisoning from his bookshelves the works of “mediocre, moderately successful, bald, male, degenerate writers between the age of fifty and seventy.”

In the same interview he expounded candidly on his hunt for originality: about how he combines traditional Turkish and Western themes and techniques to arrive at something peculiar to himself. However gritty its subject, A Strangeness in My Mind shares some of the traits of his earlier novels: a political coolness and irony, the tragicomic role of chance, and the impact of erotic or aesthetic obsession.

Its main character is a lonely dreamer familiar from Pamuk’s previous fiction. The twelve-year-old Mevlut arrives with his irascible father from a poor village in Anatolia. At first he is a model student at the local secondary school, but after school hours he must ply the streets selling yogurt with his father. Their life is hand-to-mouth. They survive in a remote slum, a region of gecekondular, the “night-built dwellings” whose existence is notionally legal if rushed up undisputed overnight, but whose occupants remain poor and vulnerable. On this humble level, as on others, family contacts are crucial, but family fortunes differ. Melvut’s immigrant cousins, Korkut and Süleyman, more worldly than him, find employment with a local property owner, while Mevlut remains working the streets.

The novel unfolds in a densely convincing progression of setbacks and ambitions, of occupations that promise and fail, of hardy perseverance and a saving optimism. Mevlut’s charm and cherubic good looks endear him to the households whose fleeting business he wins while making ends meet on the street. Petty criminality surrounds him. While managing a streetside café he remains naively ignorant that its employees are doing their own business on the side. As a parking attendant he has to accommodate the Mafia that commandeers free parking areas and charges drivers for protection. While working as an electric meter inspector he accepts, out of kindness, routine bribes for not cutting off the electricity of those in debt.

Alongside the careers of Mevlut and his cousins the novel charts the lives of the three sisters whom they desire or marry, and here a tragicomedy arises, springing from an emotional coup de foudre. This is familiar from Pamuk’s preceding novel, The Museum of Innocence, in which a momentary encounter alters the trajectory of a life. In The Museum of Innocence a man becomes so obsessed with his beloved (married to another) that he collects everything he associates with her—objects she touches or wears or sees—including 4,213 cigarette butts and the ruined Chevrolet in which she died. From these he assembles a museum to commemorate both his passion and her life. (And in real life Pamuk has assembled just such a collection in Istanbul: a museum of day-to-day artifacts that supported the novel’s writing.)

In A Strangeness in My Mind, the fateful encounter takes place at the wedding of Mevlut’s cousin Korkut. There, threading among the guests, Mevlut comes fleetingly face to face with a thirteen-year-old girl whose beauty haunts his adolescence. His younger cousin Süleyman identifies the girl as Rayiha, a sister of the bride, and for three years, using manuals such as Examples of Beautiful Love Letters and How to Write Them, Mevlut pens her florid and impassioned messages, which receive no reply. Then, after returning from military service, Mevlut enlists Süleyman’s help again, and one night they smuggle into their car the woman on whom—he imagines—he had once set eyes. Within a few minutes he realizes in the dark that Rayiha is not the beautiful girl he remembers, but her plain older sister. Süleyman has cheated him. But she is compromised, and it is too late.

From this episode flow events of vital consequence: Süleyman falls for Samiha, the beautiful youngest, who deserts him for Mevlut’s best friend. Mevlut goes on to marry and then love the plain Rayiha. But the absurdly formulaic love letters (“Your eyes are like ensorcelled arrows that pierce my heart and take me captive”) become a focus of marital sadness. To whom were they really written? To Samiha, whose face had inspired them, or to Rayiha, their mistaken addressee? Rayiha’s jealousy of the alluring Samiha troubles the marriage to its end. She bears Mevlut two daughters; but in their poverty she attempts to abort a third child, and dies at the age of thirty.

After Rayiha’s death, Mevlut and Samiha are drawn inexorably to wed. But happiness eludes them. Samiha (in the brief characterization allowed her) is more spoiled and willful than her sister, and is herself jealous of Mevlut’s love for his dead wife. As Mevlut reflects on the past, he starts to replace the remembered image of the young beauty at his cousin’s wedding with that of the lost Rayiha.

The novel ends on a note of triumph reminiscent of The Museum of Innocence, whose final sentence declares its hero’s conviction that he’s led a happy life through his lost beloved. In the last sentence of A Strangeness in My Mind, Mevlut too concludes with an assertion of his devotion: “He said it to himself: ‘I have loved Rayiha more than anything in this world.’”

To qualify fully for his love, it seems, a woman must be unattainable or dead.

Over almost six hundred pages the narrative is interspersed with brief sections in the words of others: the three sisters, the two cousins, and their older relatives. These first-person insertions serve to broaden the scope of the novel, but they are written in the author’s voice, shorn of any style or vocabulary peculiar to their speaker. In fact the novel’s characters are evoked not by their thinly sketched personalities but by their role in the raw practicalities of family politics and their pursuit of jobs and shelter. Above all Pamuk restricts the often furiously loved women to the clichés of their poorly educated husbands and lovers. Even their physical beauty goes undifferentiated.

