In his appearance at Seattle’s Central Library on Nov. 4, 2015, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk described Mevlut Karataş as “an everyman with a romantic imagination — someone without strong religious or political beliefs who therefore can navigate between different groups of people.” Karatas is the quiet, unassuming star of Pamuk’s new novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind.” To bring Karatas to life, Pamuk set himself a challenge unlike any he’s done before: to draw a detailed portrait of a few of the millions of men and women who, beginning in the 1950s, began pouring into Istanbul from across Turkey.
These new arrivals built rough, illegal homesteads on the hilly outskirts of the “old” Istanbul and found work wherever they could, often as street sellers of yogurt, or in Karatas’ case, ice cream and boza. Boza is a fermented, ever-so-slightly alcoholic drink, served in Turkey with roasted chickpeas. To be a boza seller in Istanbul is to walk the neighborhoods at night with buckets hung from a wooden shoulder pole crying, “Boo-zaa, gooood boozaa!” until someone leans out the window of an apartment to call out “Boza seller, come on up!”
“… A large family would send down a servant with a tray, and everyone in the house, starting with the children, their uncles watching football on TV, their happy guests, gossipy aunts, spoiled little girls, and finally the shy and irritable little boys, would shout down from the fifth floor for all the world to hear exactly how much sour cherry and how much cream they wanted and which flavor should go inside the cone and which one on top, with an impertinence that surprised even Mevlut. Sometimes people would insist he come upstairs, and he would stand by a crowded family dinner table or by the doors of a rich family’s chaotic kitchen, witnessing little children doing joyful cartwheels on the carpet.”
But this is no sociological treatise on the lives of street sellers: We walk the roads with Mevlut, we eat, love and sleep alongside him from boyhood to his middle age. We get to know his wife, his family, his best friend, all from the inside out. We are the fly on the wall for the greater part of a fictional person’s real life. Pamuk describes Mevlut in third person, but he also includes first-person stories spoken by his wife Rayiha, his best friend Ferhat, his cousin Süleyman and others. From these short sections we find out what other family members are thinking, why they act as they do, as if each of them is trusting us with a long list of family secrets kept from one another. In this way, the ripples radiating from Karatas’ life expand until they seem to throw their arms around the entire sprawling ever-changing city.
“This is the story of the life and daydreams of Mevlut Karatas,” Pamuk begins the novel, and without further lead-in he tells the central story of Karatas’ life: how the teenaged boy catches a glimpse of a young girl’s eyes at his older cousin’s wedding; falls immediately and deeply in love; writes a stream of passionate letters to her for three years; hatches a plan (aided by the same cousin) to elope with her from her village at midnight only to discover that the woman running away with him has a different pair of eyes. They belong to his beloved’s sister, Rayiha — who then becomes his wife.
Toward the end of the book, when he and Samiha (of the soul-shattering eyes) are middle aged and finally dare to speak honestly about Mevlut’s letters and the moment they first crossed paths, he realizes “… how difficult it was to tell the truth and be sincere at the same time.”
It’s a thought Pamuk’s characters return to again and again. Hundreds of pages earlier, as Rayiha’s other sister Vediha describes the elaborate charade of Süleyman’s “casual” drop-by tea-times to meet an eligible daughter for a potential arranged marriage, she explains, “The lies were part of the ritual, and just because we were lying, it didn’t mean we weren’t sincere.”
“A Strangeness in My Mind” is more than the life of an extended family; it’s also the story of the ancient and thoroughly new city of Istanbul, pulsating, twisting with the agonies of nonstop growth as millions of people from eastern Turkey carve out a giant metropolis along the Bosphorus. Year after year, as Mevlut wanders the evening streets selling boza, with his signature call, “Boo-zaa, Boo-zaa!” he watches the city morph beyond recognition.
“Most of the old wooden houses he remembered from 20 years ago had disappeared, replaced by four- or five-storey concrete blocks … Mevlut could see that big apartment blocks had been constructed over what had been empty land, all the graveyards had vanished, and enormous trash cans had cropped up in even the remotest of neighborhoods, replacing the piles of trash that used to grow on street corners — and yet stray dogs still ruled these streets at night.”
It takes time for Pamuk’s ride-along effect to take hold, since the lives of Mevlut, his family and friends play out in everyday drama and comedy — the stuff of most of our lives. But if the book takes hold of you, then at some point the fourth wall of the novel will dissolve as it did for me — when I found myself in a corner of the single room flat of Mevlut and his wife Rayiha in the midst of a shattering argument between these two accidental lovers who deeply adore each other — and astonishingly, they don’t notice I’m standing there listening.
“A Strangeness in My Mind” cries out, “Attention must be paid,” similar to Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which also plumbed the depth of ordinary people’s lives. At his library talk in November, Pamuk said, “Once I see the general, I try to see the unique.” During the question period a few minutes later, a member of the audience asked if this novel can help us understand Turkey’s current politics. (The party of autocratic president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had just won re-election.)
Pamuk smiled patiently. He responded, “My books help you understand not only about elections, but about everything in life.”