Orhan Pamuk Takes A Fresh Look At His Beloved Istanbul In 'Strangeness'

Oct 20, 2015
Originally published on October 23, 2015 3:01 pm

Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk loves Istanbul. But he is a creature of the affluent corners of the city where he grew up and now lives, and he has written many times about the lives of Istanbul's secular upper class. His latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, is the story of a street peddler, one of the millions who began immigrating to Istanbul in the 1950s from small villages in the country.

On the cover of the book, underneath its paper jacket, is a picture of a city filled with intricately drawn skyscrapers. In the middle of it, a young man stands atop a domed building, looking down on the sprawl below. Pamuk himself drew the picture many years ago; he once wanted to be an artist, and studied architecture. He says all those buildings were a figment of his imagination.

"There was no such thing 25 years ago. Now, in the last 13 years, all that changed. My balcony that overlooks Bosphorus and the Asian side from Europe, now I see mushrooming skyscrapers so fast. As I was writing this book, I researched the future skyscrapers of Istanbul, I was even scared from what's coming up."

In the novel, Pamuk captures the rapid growth and change of his beloved city through the life story of an Anatolian peasant who moves to Istanbul in 1968 at the age of 12. He and his father live in a one-room house they build in one of the shanty towns on the edge of the city, where other immigrants are settling.

"I see the social change of the streets, of the shops, everything, of the way people behave, of the way people walk, talk, enjoy themselves in the streets of Istanbul, through the eyes of a lower-class character, Mevlut Karataş," Pamuk says.

Mevlut joins his father, selling yogurt during the day and a traditional fermented Turkish drink called boza at night. Boza has a slight alcoholic content, but that's not the main reason people love it. "It's nostalgic, it's a sort of romantic evocation of good old Ottoman times," Pamuk says. "And when the boza seller in a cold night — and boza should be enjoyed in cold days and cold nights especially — walking in the streets of Istanbul says 'Boooo-zaaaa!' you hear it, your motivation is more romantic imagination rather than 'let's have some alcohol.' "

Pamuk may share this romanticized view of the boza seller, but when he began to write about Mevlut, he knew he really had no idea what life was like for someone like him, who spent his days walking all over the city carrying a heavy load on his shoulders.

"I was the boy who was buying boza from Mevlut," Pamuk says. "When he came up, my grandmother opened the window, 'OK, boys, let's have some boza,' when he went up the stairs and gave us this magic liquid. I also saw the shanty neighborhoods, the poor neighborhoods from outside. For this book, I did extensive interviews with all these people, some of them 90 years old, who sold things in the streets of Istanbul. This book is heavily based on one-to-one interviews with many people."

A Strangeness in My Mind is also a love story, albeit one that gets off to a rough start. Mevlut falls madly in love with a woman after seeing her for just a moment at a family wedding. For three years, he writes her passionate love letters. Finally, with the help of his cousin Sulayman, he arranges to elope with her — only to discover that he has run off with the wrong woman.

Her name is Rayiha, and she is the sister of the woman Mevlut thought he loved. Despite this strange beginning, the two have a warm, passionate marriage. Rayiha not only supports her husband as he struggles to make a living, but she also gives meaning to his life. Pamuk says as he has grown older, his ideas about love have changed.

"And my understanding of love is not putting on a pedestal the first years or first romantic feelings, or the things that pop songs put on a pedestal. But I care about longevity, the struggle together, the friendship, sharing of the secrets, the partner being the center of the world."

Mevlut not only wanders through the city selling his wares; he also wanders through his life. He has a naive charm that attracts people to him. He is a witness to the many conflicts that are shaping Turkish culture, but he never gets swept up by any of it.

"My character Mevlut helped me — and of course my readers — go into strange corners of Istanbul, its history, various religious sects, political organizations, poor little shops, restaurants, and then, if he had strong opinions about everything he wouldn't have survived, because they would have attacked him. He is in that sense an Everyman, but an Everyman with a strange mind which is perhaps like my mind."

Pamuk says he is, in a way, Mevlut, "because I share his mind — not his life, though. ... In fact, I always tell my friends, 'You may not like my novel, but I'll be so happy if you like Mevlut,' and the Turkish reaction to it, I was very happy: They will never tell me the title of my book; they say, 'I read Mevlut, I like Mevlut, I like it!' "

Pamuk believes that reading a novel carries with it a kind of moral obligation to see the world from another person's viewpoint. He created Mevlut with that in mind. "I spent six years with my Mevlut," he says — the privileged, much-honored writer, trying to see his beloved city from a very different perspective.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two numbers outline the recent history of Istanbul, one of the great cities of the world. In 1950, the metropolitan area was home to fewer than 1 million people. Today, that same metropolis is believed to be home to more than 14 million. The numbers reflect the mass migrations from the countryside that have transformed many of the world's cities. And now here's a way to feel the meaning of those gigantic numbers. Read a novel by the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. His latest book "A Strangeness In My Mind" is the story of a street peddler, one of the millions who began moving to Istanbul in the 1950s from small villages. NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with the author.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: On the cover of Pamuk's new novel, underneath the book jacket, is a picture of a city filled with intricately-drawn skyscrapers. In the middle of it, a young man stands atop a domed building, looking down at the sprawl below. The picture was drawn many years ago by Pamuk, who once wanted to be an artist and studied architecture. Pamuk says all those buildings were a figment of his imagination.

