Review: James Leyon Orhan Pamuk

Erosion of the Will: A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

In his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City (2005), Orhan Pamuk writes of the Turkish concept of hüzün. The word is derived from Arabic and describes a condition of spiritual agony or grief that is akin to the Western concepts of melancholy and tristesse. Unlike those terms, however, hüzün does not simply refer to an individual state of being; it expresses a collective heartache, a communal languor generated by a shared sense of loss. This is the condition Pamuk ascribes to his home city. Its character and unique atmosphere are defined by the fact that it was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire but has become a rather shabby metropolis marked by the signs of its post-imperial decline and decay: ‘the hüzün of Istanbul,’ he states, ‘is something the entire city feels together and affirms as one.’

Pamuk goes on to observe that this shared condition manifests itself as a peculiar kind of passivity. It suggests ‘nothing of an individual standing against society; on the contrary, it suggests an erosion of the will to stand against the values and mores of the community, encourages us to be content with little, honouring the virtues of harmony, uniformity, humility’. To illustrate the point, Pamuk recalls watching old Turkish films in black and white, romantic melodramas in which

the moment of identification is always the same. It is when the heroes have withdrawn into themselves, when they have failed to show enough determination or enterprise, submitting instead to the conditions imposed on them by history and society, that we embrace them, and at that same moment, so does the whole city … it seems to me that hüzün does not come from the hero’s broken, painful story, or from his failure to win the hand of the woman he loves; rather, it is as if the hüzün which infuses the city’s sights and streets and famous views has seeped into the hero’s heart to break his will.

The immediately striking feature of this impression, which Pamuk concedes may have something to do with his sentimental responses to familiar images of old Istanbul’s crumbling cityscape, is its inversion of conventional notions of heroism. The moment of identification is not only a moment of defeat, but a moment in which the protagonist’s individuality is subsumed. This absorption into a communal narrative runs counter to the very notion of ‘character’, in the affirming sense of the word that is synonymous with whatever is distinctive, independent, assertive or unique about a person. Even those anti-heroes of Western literature who are defined by their ignorance or powerlessness – the protagonists in Beckett or Kafka, for example – have a kind of inverted autonomy implied in their existential isolation. But for Pamuk this would seem to be a crucial distinction. The communal quality of hüzün naturally enfolds the literary notion of character into larger questions of cultural identity.

The critical cliché about Pamuk is that he is preoccupied with the cultural tensions between East and West. The cliché is true, up to a point. In subtle and complex ways, Pamuk’s novels depict a Turkish society caught between the conflicting imperatives of tradition and modernity. The ideological, ethnic and religious divisions that are dramatised in his work are determined by the nation’s geography and history – not only the fact that Turkey bridges Europe and Asia, but the fact that it is an ethnically diverse, majority Muslim nation that officially embraced secularism in the early twentieth century under Atatürk, the founding father of the Turkish republic. The city of Istanbul encapsulates the odd sense of alienation the nation’s multifaceted and conflicted cosmopolitanism is apt to engender. But it does so in a way that would seem to render the shared melancholy of hüzün decisively (and rather puzzlingly) paradoxical, since Istanbul’s embracing communal spirit coexists with its definitively inessential quality, which manifests itself as an inability to belong:

Caught as the city is between traditional culture and Western culture, inhabited as it is by an ultra-rich minority and an impoverished majority, overrun as it is by wave after wave of immigrants, divided as it has always been along the lines of its many ethnic groups, Istanbul is a place where, for the past hundred and fifty years, no one has been able to feel completely at home.

A concern with the philosophical and aesthetic implications of this Janus-faced aspect of Turkish culture and society is evident throughout Pamuk’s work. In his extraordinary historical murder-mystery My Name is Red (1998), set among a group of miniaturists in sixteenth-century Istanbul, traditional Islamic practices of illustration are being disturbed by new artistic techniques filtering through from the West, where it is rumoured that portraitists are striving to paint realistically, to capture the individuality of their subjects, even to develop their own characteristic styles. The murder plot comes to turn on the disputed question of whether an illustrator should cultivate a distinctive style, whether it is acceptable to depart from the techniques of the old Arab masters, since an individual style would by definition constitute an imperfection, and thus has the potential to become a form of self-incrimination.

