In his memoir, Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk recalls a game he would play as a solitary child: sitting at his mother’s dressing mirror, he would adjust its wings until they reflected each other and he could see ‘thousands of Orhans shimmering in the deep, cold, glass-coloured infinity’. First came the shock of strangeness, then pride at how slavishly this army of lookalikes aped his every move. The game would turn frightening when, beyond the ranks of faithful imitators, he thought he detected a ‘tiny and very distant renegade group gesturing amongst themselves’.
A version of this game is at play in Pamuk’s fiction, in which a shadow cast of near-twins, red herrings, frauds and doubles patiently smudges the line between identity and impersonation, and a character called Orhan Pamuk (or, once, Orphan Panic) makes a regular appearance. His is a philosophy of masks; as with the mirror game, the proliferation of guises only serves to unsettle the idea of a stable self. (One critic has observed that Pamuk’s frequent use of the pronoun ‘I’ is all the more striking in a language where inflection makes it all but unnecessary.) The resulting unease is not just personal but also characteristic of modern Turkey, perhaps history’s most radical experiment in political self-creation. In a country that became itself by copying the West and burying its past, it’s unsurprising that alienation should be the national ailment.
Mevlut would not be the first of Pamuk’s characters to complain of ‘a strangeness in my mind’ (a title borrowed from Wordsworth), though his malaise is not merely existential. Even by Turkish standards, he has more reasons than most for feeling out of joint. Some are romantic: after falling in love with a woman’s eyes glimpsed at a wedding and writing her strenuously poetic letters for three years, he stages an elopement, only to realise, in the unarguable light of a train station, that he has been tricked into running off with the wrong sister. He marries her anyway. His problem is also professional: Mevlut earns his keep selling boza, a traditional drink made from fermented millet, the appeal of which is mostly nostalgic, since stronger stuff was legalised by the secular republic. His friend jeers, ‘this country no longer needs your boza to get drunk!’ Mevlut has migrated to Istanbul from Anatolia, and underlying his adventures is the lonely struggle to survive among its multitudes. If Istanbul was an affectionate portrait of the educated elite (each of the five floors of Pamuk’s childhood home memorably featured ‘at least one piano’), A Strangeness in My Mind offers an only slightly rosy-eyed take on what it might be like to approach the booming city as an outsider.
As a figure of wistful obsolescence, Mevlut is in keeping with Pamuk’s interest in tradition, but as a poor man with an internal life he marks a bracing departure in his oeuvre. Pamuk’s novels tend to be lamp-lit, jewelled, faintly antiquarian affairs: several are set in Ottoman times; almost all present bourgeois, bookish heroes. By contrast, Mevlut is the son of a yogurt seller, one of the millions of villagers who swelled the suburbs of Istanbul from the mid-1950s on. He grows up on a diet of imported blue movies and fish-oil capsules donated by UNICEF, presented to each schoolboy ‘as some precious gemstone’ and used as projectiles, leaving the blackboards coated with a slippery sheen. The arrival of television in Mevlut’s adolescence, only a few years after tap water and asphalt roads, allows the small lives around him to unfold against a flickering backdrop of world events (the invasion of Cyprus, perestroika in the USSR, the Tiananmen Square massacre), usefully conveying both the inertia of slum life and the gentle passing of time.
The novel, Pamuk’s ninth, spans almost fifty years and follows two main threads: one is a dramatic love story (the sororal slip is only the start of it), the other a study of privatisation. The more compelling is not the one you might think. The objects of Mevlut’s desire are either strangers in the street or interchangeably diaphanous sisters with rhyming names, and while he describes his marriage as like being ‘admitted to paradise by accident’, the chapter devoted to his domestic bliss (titled ‘The Happiest Days of His Life’) feels like protesting too much. Forget love letters: there are more thrills in the section called ‘A History of Electric Consumption’, and the body most lovingly pursued is that of the city itself. Mevlut’s long night walks map its changing shape under violent modernising pressures: the silent hills of his childhood sprouting new and ever-taller buildings; ‘flyers for circumcision ceremonies and cram schools’ in rhyming couplets replaced by ads for Coca-Cola; the death of certain pine trees; the craze for plastic and six-lane highways laying waste to his livelihood. Not that Mevlut is a militant: he puts up posters for both communists and nationalists, and the military coups that recur with almost hormonal regularity are little more than lively colour or indeed, once, ‘a projection of his own strange mind’.
If the politics feel perfunctory, it is perhaps because the author’s heart is elsewhere. In this light, the longueurs (which, like eternity, get longer towards the end) take on a kind of monkish melancholy. Pamuk seems to be saying: I don’t enjoy it any more than you do, but someone must bear witness to history’s ruinous march. John Updike, in the New Yorker, once diagnosed it as a problem not of attention span but of affinity. Pamuk is as patient as any 19th-century realist, but his noirish ingenuity draws him closer to figures like Borges and Calvino, whose soul is play. He is a miniaturist, wry and deft, who has taken it upon himself to paint murals.