ORHAN PAMUK: There was no such thing 25 years ago. Now, in the last 13 years, all that change. My balcony that overlooks Bosphorus and the Asian side from Europe, now I see mushrooming skyscrapers so fast. As I was writing this book, I researched for the future skyscrapers of Istanbul, I was even scared from what's coming up.

NEARY: In his novel, Pamuk captures the rapid growth and changes of his beloved city through the life story of an Anatolian peasant who moves to Istanbul in 1968 at the age of 12. He and his father live in a one-room house they build in one of the shanty towns on the edge of the city where other immigrants are settling.

PAMUK: I see the social change of the streets, of the shops, of everything - of the way people behave, of the way people walk, talk, enjoy themselves in the streets of Istanbul through the eyes of a lower-class character, Mevlut Karatas.

NEARY: Mevlut joins his father selling yogurt during the day and a traditional fermented Turkish drink called boza at night. Boza has a slight alcoholic content, but Pamuk says that's not the main reason people love it.

PAMUK: It's nostalgic. There is a sort of romantic evocation of good-old Ottoman times. And when the boza seller in a cold night - and boza should be enjoyed in cold days and cold nights especially - walking in the streets of Istanbul says boza. You hear it, your motivation is more romantic imagination rather than let's have some alcohol.

NEARY: Pamuk may share this romanticized view of the boza seller, but when he began to write about Mevlut, he knew he really had no idea what life was like for someone like him, who spent his days walking all over the city carrying a heavy load on his shoulders.

PAMUK: I was the boy who was buying boza from Mevlut when he came up. My grandmother opened the window - OK, boys, let's have some boza - when he went up the stairs and gave us this magic liquid. I also saw the shanty neighborhoods, the poor neighborhoods, from outside. For this book, I did extensive interviews with the oldest people, some of them 90 years old, who sold things in the streets of Istanbul. This book is heavily based on one-to-one interviews with many, many people.

NEARY: "A Strangeness In My Mind" is also a love story, albeit one that gets off to a rough start. Mevlut falls madly in love with a woman after seeing her for just a moment at a family wedding. For three years, he writes her passionate love letters. Finally, with the help of his cousin Sulayman, he arranges to elope with her, only to discover he has run off with the wrong woman.

PAMUK: (Reading) She hasn't closed the back door properly, says Sulayman. Mevlut got out and walked toward the back in the darkness. As he was shutting the door on the girl, there was a flash of lightning. And for a moment, the sky, the mountains, the rocks, the trees, everything around him lit up like a distant memory. For the first time, Mevlut got a proper look at the face of the woman he wants to spend a lifetime with. He would remember the utter strangeness of that moment for the rest of his life.

NEARY: Her name is Rayiha, and she is the sister of the woman Mevlut thought he loved. Despite the strange beginning, the two have a warm, passionate marriage. Rayiha not only supports her husband as he struggles to make a living, she also gives meaning to his life. Pamuk says as he has grown older, his ideas about love have changed.

PAMUK: My understanding of love is not putting on a pedestal the first years or first romantic feelings or the things that pop songs put on a pedestal. But I care about longevity, the struggle together, the friendship, sharing of the secrets, the partner being the center of the world.

NEARY: Mevlut not only wanders through the city selling his wares, he also wanders through his life. He has a naive charm that attracts people to him. He's a witness to the many conflicts that are shaping Turkish culture, but he never gets swept up in any of it.

PAMUK: My character Mevlut helped me and, of course, my reader go into strangest corners of Istanbul - its history, various religious sects, political organizations, poor little shops, restaurants. And then if he had strong opinions about everything, he wouldn't have been surviving because they will attack them. He is in that sense an everyman, but an everyman with a strange mind, which is perhaps like my mind.

NEARY: So you have something in common with your Mevlut?

PAMUK: All my childhood, my friends - and even in late teenagers and in my 20s - used to say to me Orhan, you have a strange mind. I am in a way Mevlut because I share his mind - not his life, though.

NEARY: It sounds like you really kind of love Mevlut a lot.

PAMUK: Yes. And in fact, I always tell my friends that you may not like my novel, but I'll be so happy if you like Mevlut. And the Turkish reaction to it that - I was very happy. They will never tell me the title of my book. They will see I've read Mevlut; I like Mevlut; I like it.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Pamuk believes that reading a novel carries with it a kind of moral obligation to see the world from another person's viewpoint. He created Mevlut with that in mind. I spent six years with my Mevlut, he says, the privileged, much-honored writer, trying to see his beloved city from a very different perspective. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.