After one of Orhan Pamuk’s students berated him for spoiling the ending of Anna Karenina, he made a new rule: read the book’s summary on Wikipedia before coming to seminar, because “a book is not its plot”.
There was a time in the history of literature when the story was more important than the details, the Nobel Laureate and Columbia University professor told an audience on Wednesday at the Brooklyn public library as part of an author series arranged by Community Books and Congregation Beth Elohim. But in his own writing, Pamuk said: “It’s not the character and the story that come first, it’s the little details – the novelist wants to go in some direction and creates the character to take you to that direction.”
That’s certainly the case with Pamuk’s newest work A Strangeness in My Mind, whose opening paragraph lays out the plot of the 600 pages to come. Pamuk calls Strangeness “my first feminist book”. It follows the life of an Istanbul street vendor named Mevlut Karata in the years between 1969 and 2014.
His Mevlut is not an activist – in fact, he “thinks about politics only in terms of his business” and “has no strong opinions”, Pamuk said. Yet it is precisely neutrality (or apathy) that allows Mevlut to “go everywhere” and hear the voices of both the city’s extreme left- and right-wing ideologues – and, by extension, let Pamuk explore Istanbul’s politics and history even as he insists that he does not write novels with strong political messages.
In fact, his book Snow, published in 2002, originally included two references to an alleged Osama bin Laden plan to murder sex workers in Turkey. In the wake of 9/11, Pamuk removed the references to prevent readers from thinking he wrote the book to capitalise on the political turmoil.
Instead of pegging the novel to big events, Forrest Gump-style, it’s the small decisions that provide the most room to explore. For example, Mevlut sells, in addition to yogurt, a semi-fermented drink called boza that is popular in the Ottoman empire and parts of North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.
Pamuk, who himself grew up buying boza, said the drink was “both alcoholic and non-alcoholic”. This gave it a curious social function at a time when alcohol was nominally forbidden. Even the Ottoman rulers knew that boza contained alcohol, and some would go out in disguise to buy it. Others were in denial. This made it a flashpoint for the right-wing politics Pamuk explores in the novel.
“The first image that came to me was this: that because of technological development, a person who sells his things in the street loses his job,” Pamuk said. In the 1950s, yogurt was not yet a bottled product in Turkey, though it eventually began to be sold in ceramic cups, then glass cups, then cardboard boxes, then plastic boxes and so on. Every change of this sort affected the vendor, he said, and he wanted to chronicle the small changes that this wrought in the lives of his characters.
Pamuk said he believed that Strangeness is one of the few novels to allow a working-class character to speak for himself. Classic novels, he said, either portray the middle and upper classes exclusively, or show peasants through the eyes of the middle class, as in Anna Karenina, in which the reader learns about about Russian peasants through the experience of the middle-class Konstantin Levin.
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