As in The Museum of Innocence, whose obsessively adored heroine is routinely identified by commonplace attributes—“lovely,” “beautiful”—the physical feel and manner of the novel’s characters are subordinated to their function, and the loved women reduced by the male vision of them. “Like most Turkish men of my world who entered into this predicament,” the hero of The Museum of Innocence admits, “I never paused to wonder what might be going on in the mind of the woman with whom I was madly in love, and what her dreams might be; I only fantasized about her.”

Pamuk’s retreat from evoking human character, let alone psychology, is deliberate. In his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, delivered at Harvard in 2006, he insisted that the concept of character was a historical construct, born of Western culture—above all by the nineteenth-century novel—and hence alien to his country:

To say that character-creation should be the primary goal of the novelist runs counter to what we know about everyday human life…. More decisive than the character of a novelist’s protagonists is how they fit into the surrounding landscape, events, and milieu.

And again: “I have never been able to identify in myself the kind of character I encounter in novels—or rather, European novels.”

In A Strangeness in My Mind it is hard to know if the banality of the lovers’ relationships reflects the imagined limitations of their rural culture or some measured reticence in Pamuk’s style. He is at pains, from time to time, to establish a cooling distance between reader and text. He has been compared to Kazuo Ishiguro, whose stories advance slowly, incrementally, eschewing any hint of sensationalism. (The reader learns of Rayiha’s approaching death from a single phrase embedded in a workaday sentence.) Almost at the novel’s opening, there occurs an anticipatory chapter in which the now middle-aged Mevlut is still working as a street vendor in the alleys. After twenty-five years, nothing has changed. So the intervening bulk of the novel, the reader knows, will follow no upward trajectory, let alone a rags-to-riches saga. It is as if the author has purposely foreclosed any source of expectation.

In a further jolt to novelistic convention, Pamuk often writes himself playfully into the plot. In The Museum of Innocence, as well as in Snow, My Name Is Red, and The Black Book, he assumes a teasing part under his own name. He has described this elsewhere as a reminder to the reader that he is writing fiction. In A Strangeness in My Mind authorial directions and questionable assurances appear:

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Magnum Photos
Photograph of Istanbul by Ara Güler; from Orhan Pamuk’s novel A Strangeness in My Mind

Let me take this opportunity to point out that there are no exaggerations anywhere in this book, which is based entirely on a true story; I will narrate some strange events that have come and gone and limit my part to ordering them in such a fashion as to allow my readers to follow and understand them more easily.

There is no reason either to believe or to disbelieve this disclaimer. It too may be fiction.

In the end it is easy to regard the inhabitants of A Strangeness in My Mind not as important in themselves but as bit actors in the ongoing drama of Istanbul. They are creatures of hard circumstance. The city’s low horizons prescribe their jobs and dwellings. Their personal lives are still circumscribed by village custom, whose flouting comes at a cost.

Yet even under their own impact Istanbul is changing around them, and A Strangeness in My Mind, in its detailed depiction of constricted families and grimly forged careers, can be read as the latest chapter in the city’s history. As for Mevlut, after so many years living there,

he’d begun to feel increasingly alienated from it. Was it because of that unstoppable, swelling flood, the millions of new people coming to Istanbul and bringing new houses, skyscrapers, and shopping malls with them? He began to see buildings that had been under construction when he’d first arrived in 1969 already being demolished…. It was as if the people who lived in these old buildings had run out of the time they’d been allotted in the city. As those old people disappeared along with the buildings they’d made, new people moved into new buildings—taller, more terrifying, and more concrete than ever before.

The form of a city, Baudelaire wrote, changes faster than the human heart.

Yet these urban transformations overtake Mevlut too. In the end he and his relatives find themselves occupying apartments in the same high-rise building, and the wretched gecekondu of his childhood is demolished in a campaign of trumpeted improvements. In that hot summer, he writes,

none of the people who saw their homes disappear in a cloud of dust applauded…. Mevlut saw people cry, laugh, look away, or start fights as their houses were knocked down. When the time came for his own one-room house, Mevlut felt his heart breaking. He observed his whole childhood, the food he’d eaten, the homework he’d done, the way things had smelled, the sound of his father grunting in his sleep, hundreds of thousands of memories all smashed to pieces in a single swipe of the bulldozer shovel.

The downside of such moves from rustic squalor to urban anonymity—familiar throughout Asia—is bitterly voiced by the routinely dissatisfied Samiha: gardens lost overnight, community buildings demolished, wives so wretched they end up in a hospital, retarded building schemes that leave buyers in the street, overwhelming debt.

