A Strangeness in My Mind


The opening twelve pages of Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind reminds you just how effective a writer he can be. In it he describes the pivotal moment in the six hundred pages which follow, when his protagonist, Mevlut elopes with Rayiha, to whom he has been addressing his love letters for the last four years – only to discover she is not the sister he though she was:

“They had shown him the pretty sister at the wedding, and then given him the ugly sister instead. Mevlut realised he’d been tricked. He was ashamed and couldn’t even look at the girl whose name may well not have been Rayiha.”

This scene from 1982 is swiftly followed by another important moment twelve years later when Mevlut, who has spent much of the intervening time making a living selling boza as a street vendor (boza is an alcoholic drink which is sold under the premise it is not alcoholic and therefore acceptable for Muslims to drink), is robbed on his nightly rounds, and decides that perhaps his boza-selling days are over.

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Unfortunately such narrative urgency rarely reappears. Having teased us with two moments of genuine tension, Pamuk begins again in 1968, with the intention of telling Mevlut’s story in enormous detail before repeating the elopement (and, later, the mugging). One reason the pace of the novel slows is that he moves from an omniscient narrative to a chorus, where the voices of various characters interrupt the main narrative with comments. This gives the novel the feel of a (to be kind) documentary or a (less kind) reality show, where every action demands a cut-away to a talking head. This impression is created by the brevity of the interruptions and the manner of the comments – all as if addressed to an interviewer, and all focusing on Pamuk’s topic – Mevlut’s life. Take, for example, the voices from Chapter 3, all beginning with some reference to Mevlut:

“Mevlut wasted a year back in the village…”

“I didn’t like the way Uncle Mustafa said, ‘Mevlut doesn’t get into fights.’”

“’The blazer’s got a hole in the lining of the left pocket, but don’t get it sewn up,’ I told a bewildered Mevlut.”

“I know you go to see your uncle’s family in secret, I would tell Mevlut…”

“That’s not true: Mevlut know that the real reason why…”

For this reason, the novel becomes very reliant on how interesting the reader finds Mevlut. Unfortunately, Pamuk’s primary purpose, that the novel tell the story of an ordinary, unassuming Turk, rather conflicts with the detail in which he feels it necessary to tell that story. There is certainly something to be said for presenting Mevlut’s day-to-day, year-to-year struggle to make a living, particularly when faced with the corruption of Istanbul, but to sustain this over such a length is another matter.

Of course, many critics will tell you that Pamuk’s real subject is Istanbul and this certainly seems to be how he sees himself. Pamuk choreographs his characters so as to create a map of the city’s development over the last fifty years. When compared to other novelists associated with a particular city, however – Dickens and London is the most obvious example – Pamuk’s view of Istanbul seems cosily nostalgic. Mevlut’s career as a boza seller is the most obvious example of this: despite Pamuk’s acknowledgement that this is a difficult, poorly rewarded (and, ultimately, out-dated) job, Mevlut can only talk of it with love. Dickens is an interesting comparison because what Pamuk most seems to lack is Dickens’ range of tone – this is a novel without humour or anger, satire or pathos – his voice instead stuck in a folksy ‘story-telling’ mode.

A Strangeness in My Mind is certainly a better novel than The Museum of Innocence, but it strikes me that Pamuk’s pre-Nobel novels are much better than those he has written since winning the prize. The length of both suggest self-indulgence, a writer who can no longer edit himself or be edited. His presence on the Man Booker International Prize short list indicates that he still has his admirers – he was certainly an ever-present when it came to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – but I would have much preferred to see the work of fresher (female) voices represented.

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9 Responses to “A Strangeness in My Mind”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    I always put Pamuk in that class of writer that never writes bad books but there books never break new ground but are never terrible. I felt he also tried a bit french realism in this like Dickens I like the touches about having to buold a house before it is knocked down

    • 1streading Says:

      I think this falls into the category of not great / not terrible – but I would contend that Snow is great and The Museum of Innocence is terrible!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Sounds like a very balanced review, Grant. I’m a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to Pamuk’s work, so I doubt whether I’ll read this one (particularly given its length!). Do the MBIP panel gives their reasons for including each of the shortlisted novels in their selection? I’m wondering what they said about this one.

    • 1streading Says:

      It wasn’t universally disliked but neither was it widely praised. If I hadn’t have been reading it for the Prize I’m not sure I would have finished it…

  3. Tony Says:

    Nice book, nothing special, not a winner – moving on…

    • 1streading Says:

      “Nothing special” – surely we’re entitled to expect more from a Nobel Prize winner! No idea how it made the shortlist, except that it conforms to a view of translated literature as exotic but unthreatening.

  4. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Oh dear, it was such an effort to continue with The Museum of Innocence, as if he wanted us not just to read about the obsession, but live it and endure its longevity as well, I was hoping his next book would be a little more succinct, I can see that stylistically it sounds unique, but I’m not sure I have the patience currently to endure more narrative tricks in order to attain the threads of a story.

    Great review Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      Not sure I would have read this it I wasn’t reading it for the Prize so disappointed was I by The Museum of Innocence. It is better than that, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement!

  5. 2016 Man Booker International Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] Grant’s at 1st Reading […]

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