Orhan Pamuk’s Working-Class Flâneurs

Orhan Pamuk’s recent protagonists—sensitive, saturnine, stupid men—love as if their entire lives depend on it, and Mevlut Karataş is no exception. Mevlut, a street vendor whose life story animates Pamuk’s capacious new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, is an incorrigible romantic. He spends three years writing love letters to a girl whose eyes transfix him at a wedding, only to find out that as they elope, the wrong girl has turned up. She doesn’t have the same eyes. Mevlut’s cousin, it turns out, has tricked him into addressing his letters to the older sister of his beloved, and yet Mevlut says nothing and marries her anyway. Amor fati—love your fate—this novel suggests, and everything will turn out fine.

Eschewing the baroque sleights-of-hand that characterize his earlier fiction, Pamuk gives away these plot details in the novel’s first few pages. (Hence the absence of a spoiler alert above). This novel confirms Pamuk’s drift towards the straightforward realism preferred by the avatars of 19th-century European literature. “I’m doing what Stendhal did, what Balzac did,” Pamuk told Pankaj Mishra in this magazine in 2013 while discussing his research for this novel, and he’s not far off in that self-assessment. Its postmodern scaffolding notwithstanding, A Strangeness in My Mind is primarily devoted to recovering the memory of a particular journey that many Turks undertook from the village to the big city in the late 20th century.

This is a novel of immigration (within one’s own country) and the hardships and moral dilemmas that invariably attend such sudden, if voluntary, displacement. Mevlut, Pamuk’s first working-class hero, is one such villager who can’t resist the boundless opportunity of Istanbul. He sells boza, a vaguely alcoholic winter drink, along with ice cream; he manages a small café whose workers actively swindle their boss; he hawks chicken and rice until the government impounds his food cart. His employment is always precarious, and this markedly contrasts with the fates of his friends and family, whose relative prosperity is a constant source of consternation for him.

Regardless of his day-to-day struggles, Mevlut finds peace ambling the streets of Istanbul by night. “Walking fueled his imagination and reminded him that there was another realm within our world, hidden away behind the walls of a mosque, in a collapsing wooden mansion, or inside a cemetery,” writes Pamuk. This line, perhaps only betrayed by the reference to a mosque, could have just as easily appeared in Baudelaire’s “The Painter of Modern Life,” and invites comparisons to Pamuk’s contemporary city-walkers in Teju Cole and Enrique Vila-Matas. While critics will disagree on the ethics of a card-carrying member of the Istanbul bourgeoisie ventriloquizing a poor street vendor, this unusual combination of Pamuk’s background and subject matter has yielded a new type: a working-class flâneur, Constantin Guys with a day (and night) job.

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