Translated from the original Turkish by Ekin Oklap
Comments from the judges
The real protagonist of Ophan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind is – as is so often true of Pamuk’s work – the city of Istanbul itself. Indeed, the novel’s subtitle tells us precisely what to expect: “Being the Adventures and Dreams of Melvut Karataş, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 from Many Different Points of View”. From one perspective, this is a contemporary picaresque novel, following the adventures of its hero, Melvut, who, along with members of his extended family, arrive from their village to an Istanbul where houses are being put up on waste ground as part of a dizzying expansion, from a population of around three million to more than thirteen million people over period covered by the novel. Simultaneously epic in scale (and size), and curiously intimate, A Strangeness in My Mind revolves around a central character who is both at the centre of massive social change, and at the same time, on its periphery.
As a boy in school, Melvut senses the political turmoil around him through the posters he sees on walls, but only dimly apprehends what is they mean; and, indeed, they usually mean very little for the poor. Later, as a seller of boza, (a fermented yogurt-like drink), he passes almost invisibly through the streets of the city every night, becoming a part of its fabric. For readers already familiar with Pamuk’s earlier novels of the city, from Mr. Cevdet and His Sons (1982), to My Name is Red (1998), that fabric is woven of familiar motifs; echoes from dark passageways, the sound of dogs in the night, but also unexpected moments of kindness and community emerging from pools of light. In the end, however, this novel accomplishes something surprising and unexpected; instead of having a hero who changes throughout the course of the novel, while the world remains constant around him, here we have a world that changes, while the hero remains more fixed than stone or concrete. “The city had been sending these symbols and signs for forty years” Melvut realizes at the novel’s end: “What would he like to say to the city?” In the end, we are left with that disconcerting sense Wordsworth evokes in The Prelude, in lines that give the novel its title: “a strangeness in my mind,/ A feeling that I was not for that hour,/ Nor for that place.”
About the book
At a family wedding Mevlut catches sight of a girl with whom he falls in love. After a secret courtship of letters passed via his cousin, she agrees to elope with him, and on a dark night the two come together for the first time. As they rush to catch a train to Istanbul, Mevlut realises he has been misled. But the die is cast, and the situation will determine the rest of his days. Over the next four decades in Istanbul, Mevlut works various jobs to support his loving wife and family; work that gives him a special perspective on his rapidly changing city and the people who live there. And every evening he walks the streets, selling his wares and dreaming his dreams.
About the Author
Orhan Pamuk, is the author of many celebrated books, including The White Castle, Istanbul and Snow. In 2003 he won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for My Name is Red, and in 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His novel, The Museum of Innocence, was an international bestseller, praised in the Guardian as ‘an enthralling, immensely enjoyable piece of storytelling.’ Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul.
To say that A Strangeness in My Mind is a guide for anyone trying to make sense of the complexities of Turkish society is not to suggest that it is history or documentary. A novelist, at least one as accomplished as Pamuk, can place the reader in the midst of such a society, to stand beside the characters and see things as they see them. Pamuk’s latest novel is, at heart, the love story of Mevlut and Samiha – escaping the poverty of an Anatolian village to make a life in Istanbul – set against inequality, injustice, and the cultural and political clashes of Turk and Kurd, where tradition is both a barrier and a support.
A subtle re-creation of tragicomedy of human life and inner strains of a common and yet integral human being under the pressure of running time as it causes changes in the aspects of the old Insanbul irrevocably retreating into the past. The translator has successfully rendered the author’s representation of Istanbul as an important dramatic persona of the novel.