But in Istanbul and the essays and interviews collected in Other Stories (2007), the emphasis is not on the clash of cultural assumptions and practices. Instead, Pamuk stresses the creative advantages of possessing such a culturally divided and paradoxical consciousness. For much of the nineteenth century, he notes, there was precious little indigenous Turkish literature. The enduring descriptions of the city from that period are those of Western writers, such as Flaubert and Nerval. This external perspective, he argues, creates a kind of double-vision in the native writer, for whom the salient feature of such accounts is not, as Edward Said’s theory of ‘orientalism’ would have it, the way in which they romanticise Istanbul as an exotic city of minarets, harems and dervishes (though Pamuk acknowledges that they do this, to some extent), but the shamefaced sense of recognition they inspire. He proposes that there is an intellectual and creative liberation to be found in this divided perspective. ‘To see Istanbul through the eyes of a foreigner always gives me pleasure,’ he writes, ‘in no small part because the picture helps me fend off narrow nationalism and pressures to conform.’ In a chapter discussing four ‘melancholy’ early twentieth-century Istanbul writers, each of whom was wrestling with the problem of how to create a modern Turkish literature, Pamuk proposes that their awareness of the European gaze allowed them to view their society both from with and from without. It gave them the freedom to define themselves as writers, to act

contrary to the dictates of society and the state, to be ‘Eastern’ when asked to be ‘Western’ and ‘Western’ when they were expected to be ‘Eastern’ – these might have been instinctive gestures but they opened up a space that gave them the protective solitude they so craved.

Pamuk’s cultivation of a similarly ambiguous stance is thus a literary question as much as a political or philosophical one, a way of avoiding too close an association with any particular viewpoint that might be seen to constrain or overdetermine his writing. But it also conflates these aspects of his work in a decisive manner. Early in his career, he was sometimes pegged as a ‘postmodern’ writer on the strength of the visible element of formal gamesmanship in his novels, and he has credited the creative breakthrough of his early novel The Black Book (1990) to his deepening appreciation of the affinities between traditional Arabic modes of storytelling and postmodern writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. More recently, in The Museum of Innocence (2008) and A Strangeness in My Mind, he has pursued a style of fiction more closely aligned with the broad-canvas satisfactions of nineteenth-century social realism (without eschewing his acute formal awareness or the occasional self-reflexive moment). What these works have in common is a desire to reconcile his love of Western literature to the reality of his immediate culture and physical surroundings, to address that reality and the pressing issues it raises, while remaining true to what he has called the ‘imaginative novelist’s greatest virtue’: the ability to retain that state of ‘childlike innocence’ which allows him the writerly freedom ‘to be irresponsible and delight’ in that world.

The difficulty of balancing these competing imperatives is particularly evident in Snow (2002), the most politically charged of Pamuk’s novels. Its central protagonist, a poet named Ka, is a Western-oriented intellectual and sometime resident of Frankfurt, who is sent as a journalist to the town of Kars on the easternmost edge of Turkey to report on a spate of suicides among young Muslim girls. Ka’s role as a journalist compels him to investigate and consider the views of all sides of the political storm that is brewing between the local Islamists and secular nationalists. His own views are conflicted. He is nominally an ‘atheist’, but is sympathetic toward the politically resurgent Islamists and expresses a desire to believe in God, who is symbolised in the novel by the falling snow that is enshrouding the town. The novel portrays politics as a kind of theatre – literally in the case of a scene in which a military coup occurs in the middle of a performance of a nationalist play – but it also positions Ka as a fulcrum for the arguments, rather than a committed participant, for reasons that one suspects have much to do with the author’s desire to remain aloof from the political conflict that drives the plot.

