Pamuk became one of the most prolific and influential writers in his country’s history largely by writing about the privileged, charmingly melancholic citizens of Istanbul’s upper class. In his new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, the 63-year-old author makes a bold swerve into less traveled territory. He chooses for his protagonist a poor vendor of street food who has arrived in Istanbul from a village, and the book’s perspective on Istanbul’s rapidly changing sights and sounds, divisions and distances is unrelentingly that of the working class. If the novel nevertheless manages to be as light-hearted as its main character, that is its miracle and its enigma, as much for readers inside as outside Turkey.
For the last six years, Orhan Pamuk and I have co-taught an undergraduate seminar at Columbia University on “The Art of the Novel.” The opportunity to hear a great novelist talk about Anna Karenina trying and failing to read a novel on her train ride home after meeting Vronsky, or about the influence of Dostoevsky’s Demons on the East/West psychology of his own Snow, has been as special for me as for our dazzled and dazzling students.
BRUCE ROBBINS: From a certain point of view, this novel is about love letters that are received by the wrong person.
ORHAN PAMUK: Calling it the wrong person is an exaggeration. The character Mevlut is writing to a person whose eyes he had seen only for a few seconds — a typical situation in a conservative peasant society, in which unmarried boys and girls get together only at weddings and similar occasions. If you want to get married in a society like that, you need a talent for that idealizing rhetoric, and Mevlut is writing his letters to an idealized woman.
Just recently, I read in a report from the Turkish Statistical Institute that 52 percent of the marriages in Turkey are arranged. Of course, it’s difficult to get accurate statistics, because no one wants to accept that their marriage is arranged unless they are extremely conservative and proud of it. I would guess that 80 percent of people who have arranged marriages would deny it — they would go somewhere and have a lemonade first, to a pastry shop or (if they are more modern) to a movie with sisters and uncles just to be able to tell their children and grandchildren, “No, we met before, our marriage was not arranged!” In the city, boys can only marry later than they do in the villages. That prompts a lot of (pardon the Freudian term) sublimation about the girl seen in the village. Of course, you have to ask whether Freudian terms are appropriate here.
You aren’t by any chance writing another novel that has Oedipus in it?
That’s the one I’m finishing. We’ll talk about that next year.
In this novel, you make an effort to talk about people who are very different from the people with whom you grew up. If I understand correctly, this entailed doing some research. Can you talk about the research you did?
In Turkey, and now in international reviews, people have been underlining that Pamuk is an upper-middle-class secular writer writing about lower-class life. Getting the facts right is not at all a problem for any novelist who is hard-working and likes talking to people. Most of the facts of what a chicken-and-rice seller does, how he cooks his chicken and rice, how he sells it, where he gets his materials, how much profit he’s making — all you have to do to find out about that is strike up a conversation with a chicken-and-rice seller in the street. If you are friendly, most of the time the guys are very forthcoming. He starts off by saying he makes it all. Half an hour later, he will tell you that actually, his wife is making it. The novel is based on a lot of informal conversations with boza sellers [boza is a slightly fermented alcoholic drink], stuffed mussel sellers, about the tricks of their trade. I like getting this kind of information — it lends authenticity to the novel — but the research is not what I am proud of; I am proud of its balance, its artistic composition.
For the first time, I had a group of researchers — university graduates meeting and talking to people, getting details, and sometimes introducing those people to me. Once I see that a person enjoys talking, I enjoy listening.
Why did you decide to let several characters narrate the story?
I started writing this as an old-fashioned 19th-century novel. I wanted to see what I could do in that vein. Most of my formal, experimental innovation, my so-called postmodernism, develops after I begin writing a book. I have the whole story in my mind, and then, as I go on, I develop new ways of telling. After a while, I find I want to do something different from the Balzac or Zola way of telling. In this novel, it was easy to write from the point of view of the main character, a street vendor who comes to Istanbul in the early 1970s and for 40 years sells all kinds of things from yogurt to ice cream to chicken-with-rice and boza. He does other jobs as well.
