Monthly Archive for May, 2017

Wandering through Istanbul

Our reading choice for April was Orhan Pamuk’s  A Strangeness In My Mind, Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap. Pamuk’s  book  spans over 600 pages and four decades as it followed the wanderings of Mevlut, his family and friends through the cultural shifts and physical changes of Istanbul and its surrounding countryside. This was a long book and we had much to say about its narrative style, content and characters. The vast expanse of the novel is highlighted in the subtitle or strap-line to the novel which reads:

“Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View.”

One of the most striking stylistic aspects of the novel was Pamuk’s decision to vary his narrative perspective from Mevlut, or an omniscient narrator’s point of view, into the voice of several other key characters. It was agreed that, although this seemed strange and a little fragmented at the start, as it continued it became a way of exposing the lack of integration between the different perspectives of the characters.

Boza sellerWe looked at the first example of this where the previous scene described by Mevlut is contradicted by the new narrator. One reader described this as acting much like a Shakespearean aside. We agreed that the different narrative voices enabled the reader to get outside Mevlut’s head, thus exploring the story from different perspectives. This worked particularly well when Pamuk moved across the generations to expose the problems between the old and the new ways of thinking. We also noted how it allowed the reader to see life from the women’s perspective, which helped us to consider the role gender played in shaping the character’s choices. Mevlut’s voice was considered by all of us to be very distinct, and we talked about how it was described in the novel as melancholic; how his calling out to the people in the houses was like the call to prayer, which touched the people who heard it in a way that connected them to the past.

We asked the question as to how autobiographical the novel may be considered, and noted that it had not been well received in Turkey, perhaps because it told some unpleasant socio-political truths. Pamuk shows that Istanbul is not so much governed by its Muslim principles as by western values. He exposes a world were alcohol is consumed, albeit in sometimes hidden places, where prostitution exists alongside crime, hypocrisy and corruption. Pamuk calls the underworld gangs Mafia, which we considered a very loaded word and we wondered if this was the translator’s choice or Pamuk’s own terminology.

We considered that there were two different Istanbul’s in this novel, the physical space and the one in Mevlut’s mind. One of the group pointed to the quotation in chapter nine that highlights the city of the mind:

In a city you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city if that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes. (F&F, 2014. 107)

We considered the poignancy of this image and how it worked on many levels. We noted that it had echoes of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man in the way both protagonists walked their way physically through the city alongside exploring their understanding of the world they were inhabiting.

The title of the novel is taken from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which is quoted at the start of the opening chapter:

I had melancholy thoughts… a strangeness in my mind, A feeling that I was not for that hour, Nor for that place.

This concept is explored at several intervals, including the start and end of the novel, through Mevlut’s experience of walking the streets of Istanbul. It is mentioned in reference to his relationship both to the places he is physically inhabiting and to his relationships, specifically to the mistaken identity of his beloved (marrying Rayiha instead of Samiha) and sometimes both are entwined. In Chapter three, on the way to the village for their official wedding, Mevlut begins to fear meeting Samiha in case the truth about the mistake becomes obvious to Rayiha. She senses something is wrong and he replies:

“There’s a strangeness in my mind,” said Mevlut. “No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in this world.” “You will never feel that way again now that I’m with you,” said Rayiha with maternal feeling. As Rayiha 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. (F&F, 2014. 228)

As he wanders the streets in the years to come, he goes through many emotions but it is his love for his wife that keeps him grounded. When he is afraid of robbers, black dogs and poverty, he thinks of being at home with his wife and the girls. The safety they have together is only undermined when family plant seeds of doubt in their heads. Ferhat and Suleyman prove to be villainous in how they manipulate Mevlut, taking advantage of his good nature and exploiting his morality and work ethic.