The novelistic purpose of this is to avoid political tendentiousness, but it also means that Ka’s character is defined negatively. His detachment and lack of conviction combines with his lovelorn demeanour (there is always a love story in Pamuk’s novels) to make him seem an oddly free-floating creation, his studiously non-committal stance shading into passivity and lack of will. He is presented not so much as a cipher as a conduit through which the novel’s arguments about religion and politics might be channelled. This is most dramatically illustrated in those moments of high-romantic inspiration that punctuate the novel, in which poems come to Ka in their entirety, as if bestowed by divine grace – poems that fuse the inchoate yearning of his soul to the anguish of his divided nation.

In Istanbul, Pamuk remarks that when he was a younger man he had the ambition to write a novel about his home city that might rival James Joyce’s depiction of early-twentieth-century Dublin in Ulysses (1922). A Strangeness in My Mind is not that book. It has neither the exuberance of style nor the palpable sense of detail that characterise Joyce’s masterwork. But it is perhaps possible to detect traces of Pamuk’s worthy ambition in the novel’s overt concern with the growth and transformation of Istanbul, and the way it weaves an examination of the social and political forces that have shaped modern Turkey around a sympathetic portrayal of a decisively ordinary central character, a humble street vendor named Mevlut Karataş.

Mevlut is presented as a kind of paragon of averageness. He receives a basic education, attending high school before dropping out to work alongside his father. Like most of the Turkish population, he is a Muslim, but he reflects his nation’s official secularism by not being particularly devout or observant. He is honest, diligent and decent. He has vague dreams that one day he might become rich. On several occasions, he is described as ‘innocent’. As his best friend Ferhat observes, ‘it is difficult to get mad at Mevlut’.

Over the course of the novel, which spans more than four decades beginning in the late-1960s, Mevlut works hard to provide for his family, slogging his way through a series of menial occupations. He sells yoghurt, rice dishes and ice-cream on the street; he opens a short-lived shop with his brother-in-law; he works as a parking lot attendant; he takes a low-level job with a newly privatised electricity company. Simmering in the background are the major upheavals and calamities of modern Turkish history – political clashes, outbreaks of ethnic and sectarian violence, terrorist attacks, military coups, a major earthquake (the novel comes with a timeline of contextualising events, some of which are mentioned in the course of the narrative, some not) – but even when these events intrude into Mevlut’s life, they tend to do so distantly or indirectly. His horizons remain proscribed by the immediate demands of making a living.

Pamuk makes it clear that we are meant to see Mevlut as a representative figure. He places particular emphasis on the fact that Mevlut goes out each evening to sell boza, a traditional Turkish wheat-based drink served with chickpeas and cinnamon. The figure of the boza seller, who wanders through the streets calling to his customers, carrying his wares with the aid of a long stick balanced across his shoulders, is romanticised in A Strangeness in My Mind as a living connection to a tradition that endures in the face of Istanbul’s material transformation. The beverage itself is understood to represent something of the tension between Turkey’s official secularism and its majority religion, since boza is lightly fermented, yet many Turkish Muslims subscribe to the convenient fiction that it contains no alcohol. The significance of boza is not lost on Mevlut, who speaks passionately in defense of its traditional importance and at one point describes the drink as ‘holy’, prompting his louche cousin Süleyman to observe: ‘that means you’re like a symbol of something bigger, Mevlut’.

A Strangeness in My Mind begins with two dramatic and beautifully paced scenes, which take place more than twenty years apart. The opening pages plunge us into a stormy night in 1982. An anxious Mevlut, aided by Süleyman, is eloping with Rayiha, a village girl he has been wooing by letter for three years, having glimpsed her only once before at a wedding. As he is spiriting her away, however, he realises that something is awry. Rayiha is not the beautiful young girl with whom he exchanged meaningful looks three years earlier and whom he had imagined himself addressing in his love letters, which were full of lavish praise for her entrancing eyes. He has been tricked into eloping with the beautiful girl’s older and less attractive sister.

