In his last novel, The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (interview on page 72) told a story of romantic obsession among Istanbul’s elite. His new work, A Strangeness in My Mind, tells a story of romantic obsession at the other end of the social scale. At a wedding in his home town in eastern Turkey, Mevlut sees a beautiful girl. He is smitten and begins writing her love letters. He arranges an elopement; but is shocked to discover he has run away with the wrong sister. Was he fooled or is it fate? Whichever, Mevlut accepts Rayiha as his wife—as he accepts most things that happen to him.
While his friends join political protests or get rich in booming 1980s Istanbul, the passive Mevlut spends his life as a street vendor selling the Ottoman drink “boza” to nostalgic Turks. In an effort to avoid the sentimentality that novels about the working-class sometimes fall into, Pamuk has gone too far the other way, making Mevlut too inert to hold our interest for 600 pages. Still, the best scenes here display Pamuk’s wonderfully humane analysis of romantic frailties.
As a young man, Mevlut follows his teacher Neriman around town, fantasising about rescuing her from a pickpocket, so that “all the bystanders would say what a gallant young man he was, while Neriman would thank him and catch on to his interest in her.” There are also very funny descriptions of Mevlut’s visits to seedy adult cinemas.
As with nearly all Pamuk’s work, the true object of desire is Istanbul. Whether he’s explaining how the mafia takeover of the parking system made it easier to find a space or how Mevlut stops visiting a holy man because of the new generation of “bearded believers, backstreet hacks who never wore neckties,” Pamuk is an acute and astute observer, uniting in his broad imagination the city’s disparate worlds.