I was writing about him with ease, but I felt troubled as the book became longer. I wanted to bring in the realism of the many first-person singular voices we had recorded. Once people realized I was a writer or a journalist, they loved giving advice about falling in love, about how to live: the importance of religion in their lives, the importance of waking up early in the morning, the importance of being honest with their customers, that kind of thing. They would switch from factual details to life wisdom, and I liked that, so I wanted to let them represent themselves. I decided to try inserting first-person singular narratives into my 19th-century Zola-like narrative framework (I actually don’t like Zola so much; I like Balzac and Stendhal better.) I tried to do it in such a way that you don’t have to be a genius as a reader to realize we’re switching from the third person to the first person. I think it works.
You were saying you were less proud of the information — the insight the novel provides into the working of the city — than of the novel’s balance and composition?
Let me put it this way: I am proud of my Museum of Innocence not because I collected all these objects, but because of the windows I put them into, the composition. The display of information should also look beautiful.
Could you say more about what you mean by composition?
Composition is down to earth; it is almost an animal instinct. I want to know: is it readable? Is it fun? Six hundred pages of the world seen through Mevlut’s ideas might get a bit tedious; I wanted to tear the narrative apart, to insert voices that would contradict him, to challenge his point of view as well as the viewpoint of the third-person writerly voice. So I did that.
I see complaints in Turkish and now international reviews. They’re saying, “Pamuk is not so postmodern!” As if they are disappointed. I want to say, “But we’ve done that postmodern thing already!” I know I took some risks, but I’m not defensive about them. I had a lot of information, and I needed to combine it with a vision, with a certain strangeness, if I was going to make my character as human as possible.
You have imbued Mevlut with your own writerly tendency of looking forward and back, forward, and back, as if he were a novelist himself. This gives a richness to his interiority.
This is Flaubert’s invention: the style indirect libre. Free indirect discourse allows the writer to approach his character’s consciousness more closely. The reader doesn’t notice the fact that the narrator is speaking, not Mevlut. The transitions are not marked by any line. When Flaubert did it, he liberated the art of the novel, making it very elastic. Narration can also retreat to a distance, like Tolstoy telling us the Napoleon’s armies are approaching Moscow. Who is talking there?
The time scale of this novel, the choice of covering 40 years and drawing so much life together, is very moving. Could you speak to this unusual treatment of time?
Maybe this treatment of time is unusual in the sense that otherwise, the novel has the structure of a very simple story. A boy writes love letters to a girl he had seen very briefly from a distance. He is tricked and marries her older sister, who is less beautiful. I don’t want to tell how it comes out.
You and I have taught together for years, but in our seminars, we haven’t pushed students to talk much about novels and lower-class characters. Having a lower-class protagonist was very deliberate for me here. While I was involved in writing the novel, my British editor asked me whether I was including any middle-class characters. I had been thinking about maybe putting a middle-class character into it as a friend of Mevlut, but I immediately told him, “No. There will be no middle-class characters in this novel.” No one like Levin in Anna Karenina, no one looking at the peasants mowing and lending meaning to their work. My novel all happens among the peasants.
Well, they are not peasants exactly; they are villagers who come to the modern city. The novel is about modern city life, and the characters may be poor, but in many ways, they are very modern. Their problem is adjusting to the individuality, the egoism, the economic rationalism of the city. Those who are fast can be successful. Those who are confused, like Mevlut, are not successful. But does Mevlut really want success?
Is that maybe what you wanted to say about the working class? In terms of the novel’s composition, I see what you are talking about in the friendship between Mevlut and Ferhat. Their friendship structures a lot of the novel. Structurally, there’s a bit of parallel with Snow, in the sense that the representative of the left, an Alevite Kurd, “gets the girl,” so to speak, and is, in a sense, more successful, maybe more heroic, than Mevlut, the “man in the middle,” politically.
In our class, and in our preparatory meetings before the class, we sometimes talk about Georg Lukács. Lukács says that the best historical novelists invented characters who could be pulled both ways in the conflicts of their societies. This is only possible, he says, if those characters don’t have strong political, ideological, moral commitments, if their ideas are “soft.” Mevlut follows that pattern.
You tease the reader with the possibility that this story is going to be the story of the rise of Islamism. Mevlut is certainly drawn to Islamism, but he also has a left-wing friend, and his cousins are, well, kind of fascists. So is he really the person in the middle?
I was following Stendhal, holding up a mirror to society. If Mevlut is too fanatical, he can’t go and visit a Muslim wise man and also listen to the conversations of his Marxist Alevi friends and go around putting up posters.