The second scene takes place in 1994. Late one night when he is out selling boza, Mevlut is approached by two men, a father and son, who intimidate him before robbing him at knifepoint. The juxtaposition of these opening scenes establishes the novel’s entwined themes and the parameters of Mevlut’s symbolic relationship to his city, and by extension his nation. They are two defining moments of disillusionment, one in which his innocence results in him being duped, and the other in which his felt affinity with the streets of Istanbul comes face-to-face with the city’s dark side. What is significant about these two moments is that neither results in any major crisis of confidence or significant alteration in Mevlut’s character, even though he briefly considers giving up boza-selling in the wake of his mugging. He does the honourable thing after eloping with Rayiha and goes through with the marriage. More importantly, the marriage succeeds. They come to love each other. One of the most touching aspects of A Strangeness in My Mind is its depiction of the mutually supportive relationship that develops between them. Mevlut’s good-heartedness and stoicism in the face of adversity reflect the quality of his character. He is someone who abides and endures; he makes the best of things.

Mevlut can be read, on one level, as a counterpoint to the troubled bourgeois protagonists of several of Pamuk’s earlier novels. Galip in The Black Book, Ka in Snow and Kemal in The Museum of Innocence all belong to that affluent, educated and cosmopolitan strata of Turkish society which has embraced Westernisation, however ambivalently. Their social backgrounds and attitudes are, in this sense, broadly aligned with those of Pamuk himself. Mevlut belongs to a very different social class. He part of that ‘impoverished majority’ alluded to in Istanbul and, as such, does not share the divided sense of cultural loyalty or their propensity for brooding self-examination that has been a feature of Pamuk’s protagonists. He embodies the quiet dignity of the hardworking common man. He is meant to represent a stolid, grounded, native and (one is tempted to infer) essential Turkishness.

What Mevlut conspicuously shares with Galip, Ka and Kemal, however, is his air of melancholy. The title of A Strangeness in My Mind is taken from Wordsworth’s Prelude, where the line refers to the poet’s ‘melancholy thoughts’. Mevlut, who is unlikely to have even heard of Wordsworth, also feels ‘a strangeness in my mind … No matter what I do, I feel completely alone in this world.’

This sense of isolation combines with his humble occupation to give Mevlut the ability to move between different layers of Turkish society in the manner of a picaresque hero. Early in the novel, his father advises him about the life of a street vendor: ‘You will see everything without being seen. You will hear everything but pretend that you haven’t.’ This proves to be the case. Mevlut encounters bourgeois secularists, unscrupulous capitalists, communists and Islamists. His disquiet and lack of any strong affinity allows him to adapt and play along as circumstances dictate, while keeping other people’s concerns at arm’s length.

In a worldly sense, this translates into an absence of political commitment, even in the thick of heated political conflict. Like Ka in Snow, who finds political meetings to be ‘full of childish posturing and exaggeration’, Mevlut thinks there is ‘something pretentious about politics when it [is] taken to extremes’. When political fights break out between students at his school, he takes his father’s advice and remains passive and detached, literally standing to one side until the fight is over. He finds no issue significant or pressing enough to get him off the fence. When Islamists object to a play and burn down a crowded theatre, Mevlut thinks that insults to the Prophet are absolutely not to be tolerated, but that killing people is maybe taking things a bit too far. When leftists and rightists square off over a land dispute – a confrontation that will end in murder, mass arrests and torture – he does not understand why the matter could not be settled honourably. When Ferhat asks who he would support in an honourable fight, Mevlut the small-businessman contradicts his stated desire to become rich:

‘I’d support the socialists,’ said Mevlut. ‘I’m against capitalism.’

‘But aren’t we supposed to set up shop in the future and become capitalists ourselves?’ said Ferhat with a smile.

‘I like how the Communists look out for the poor,’ said Mevlut. ‘But why don’t they believe in God?’

Later in the novel, Ferhat teases him again:

‘You’re pretty good at keeping left and right happy, aren’t you … You’d make a good shopkeeper now, with all this bowing and scraping.’

‘I wouldn’t mind being a good shopkeeper.’

