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.
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.