This novel is, of course, about the city. What is it about Istanbul that you feel you had not already said? People are also going to say, if they have not said it already, that you have given a lot of yourself to your main character.
In Turkey, the dominant form of fiction was the peasant novel. The best of these novelists was Yaşar Kemal. If you were a socially committed novelist, in the 1960s and 1970s you would write about life and material conditions in rural Anatolia. I didn’t know anything about that, so I started writing about Istanbul only because I wanted to write about human beings I knew, not about cities. I began to be known as an Istanbul writer only after I was translated. Turks learned this from people outside Turkey. Around this time, I wrote the memoir Istanbul, which ends in 1973. The Black Book takes place in 1980. I haven’t done Istanbul in the 1990s and after. Even The Museum of Innocence, which was finished in 2008, doesn’t show Istanbul in the 2000s. Therefore, I hadn’t written about the immense changes that Istanbul has experienced or endured over the last 25 years, and until now, I hadn’t written about lower-class Istanbul, so there was a huge void in my self-imposed vision.
It is a little boring to repeat these facts, but I will repeat them: I was born in Istanbul in 1952. At the time, Istanbul’s population was one million. Now they say it’s 17 million. The changes I have seen in the first 50 years amount to less than the changes of the last 13 years. I still naively believe in the mission of writing about Istanbul life, and I’m happy that I’m doing it, but it is so hard to stay current! I said to myself with this novel, “I’ll write about street life.”
Mevlut likes his work. I won’t say he feels most himself when he’s working, but it’s not an ordeal for him to be wandering around the streets of Istanbul selling his yogurt or his boza and meeting all the people he meets. In some deep way, it expresses who he is. In that sense, he is himself a bit of a novelist. You emphasize this point when you write that the emotion he conveys in calling out "Bozaaaaa!" echoes the feelings of the people who hear him. Do the novelist and the boza seller have something significant in common?
Oh yes, Mevlut works as a charming character — if he is charming, I may be wrong, of course — because he is well-meaning, happy, a good guy. Kierkegaard said unhappy people either live in the past or in the future, while the happy person lives in the present. Mevlut is deeply immersed in the present. Some part of my mind is Mevlut’s mind, but I wish I had his talent of enjoying the present, enjoying now. My girlfriend always tells me, “Enjoy now! Stop worrying about your future! Enjoy now!” Mevlut is a bit of a Sufi pantheist. Look at the loving attention he pays to every detail about the girl he elopes with, even though he knows it’s the wrong girl, and he’s been tricked. He has that deep thing that modernity is killing in us. He has his dreams and a talent of joining the common cause — more than we do. He doesn’t feel assertive. He doesn’t feel argumentative. He is a victim, but he doesn’t feel like a victim.
Discovering Mevlut’s optimism solved a huge problem for this novel: writing about a lower-class person for readers who are not from that class and as a writer who is also not from that class. This is not just politically incorrect; it is also a question of being convincing. I don’t want to tell you my trade secrets, but I did many things to avoid that problem or at least make it less visible. I tried hard to avoid melodrama — “The poor guy, he’s crying!” — I didn’t want that. I like Dickens, I like his language, but I don’t like his sentimentalism. It makes me angry. In many ways, this is a Dickensian novel. In order to avoid melodrama — something I also learned from Dickens — there is nothing better than humor. I hope the reader laughs rather than cries.
But what helped most was taking things from my own mind, like the title of the novel. During all my teenage years, in my 20s and 30s, my friends told me, “Orhan, you have a strange mind.” Then, I came across that quote in Wordsworth, “a strangeness in my mind,” and I wrote it down, thinking that one day, it would be a title of one of my novels. Finally, it is. I lent Mevlut my imagination, but I can’t tell you what it’s all about.
Yet, this is not a novel about the frustration of Mevlut’s ambition, because he doesn’t admit his mistake.
Mevlut is not Rastignac. Rastignac, Balzac’s hero, is a provincial who comes to Paris in order to conquer. He wants to be rich and successful. The energy and strength and drama of that point of view emerge as capitalism rises along with a more democratic vision of society, and social mobility becomes possible. Balzac projected his ambitions onto Rastignac. When we read about Rastignac, we can imagine Balzac buying printing presses and dreaming of getting rich. Mevlut and I don’t have those ambitions; Mevlut’s vision is more limited.
So is Ferhat, the left-wing Kurd who is Mevlut’s best friend, the more Balzacian hero?