The ideological confusion born of naivety (or, less generously, simple-mindedness) is central to Mevlut’s character, and thus a definitive feature of the novel. It reflects Pamuk’s wider ambition, evident across his work and articulated most clearly in Other Colours, to avoid writing narrowly politicised fiction and maintain his allegiance to the higher principles of art and imagination. This is not to suggest that Pamuk is unwilling to speak out on matters of political importance. In 2005, he faced a three-year jail term for mentioning the 1915 massacre of approximately a million Armenians, an event still officially denied by the Turkish government (there is perhaps a sly reference to this episode in A Strangeness in My Mind when a minor character quips that if she were to write a book about the men she has known, she would ‘end up on trial for insulting Turkishness’). But the fact that Mevlut is presented as a symbolic figure, and not simply as a character who is of interest in his own right, creates a disconnect between his quotidian dramas and the sweeping social and political developments that are taking place around him.

Mevlut’s lack of significant involvement in the upheavals of modern Turkish history is symbolically necessary, since it defines his central role in the novel as the embodiment of a tradition that  somehow exists apart from the reality of social and political change. Yet it also makes him an embodiment of hüzün’s paradoxical combination of alienation, passivity and immersive identification. This paradox feels strained in A Strangeness in My Mind, at least in part because he is such an innocent. Like Ka, Mevlut is a passive character who is open to being swayed by the conflicting viewpoints he encounters, but stops short of embracing them wholeheartedly. He is thus able to reflect the conflicting and at times overlapping ideologies of modern Turkey in a way that casts them in a gently ironic light. When Islamists win a local election, for example, Mevlut is quiety pleased because he thinks they will crack down on al fresco dining, which will mean more business for street vendors. Unlike Ka, however, Mevlut’s conflicted existence is not a symptom of a divided cultural perspective; it is not the result of him possessing an intellect that looks to the West and a heart that lies in the East. In this sense, Mevlut is a kind of negative image of Ka, less a conduit for larger questions than a character whose intransigent integrity places him outside of his society, even as he is able to penetrate into its private realms.

A Strangeness in My Mind includes many countering voices. Ferhat, a communist in his youth, is scornful of his friend’s attraction to religion, which is driven by Mevlut’s instinctive sense that religion represents a deep connection to tradition and encouraged by the relationship he develops with a benign old Islamic scholar known as the Holy Guide. He receives questionable advice from his materialistic and rather unscrupulous cousins Korkut and Süleyman (there is a telling irony in the fact that such a dodgy small-time businessman should be named after such a great Ottoman Sultan). Perhaps the most significant counterpoint to the unworldly Mevlut, however, is a minor character named Hadji Hamit Vural, a shady property developer who also comes from humble origins but succeeds in becoming rich and powerful, and draws many of Mevult’s friends and family into his sphere of influence in the process. His rise is also entwined in the novel with the rise of Islamism, as he gains his reputation as a great benefactor by constructing a giant mosque. Vural represents the the most inexorable of the forces that have reshaped modern Istanbul, namely the value of land and the power of capital – and, of course, their shady partners in crime: cronyism, bribery and standover tactics.

This would seem to be part of Pamuk’s point. Capitalism is a remorseless engine of social transformation. It is indifferent to tradition. It has no time for the virtues of harmony, uniformity and humility, or indeed for the concerns of the unfortunate human beings who happen to get in its way. Over the course of the novel, Mevlut becomes increasingly conscious that the city’s transformation and the corruptions of its materialistic culture are alienating him from his once familiar environment – inviting the allegorical reading that the process is alienating Istanbul from itself, from its own rich history and traditions. As his cousin Korkut remarks: ‘It’s true that the whole world is against the Turks, but the biggest enemies of the Turks are the Turks themselves.’

