A Strangeness in My Mind
A Strangeness in my Mind, the latest novel from Orhan Pamuk, is another of the author’s many odes to Istanbul. The novel touches on familiar ground for the writer, not the least of which being the city he grew up in. It also addresses the conflict between secular and religious groups in Turkey, as in his earlier novel Snow. It references heavily on the gap between the rich and the poor as in the novel The Museum of Innocence.
Like all of Pamuk’s novels the structure is very postmodern, and the characters regularly address the reader directly. This may be the most overtly religious novel since Snow and while Snow had religion as a central them, the main character was not religious. The main character, Mevlut, who is a boza seller primarily but has a succession of unskilled jobs throughout the novel, is a religious man who worries about problems of a religious nature regularly.
Women’s honor is less of a central theme than in The Museum of Innocence but Pamuk still touches upon the importance of marriage before sex in Turkish society. Also, the honor of men who feel themselves betrayed either by potential suitors or by their female relatives’ actions can be seen as a major influence on the plot.
This is the first novel from Pamuk that deals with immigration to Istanbul. Mevlut is an immigrant from rural Anatolia and has a firsthand view of life on the outskirts of Istanbul until the sprawl begins to bring the outskirts of Istanbul into the interior. Mevlut’s varied jobs give him a presence in several areas of the city and so the story is not only of immigration but also of local contrast. And by setting the story in the outskirts amongst the immigrants to the capital, Pamuk is able to portray a cross-section of the wider Turkey.
The main character is Mevlut but regularly it feels as though it is Istanbul. Parts of the novel come across almost as a funeral speech for a close friend or of close friends speaking about another who has passed away.
The book itself suffers from a bit of unwieldiness, as it has the size of an epic but not the fluidity of one. The sections sometimes feel more like a travel guide merged with a history book, and then had personal histories inserted at random. In general, this haphazard structure is enjoyable but it does not make it particularly easy to really get deep into the book. While never dull, the book does seem to meander along.
Pamuk remains one of the few writers who can write a love story without it being dull or cliché. While the novel never drifts into cliché, large parts of the story feel almost pre-ordained. This could be due to overfamiliarity with the author’s work, as there are quite a few surprises embedded in there. But somehow the overall effect of the novel seems like a bit of tighter editing was need. Especially as the last sections of the novel seem much more rushed and glossed over.
Unlike the author’s best novels Snow and My Name is Red this one does not match the intensely researched and deeply introspective storytelling of those. However it still manages to be a very good novel and could quite possibly be a platform (like The Silent House) for readers new to Pamuk.