He is more modern.
Would you say that Istanbul, as you see it here, is run by gangsters, or run by a state made of people who act like gangsters?
Today, there is also normal, decent capitalism.
But you don’t show a lot of normal, decent capitalism in the novel.
That is because you don’t see the normal working classes. That is an important point about the novel. These street vendors are not the lower-class people who work in factories. They live in the same neighborhoods as the factory workers, but in the end, they are more private entrepreneurs, small-scale capitalists.
So in order to conquer Paris, Rastignac would have to become a gangster, and Mevlut doesn’t want to become a gangster?
But his cousins become gangsters.
You spend a lot of time on Ferhat’s and then Mevlut’s adventures as electricity inspectors. Were you trying to make the reader see the beauty in that profession?
The novel does a lot of Foucault-style archaeology of daily life, but actually, it all happened to me. Right before a 10-day vacation, my electricity was cut. Then, bam! bam! bam! Someone knocking at the door. This happened in 1995. The inspector recognized me. He was an ex-lefty, and he told me everything about his profession. Later, I double-checked: I did a lot of interviews with retired electricity inspectors and engineers. I gathered so much information about electricity production, distribution, and cheating — and of course the privatization. First, the state privatized just the collection of payments, and then it privatized the rest of the industry. In those years, there was a lot of creative cheating. Before, when I was just starting out as a novelist, my wife had other things to do, and I used to go pay the electricity bill at the post office. There were lines and arguments — a lot of wasted time. You had to pay cash, someone had to sign; it was a primitive process. Now, you pay with credit cards and don’t see anyone.
Dreams play a large part in the book, don’t they?
Henry James said that if you tell a dream in a book, you lose a reader. Dreams don’t play such a large part; they are part of the rhetoric. They don’t change people’s lives. I care about what Freud called dream content. I don’t see the structure of the novel through Freud — not the dreams themselves. I don’t want to be like Jacques Lacan. Mevlut doesn’t believe in Lacan.
It seems to me that one of the things you were trying to do in your representation of the working class was to fight, very gently, against stereotypes.
One of the classics in this genre, a novel I adore, is One Hundred Years of Solitude. It begins with people making their own houses. Objects seem to come from outside of time, and then a village comes into being. Suddenly, everyone in the village is playing the piano! Suddenly, they are not peasants anymore. The story jumps and becomes concerned with the middle class. There would be no Mevlut if his aunt were playing the piano. My characters take part in a more down-to-earth, economic struggle. The next stage, the stage of cultural life, is beyond their knowledge. They neither collect objects nor see movies nor read newspapers. They are not part of the developments that led to the novel. They are living in a milieu that would never, by itself, constitute a novel. That was my challenge.
When people say that Mevlut is a peasant or lower-class flâneur, I am happy, I agree. Baudelaire’s invention of the flâneur made it possible to see the poetry of city life. I like the endless walking, gazing at shop windows, and so on. However, in the end, the flâneur is an upper-class figure. This void in the novel is the challenge for me. Mevlut does not have all those objects that fill novels: bibelots, ashtrays, advertisements, furniture. Everything the feuilletons write about is missing from his world. He only sees them in other people’s kitchens. This problem was my inner drama as I was struggling to write this novel.
Mevlut seems happy when he is going through the streets at night selling his boza and his yogurt. His job is hard, and his load is heavy, but is he happy?
No, the yogurt is heavy, the boza isn’t. Fifteen kilos of boza is not so heavy.
He is also very happy with his family. I wonder whether one of your intentions was to give a picture of lower-class domestic happiness?
Yes, but let me put this differently: I don’t think Mevlut is so very happy when he is selling on cold nights, but he has to do it. It’s not more than three hours per night. In cultures where the struggle for life is so hard and there is so much insecurity, family is the biggest source of happiness. The more cruel, brutal, and disillusioning life is outside, the more one romanticizes and embraces the joys of the family. Those people — Rastignac may well have been one of them — who come to the city with a demanding individuality, are most likely to inject the unhappiness of the outside into the inside. They will question their wives, their children, everything. Mevlut never does that. Mevlut enters his home as if he were entering a mosque.
Which helps explain the last sentence, about what really matters in the end. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that? Yet I’m assuming it is not primarily ironic.
Not at all. It’s very straightforward.
Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.