In Ulysses, Joyce took an ‘ordinary’ man – an everyman who is also an outsider, an urban wanderer possessed of a humane and forgiving spirit – and showed him to be extraordinary and heroic in his own quiet way. Mevlut is ordinary in a more stubborn sense, to the extent that one begins to feel that there is some idealising of simplicity going on. The perspective of the novel reinforces this impression. Mevlut is the subject of the novel, but he is also an object of scrutiny. His life is presented in a manner that is reminiscent of documentaries and reality television: sections written in the third-person relating his movements are interspersed with the often bemused first-person testimonies of his friends and family. Though the free-indirect style of the third-person sections allows some access to Mevlut’s private thoughts and feelings, he is viewed from without, our understanding of him mediated by the impressions of other characters.

Mevlut’s unworldliness has a corresponding air of unreality; the novel’s conflation of his state of mind with the city of Istanbul creates a contradiction it is unable to resolve. Near the end of A Strangeness in My Mind, Mevlut looks out of an upper-storey window at a transformed cityscape and realises that he has become ‘alienated’. The old buildings and neighbourhoods he remembers from four decades earlier have been effaced, torn down and replaced with high-rise apartments. He sees a new Istanbul that is ‘powerful, untamed, frighteningly real’, imagining the city’s hundreds of thousands of windows as eyes staring back at him. Yet on the very next page he is taken by the fancy that the streets, with their profusion of vistas and mysterious signs, are merely a projection of his dreams, that the strangeness in his mind is the image of the city itself. He understands ‘the truth that part of him had known all along: walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were walking around inside his own head’.

The apparent contradiction is an attempt to close the circle of the novel, to enfold Mevlut’s story into the story of modern Istanbul. The novel’s central conceit that his personal disquiet and the tumult of the city’s recent history are somehow synonymous connects A Strangeness in My Mind to the large issues of cultural identity that run throughout Pamuk’s work. But on a symbolic level it proves to be more than Mevlut’s humble and ingenuous character can bear. One of the novel’s epigraphs is attributed to the journalist Celâl Salik, a character from Pamuk’s early novel The Black Book: ‘The gulf between the private and public views of our countrymen is evidence of the power of the state.’ Late in the novel, Ferhat observes: ‘Mevlut, you’ve somehow managed to bridge the gulf between what people think in private and what they say in public … You’ve got this whole nation figured out.’ Yet on a fundamental level he clearly hasn’t got it figured out. In the end, Mevlut falls on his feet, but the deeper processes that have driven the alienating changes to Istanbul’s cityscape remain mysterious to him. The implication of the epigraph is that the tension between Turkey’s official secularism, the rise of political Islam, and the nation’s ethic and class divisions – all of which inform the novel’s depiction of the actute conflict between tradition and modernity – has resulted in a public sphere in which the state wields its power too heavily. This is borne out in the novel, and credible enough with regard to a country that has a history of military coups (one of the amusing observations in the novel is that both communists and Islamists always make sure they have a portrait of Atatürk on display, so that if there is a police raid they can claim their loyalty to the republic). But the Holy Guide’s distinction between a person’s public and private intentions, and his advice to Mevlut to make the intentions of his words and heart coincide – a scene the novel styles as a defining moment – seems like a rather sentimental and unrealistic reply to an extraordinarily difficult political question.

This perhaps why the conclusion to this finely imagined and richly populated novel strikes such a sentimental note, its final pages celebrating not only a city and its people, but all of humanity. ‘Human beings were made to be happy, honest and open,’ thinks Mevlut, caught up in a moment of domestic harmony. I am not so cynical as to dismiss this idea out of hand (not yet, anyway), but it does not necessarily follow from the many examples the novel has provided of human beings behaving in ways that are unhappy, dishonest and secretive. A Strangeness in My Mind is a deeply romantic novel in the everyday sense of the world, and a very moving one at that, but it is also a work that wants to claim its share of socio-political relevance without dirtying its passive hero with the messy reality of politics.


Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber, 2006).
⎯ Istanbul: Memories of a City, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber, 2005).
⎯ The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber, 2010).
⎯ My Name is Red, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar (Faber, 2001)
⎯ Other Colours, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber, 2007).
⎯ Snow, translated by Maureen Freely (Faber, 2004).