Has the Nobel Curse Killed Orhan Pamuk?
What’s a novelist to do after winning literature’s greatest laurel? In his new ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’ and other works, it seems the Turkish prodigy is edging into early retirement.
When Orhan Pamuk received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, he was 54, the second youngest recipient in the history of the award. Since then he has written two novels that have been published in English, The Museum of Innocence in 2009 and now A Strangeness in My Mind. Reviewing the latter in The Independent, Max Liu spoke for many reviewers of these two works: “Orhan Pamuk is becoming that rare author who writes his best books after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Having reviewed three of Pamuk’s pre-Nobel novels—The New Life, My Name Is Red, and Snow, that last the book probably most responsible for the Nobel—I see his recent fiction differently: as premature retirement from stealth cultural critic to curator of nostalgia.
In those earlier novels and others, Pamuk often used indirect means—Kafkan allegory, Nabokovian games, historical “distant mirrors”—to reflect on the oppressive politics of contemporary Turkey, its suppression of free speech, mistreatment of ethnic minorities such as the Kurds, failing separation of church and state, and denial of historical truth. In Snow, published in 2004, Pamuk summoned the courage to treat religious and political subjects with more directness, though the book also has plenty of alienation effects (a major character is a Brechtian), romantic sentimentalizing, aesthetic debates, and self-referential play including a novelist named Orhan.
The need for indirection was demonstrated in 2005 when charges were brought against Pamuk for insulting the republic of Turkey. After those charges were dropped and Pamuk received the Nobel, I believed he would use his new security to engage his country and culture more directly, not necessarily as explicitly as this year’s laureate from Belarus, but with his gifts of formal invention and postmodern ingenuity. Instead he used the freedom of his status to write The Museum of Innocence, a love story about a middle-class Istanbul man obsessed with his young female cousin and their past together, a novel that reviewers called “enchanting” and “charming,” not adjectives I’ve ever used in a positive review. At the same time, Pamuk has said, he was collecting the objects and detritus referred to in the novel for the literal Museum of Innocence that he opened in an old converted Istanbul building in 2012.
I visited that museum last summer, hoping that it would somehow enlarge the narrow bourgeois experience of the novel, but I found the installation to be even more claustrophobic and narcissistic than the book. Pamuk has claimed the museum is not about him, but that assertion can’t be taken seriously, for the writer has memorialized in physical form the words of his work. The museum is no innocent project, and the curation is too fussy and loving to be a satire of the political evasiveness that the novel manifests. I found the vitrines to be cabinets of banalities, rather than curiosities, and couldn’t wait to get back out into the Istanbul streets from which Pamuk collected his fetishistic objects.
When I found out later in the summer that A Strangeness in My Mind would be about a poor boy from the provinces who comes to Istanbul in 1969, works most of his life as an itinerant peddler on the city streets, and never comes close to making it into the educated middle class of Pamuk and most of his protagonists, I thought, “Yes, no more innocence.” I was about a third right. Although Mevlut Karitaş believes “indomitable optimism” is central to his character, his family and friends call him an “innocent.” He never finishes high school and shows little interest in the political and religious movements that periodically swirl in the streets he wanders from 1969 until 2012. His best friend in high school is a Kurd and Marxist, but Mevlut can’t afford the luxury of ideology, and Pamuk doesn’t afford the character much background that would illuminate his dishonest behavior. Later, Mevlut spends some time with a mysterious Islamist, but the teachings of “The Holy Guide” have little effect.
Mevlut is most dedicated to walking around the city selling boza, an old-fashioned, slightly alcoholic beverage that he says Muslims drink because they believe—or say they believe—it contains no alcohol. Mevlut’s peregrinations give Pamuk license to describe in abundant detail various neighborhoods in rapid change—the hills near the center of Istanbul claimed with shacks by immigrants from the east in the 1970s, the later development of these neighborhoods, the immigrants’ takeover of buildings when Greeks were forced out of the city, destruction of old buildings in the center for highways, the rise of apartment towers and the middle class—so the novel has an awareness of material culture and its effects on the underclass, but that consciousness is remote and superficial because Mevlut is like a Google camera on foot, recording but rarely investigating.
Over the decades Mevlut supplements his boza rounds with work as a waiter, a chicken and rice seller, a manager of a small café, a parking-lot attendant, and an electric company inspector, but he, his wife, and two daughters are confined for most of the novel in a one-room house. And Mevlut never escapes the dreaminess—the melancholy “strangeness”—of his mind. Nor does he understand it, though Pamuk implies that Mevlut—taken from his mother and village at an early age, forced into constant association with macho males, retreating into uxoriousness, surrounded by more canny and successful family members—suffers from what a psychologist might call stunted adolescence. Because Mevlut remains largely honest and mostly responsible and usually pleased with his peripatetic city life despite his many economic setbacks, Pamuk calls him “our hero” at the novel’s beginning—a hero of the ordinary.
