A Strangeness in My Mind is the latest novel from the prolific, Nobel Prize–winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. The central figure is Mevlut, who journeys with his father from their village in the country to Istanbul, determined to make their fortune. Mevlut’s father is a street vendor by trade, who makes a meager living tramping all over the city to sell yogurt. Mevlut and his father claim a piece of land on a hillside outside the city and build a crude home for themselves.
The novel follows Mevlut through his schooling, which is less about learning than it is about surviving bullies and boredom and dank classrooms; Mevlut frequently skips class and roams the streets with friends or accompanies his father on his yogurt rounds. Then it’s into the army for compulsory military service. While doing his service, Mevlut begins writing an epic series of love letters to a girl he encounters at a wedding. That single encounter, though fleeting, is enough to inflame Mevlut’s heart and mind. In an ironic twist, the girl Mevlut pours his heart out to in letters is not the girl he will eventually conspire to elope with, but her sister, Rayiha. Mevlut doesn’t realize this until he and the girl are in a van speeding away from her village.
Mevlut is a man who accepts what life deals him. The girl beside him in the flesh may not be the girl who ignited his romantic imagination, but she is with him and willing to spend her life with him, and that is enough for Mevlut. Against the wishes of Rayiha’s father, Mevlut and Rayiha marry and begin their life together. Following in his father’s path, Mevlut becomes a street vendor, selling yogurt and a traditional beverage called boza. Every evening, Mevlut loads up his goods, which balance on the ends of a pole he carries across his shoulders, and walks the streets of Istanbul, mile after mile; the streets and neighborhoods become imprinted in Mevlut’s mind, and at times Mevlut believes his is moving through the shadows of his own imagination. Mevlut finds peace late at night and on dark streets, and feels pride in selling boza, a drink that conjures for his customers a Turkey that is fast disappearing.
Year after year, through Turkey’s political upheavals and periods of martial law, the birth of his daughters and the death of his father — and even after Rayiha dies tragically — Mevlut tramps Istanbul’s streets. Old Ottoman houses give way to apartment blocks and skyscrapers, new overtakes and displaces old. The hillside where Mevlut and his father built their house is now crowded with structures and immigrants from the countryside.
As much as A Strangeness in My Mind is about Mevlut and Rayiha’s life and love and losses, it’s also about Mevlut’s enduring affection and fascination with Istanbul — a city that anchors his imagination but also sets it free.