The group discussed how Mevlut felt both connected to and estranged from the city. Unlike most of the other male characters, Mevlut is not motivated by money. He accepts the lot that he has been given with both optimism and naivety. He finds ways of coping with the difficulties by remaining, as one of our group suggested, “mentally dislocated” in his head. We considered how the novel could be described as an unconventional love story that begins with a trick leading him to become happily married to the right ‘wrong’ woman and ends with him declaring:

I have loved Rayiha more than anything in this world.

This led us to asking if he was a fortunate man. We decided that he worked against fortune to make his own fate, picking himself up and always seeing the good in others, which enabled him to get alongside the different groups. A comment was made that he had learnt this from his father who taught him as a young boy to ‘read’ people, thus helping him to stay out of trouble and yet also remaining true to himself. We talked about Mevlut’s sense of honour and how his father had instilled strong principles of right and wrong. We also saw his marriage as kismet, the perfect love match despite all the odds.

BozaThe group appreciated how much they were able to understand of the emergence of Istanbul into a modern city. We thought about the symbolism of the two hills and how it is a social commentary of an evolving city where the old fights against the new traditions. The city has its own life in this book and changes in both character and appearance throughout. The descriptions of the houses, the systems and the evolving spaces are breath-taking at times in how they evoke a sensual vision of the place and its people. An example of this is in the final chapter when Mevlut sits on the balcony of his cousins apartment surveying the modern city being built over the hills where he first lived as a young boy.

Mevlut realised that he was looking at the city from the same angle now as he had that time his father had taken him up the hill when he had first arrived in Kultepe. From this spot forty years ago you would have seen factories everywhere and all the other hills fast filling up with poor neighbourhoods, starting from the bottom and working their way to the top. All that Mevlut could see now was an ocean of apartment blocks of varying heights. […]

What faced him now was a vast wall of windows, The city – powerful, untamed, frighteningly real – still felt unbreachable, even to him. The hundreds of thousands of windows lined up along this wall were like so many eyes watching him. […]

Mevlut sensed that the light and the darkness inside his mind looked like the nighttimes landscape of the city. Maybe this was why 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 (178, 179)

Mevlut had pondered a similar thought in chapter 15 where he starts building up a friendship with the holy guide. The group considered the holy guide as being like the oracle in Greek plays, a device to help the protagonist to find their spiritual way. Mevlut thought of him as someone with all the answers and he certainly enables him to see the city in less physical terms. He becomes symbolic of the spiritual side of Turkey which remains present despite the secular spaces and helps the writer to explore how music and art may be in conflict with religion, as for example in the whirling dervishes. Mevlut does not appear as a devoutly religious man but he has beliefs and a strong philosophical side. The holy guide was described by one member of the group as a father figure for Mevlut who challenges him, refusing to answer his questions but enabling him to keep searching for his own answers. It is through seeing him that Mevlut returns to the philosophy of his life:

his long nightly walks weren’t just part of his job anymore, they were something he felt he needed to do. When he didn’t go out wandering the streets at night, his powers of thought and imagination flagged. (350)

One of the thoughts he pondered upon led to his fixation on gravestones and to his framing a picture from a religious pamphlet called The Righteous Path.

Walking fuelled his imagination and 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. The Righteous Path had published a picture of this world as it existed in Mevlut’s mind. The image illustrated a series of articles entitles ‘The Other Realm’. […] Why were the gravestones keeling over? Why were they all different, some of them sloped sideways in sorrow? What was that whiteness coming down from above like a divine light? Why did old things and cypress tress always make Mevlut feel so good? (191)

He refers back to this image later in the book, after the earthquake, when he begins to see the buildings as similar to the gravestones. This suggests a connection between his beliefs about the actual world and the hidden realms. The political and religious backdrop for the main plot strengths the sense of two forces at work in the physical and spiritual realms. The earthquake suggests an inevitability that the new will have to replace the old; that the sad loss of traditional spaces (and their cultural dimensions) is the only way to make the damaged city a safer place to live. Mevlut, who has lived through the changes, is able to see the old beneath the new buildings and becomes a bridge that connects traditional Istanbul with its modern day façade.

Anthea Cordner