That ordinariness is sometimes amusing, often touching, occasionally both as when Mevlut gets married in a scrap-metal shop by the proprietor, who says he graduated from a religious school. But the novel’s compulsive ordinariness is also a problem for this reader and, I suspect, for many readers outside of Turkey—or even outside Istanbul. As Pamuk shows in his museum and discusses in “Museums and Novels,” a chapter in his The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, he wants his fiction to preserve for his mostly unliterary Turkish readers the specifics of their everyday lives, the spaces, the customs, the food, the atmosphere. Long stretches in the middle of A Strangeness in My Mind are like a documentary of the quotidian, and the nonfiction illusion is reinforced at the end by a photograph, an index, and a chronology that places Mevlut’s life in the context of historical events inside and outside Turkey. Unfortunately for the novel, these events rarely penetrate Mevlut’s slightly strange but mostly ordinary mind, and those readers unfamiliar with Istanbul may be frustrated by the very local color and pedestrian pace.
Some suspense and drama are provided, as in The Museum of Innocence, by a love-at-first-sight romance. As a teenager, Mevlut falls for the beautiful Samiha in the village but mistakenly thinks her name is that of her older sister, the plain Rayiha. He sends Rayiha letters and without meeting her arranges to steal her from her father in the dark and run away to Istanbul. Perhaps because he is an innocent, he manages to love Rayiha, but when Samiha eventually comes to Istanbul there is tension between the two sisters and conflict with a third sister, Vediha, and with Mevlut’s two cousins, one of whom belongs to the Gray Wolves, though little is made of this fact. After a tragedy I shouldn’t specify, Pamuk gives long-suffering Mevlut a happy domestic ending, and though prematurely aged he’s still selling boza.
Pamuk has called A Strangeness in My Mind his “first feminist novel,” and the three sisters, as well as a former nightclub singer, are sharper than Mevlut and are the sinew of the novel. Near the end of the book, Vediha has a memorable three-page rant (in question form) against the novel’s and Turkey’s males. But when Mevlut began his trade, women were not allowed to roam Istanbul, so Pamuk’s protagonist is a sweet-tempered, somewhat feminized, rather strange Turkish man.
Pamuk narrates the two-to-four page sections about Mevlut in the third person (despite the title) and in the past tense. They are interspersed with or even interrupted by first-person sections, sometimes in the present tense, by other characters—Mevlut’s father, the sisters, their lovers, and friends, most of whom are cleverer than Mevlut. The technique initially seems an efficient way to widen the scope of the novel, but the secondary characters’ monologues rob the book of some drama that could have been produced through dialogue. The style of A Strangeness in My Mind is as consistently ordinary as its mundane subjects.
Pamuk has often entered the frame of his fiction, using his own name and participating in internal aesthetic debates about the proper purposes of narrative. Because of his characters’ commentary on Mevlut’s story, readers will be periodically aware that the author is pulling all the strings, a metaphor Mevlut sometimes uses to describe those in Istanbul with more power than he. But puppeteer Pamuk is also symbolically omnipresent in Mevlut’s occupation as boza seller. Like his protagonist, Pamuk has spent much of his life walking Istanbul streets and did so, he says, with a tape recorder when writing A Strangeness in My Mind. As a novelist, he often dispenses products of the Turkish past, stories that are sometimes old-fashioned like boza, mild consumables that comfort nostalgic readers. In the streets, Mevlut calls out “boo-zaa” with a sad and sincere tone that seems to attract his customers. Over all of Pamuk’s fiction is a similar melancholy cast, perhaps a substitute for a more dangerous tone. Pamuk seems to be speaking for himself when he describes Mevlut’s attitude toward his vocation: “When he didn’t go out wandering the streets at night, his powers of thought and imagination flagged.”
A Strangeness in My Mind is, of course, more than novelistic boza. But fundamentally the novel wants to elicit strong feelings rather than provide profound understanding of the realities to which it refers. The anger with contemporary Turkey that Pamuk has occasionally expressed in his essays gathered in Other Colors is not one of those strong feelings in the novel, for Pamuk doesn’t allow Mevlut or the other characters to represent in enough detail the circumstances, ideologies, and systems that oppress them.
An apologist might say Mevlut’s passivity, like the innocence in The Museum of Innocence, is a sophisticated artistic strategy designed to solicit from readers anger at the conditions that create that passivity. If so, the reviewers who describe A Strangeness in My Mind as charming and enchanting are badly missing Pamuk’s intent. No, I think that from the beginning, when he poses as a 19th-century storyteller, Pamuk wants to entertain and preserve in a genial fashion, a modest and moderate way that will not diminish—and might even increase—his popular appeal, particularly in Turkey. He already has his Nobel Prize.