An Ode to Istanbul
It must be confessed that following a laboured perusal of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence, this reviewer was forced to conclude that the Noble Laureate’s prose was self-indulgent, lugubrious and tedious in the extreme, and she balked at the prospect of wading through nearly 600 pages of his new novel. Happily, though, Pamuk is one of the few authors who evolve and churn out their best stuff, after getting over themselves and the fact that they were heavily feted early in their careers. His writing is more beautiful than ever and no longer sterile but infused with warmth, wit and gentle pathos.
Pamuk’s latest is a marvel of storytelling that traverses through forty years of history as it chronicles the life of a lowly street vendor, Mevlut Karatas of the boyish good looks and sweet disposition. Born in a tiny village in rural Anatolia, he migrates with his father to Istanbul at age 12 and finds himself grappling with a succession of failures as he struggles with schooling, political activism, a stint in the army, and petty business ventures that include peddling yoghurt, boza, ice cream, cooked rice and chicken, managing a small café and a turn as the junior inspector for an electric company. The highlight of Mevlut’s early days included stalking an attractive stranger and endless stolen moments devoted solely to masturbation.
At his cousin’s wedding, Mevlut falls madly in love with the bride’s 13-year old sister. For the next three years, he pours his passion into painstakingly compiled letters addressed to her “languid eyes” which are like “ensorcelled arrows” and “bandits cutting across his path” plus similarly hilarious fare. A cousin volunteers to bring the lovers together and tricks Mevlut into eloping with Rayiha, the less attractive older sister of the object of his desire, to whom the letters had been delivered. A bemused Mevlut deals with this turn of affairs with the doggedness and acceptance that is so characteristic of him.
Every one of his relatives and friends go on to amass riches spurred on by the burgeoning prosperity of Istanbul forced into being by the political corruption as well as private greed of its citizens. Success continues to elude the obstinately honest Mevlut and yet he is the only one who seems to have unlocked the doorway to true happiness. It is his life which is graced with convivial bliss, cherished familial ties, fulfilment and inner tranquillity even as he remains mired in poverty.
Throughout the major upheavals in the capital and the myriad changes in his personal life, Mevlut sells boza, “a traditional Asian beverage made of fermented wheat, with a thick consistency, a pleasant aroma, a dark, yellowish colour, and low alcohol content” by night. It has been supplanted by raki, but people still buy a glass induced by nostalgia and the emotion in Mevlut’s voice as he meanders through the streets of the city which he realises has become an extension of the light and darkness in his own mind.
This is by far Pamuk’s most joyous novel though conflict and tragedy there is aplenty from political coups, violence between the Turks and Kurds, murder of a dear friend and a primitive abortion attempt that claims a life. Through it all Mevlut taps into his indomitable optimism. His saga unfolds in the third person though a host of characters intervene to make sure their voices are heard as well, imbuing the reader with the profound love and pride they feel for the city of Istanbul.