Zones of newly urbanized villagers are also seedbeds of revolt. Yet the political currents that ebb and flow through Pamuk’s narrative are described with ironic detachment, just as they are in his most overtly political novel, Snow. (Pamuk himself was dragged only reluctantly into his country’s political life in 2005, when he was threatened with jail for “insulting Turkishness” after he made comments about Turkey’s part in the Armenian genocide.) Pamuk describes a minor civil war erupting between two suburban slums in Istanbul in 1977, and in a half-humorous list enumerates their similarities (many) and differences (seemingly slight). But crucially the differences include a café in one district that is patronized by young Grey Wolf nationalists who are ready, for their cause, “to do anything, even to kill,” and a café in the opposing district, occupied by left-wing socialists, “ready to do anything, even to die,” for theirs.

Plunged into this maelstrom of jumbled motives and airy idealisms, Mevlut, alongside a left-wing friend, plasters Communist slogans over mosque walls at night; but then, four nights later, he has reluctantly to join his nationalist cousin Korkut in painting them over again and inserting the word “godless” in front of “Communist.”

Mevlut hopes that nothing much will happen. At school the posturing socialist students have taken over, and leave to join demonstrations after classes (or go off to the cinema). For two weeks there are riots and shootings, before the army moves in to round up leftists. These are the last of Mevlut’s schooldays.

In A Strangeness in My Mind, as in so many of Pamuk’s novels, the fascination lies less in subtlety of character than in the author’s—and perhaps his protagonist’s—cast of mind. “In every novel—no matter how much I resist it,” he has said,

there is a character whose thoughts, constitution, and temperament are close to my own and who carries a number of my sorrows and uncertainties…. I’d like to move beyond using such characters, but I can’t see the world without their lighting the way for me. They are the ones who make me feel as if I inhabit their world…. I pay most attention to the shadowy patches and moments of fragility in my books, as miniaturists do in their painting, and in much the same way I want readers to notice where I am troubled and sorrowful.

Mevlut is profoundly lonely, while often proclaiming himself happy. Sometimes he feels that his life is happening to somebody else. He might even be interchangeable with someone. Pamuk has described just such a sensation in his own life, immured in his parents’ house and dreaming that somewhere an identical Pamuk lived in another one just like it. In his third novel, The White Castle, two scholars—one Ottoman, one Venetian—swap identities. In his fourth, The Black Book, supposedly separate characters merge entirely.

When Mevlut walked the lanes of Istanbul, they “reminded him that there was another realm within our world, hidden away behind the walls of a mosque, in a collapsing wooden mansion, or inside a cemetery.” (One of the illustrations in the novel’s text is a sketch of an overgrown graveyard, filled with cypresses and tilted headstones: a picture from a Sufi tract called “The Other Realm,” which mesmerizes Mevlut.) The night streets of the city merge with the universe in his mind. Hence his addiction, over many years, to the selling of boza, a venerable Turkic drink of fermented wheat, beloved of a dying generation of city dwellers. His cry of “Boo-zaa” in the half-lit alleys becomes a mantra that brings him peace.

There is a solitary innocence to this occupation that makes Mevlut a recognizable Pamuk creation. Although the novel’s subjects belong to a rustic populace trying to hack out a future in the city, Mevlut embodies the nostalgic world of Pamuk’s old preoccupations. The boza seller is in love with tradition:

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.

Another Turkish generation or social class from Pamuk’s could find these nostalgic wanderings—and the notion of Istanbul’s hüzün—almost incomprehensible. The Franco-Turkish novelist Elif Şafak, some twenty years younger than Pamuk, writes:

I do not think hüzün is the word that embodies the gist of Istanbul, as Pamuk claims. Istanbul is a vibrant city that throbs, grows and pulsates with endless energy and hunger…. And my generation in Turkey is not a generation of melancholy.

Indeed it is easy to ascribe Pamuk’s feelings to his age, and to see his determined nostalgia as a regression to childhood: a tristesse that belongs more in his head than in Istanbul’s stones. Yet the city might be seen bifocally. Its centers are crowded and vigorous, but its gray stone and lowering skies, and the lingering memory of its long decay, can cast a spell consistent with that of Pamuk’s Istanbul. And to those who suffered in the city’s recent earthquakes, another specter looms:

Ever since the quake in 1999, Mevlut—like all residents of Istanbul—would sometimes catch himself thinking about “the big one,” the one the experts said was imminent and would destroy the whole city. In those moments, he would realize that this city where he’d spent forty years of his life, where he’d passed through thousands and thousands of doors, getting to know the insides of people’s homes, was no less an ephemeral thing than the life he’d lived there and the memories he’d made. The new tall buildings that were replacing his generation’s gecekondu homes would also disappear one day, along with all the people who lived inside them.

At another moment he imagines the modern high-rise edifices to be so many tombstones.

But this apocalyptic foreboding recedes before the obscure comfort of wandering the night city. Even when visiting New York Pamuk had imagined finding in its giant silhouettes the key to “the originals of the dreams of all my years”: a notion that might be stirred, he thought, by any great city. Mevlut’s solitary wanderings in nighttime Istanbul have the same inchoate expectation. They blend his fantasies with the dark phenomena around him, and offer the promise of pondering his way into an elusive realm of his own. The common ingredient of these dreams is an unmoored solitude.

“I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work,” Pamuk has written. “And then I’m happy.”