Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, stands out as a novelist who, from his lifelong perch in Istanbul, uniquely straddles East and West. In this conversation with The WorldPost, he discusses his new novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind,” the global story of mass urban migration and the prospects for the next election as Turkey is embroiled in political turmoil.
Like many of your novels, this is a richly detailed portrait of your beloved Istanbul. It covers the last decades as Turkey modernized and large populations -- including your protagonist Mevlut -- moved from the traditional Islamic Anatolian countryside to the secular capital on the frontier of Europe -- from tradition to modernity.
Yet, this experience is also universal. The Wordsworth quote about “a strangeness in the mind/ A feeling that I was not for that hour/ Nor for that place,” from which your title is taken, describes the sense of loss, dislocation and disorientation that all urban migrants feel around the world when they move from the countryside to Mexico City or Beijing or São Paulo.
Isn’t this book as much about the great tale of our time, mass urban migration, as about your individual characters?
“'A Strangeness in My Mind' has fairy-tale qualities out of my imagination, but also epic qualities about immigration as it is experienced all around the world.”
Mevlut’s story may look like a very personal story because it has fable-like qualities. In fact, I first thought of writing only a short story about a man who loses his job selling traditional craft items like the mildly alcoholic boza or yogurt because of industrialization and their displacement by more modern products. It evolved then from a moral story of one individual struggle to a more multi-voice, multi-character epic because I became curious about how immigrants came to Istanbul and settled there.
How did they first build their own houses with their own hands in the shantytowns that sprung up around Istanbul as it developed from a city of 1 million to 17 million in 60 years -- something I have seen from inside as a lifelong resident? What was it like to take so much time to find work and deal with the frustrations of securing the necessary papers or permits from the bureaucracy? Who had to be bribed? How were their families, customs and faith challenged by their new environment? What did it feel like to be marginalized as the rundown neighborhoods where they settled became gentrified over time? We all know this general story. My novel describes it in detail through my characters.
So, yes, “A Strangeness in My Mind” has fairy-tale qualities out of my imagination, but also epic qualities about immigration as it is experienced all around the world. Mevlut’s story is also the story seen many times over in immigration from Sicily to Milan or Turin in the 1950s, or from rural Spain to the larger industrial towns or the truly massive migrations to the big cities in China today.
Mevlut walks the streets at night in the seeming lost cause of a spent tradition selling boza like his father. This thin and fragile thread to the past is all that gives him a sense of lineage and continuity that helps him keep his balance. His other daytime job is in the modern sector -- reading electric meters for the newly privatized state power company which is growing along with the sprawling city. It is a tenuous thread that ties him to the future.
These contrasting occupations and split identities of Mevlut are a hybrid of the old and the new. Isn’t this the way identities really are?
One of the most important things we have learned in modern times -- and even before that as reflected in post-Renaissance literature from Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky -- is that we are not made up of one quality, one color or one idea. The individual is simultaneously made of multiple traits. Our rationality and desires are often in contradiction and play out in complex, not always transparent ways. My understanding of my characters is in this sense Dostoyevskian.
Many of the characters in my novels over the years are upper class, secular Turks. They may have a European outlook and want to join the European Union, but at the same time also believe in the power of the army to make a military coup and will follow an authoritarian leader. Even as they aspire to European values, they also still want to be wrapped in the comforts of traditional ethics, morality and religion. So you can’t label something “modern” or “traditional.” They bleed into each other.
What makes human beings interesting is that they continue to hold contradictory ideas together at the same time, and that mix is what constitutes the individual character. Nations are also like that. Just as with individuals, you can’t look out onto the international scene and say this country is “good” and that country is “bad.” The good and the bad go together.
“What makes human beings interesting is that they continue to hold contradictory ideas together at the same time, and that mix is what constitutes the individual character.”
In my part of the world, egalitarian and authoritarian ideas, most of the time dominant, live alongside more liberal notions. Some want the government to control everything. Others want free trade and markets. Some seek the protection of society by government, others pursue ruthless ways of making money with gangster friends.
In my characters I have sought to portray individuals who can feel affinity with the extreme right-wing, both religious and nationalist, but also with the Marxist, secular groups. In “A Strangeness in My Mind” I use the character of Mevlut as a way to navigate into these far, contradictory corners of Istanbul society.
There is also a kind of dialectic here. Like Turkey itself under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP, modernity has shaped traditional Islamic ways just as they have transformed the Turkey -- and the Istanbul -- of Atatürk into a kind of non-Western modernity. Has each transformed the other?
Yes. Istanbul has become more conservative and religious as a result of the vast migration from rural, traditional areas. A new culture has emerged. New melodramatic movies based on this immigrant sensibility have become highly popular and pervasive. Political Islam itself has transformed from a static posture to a politics of economic development that is responsible for the mushrooming high-rises that have changed the city’s skyline. In the process, Erdoğan’s party has also changed from a stalwart of clean government to one accused of corruption linked mostly to real estate development.
At the same time, we have seen the emergence of a new individuality, the sense that “you are on your own, charting your own path in the big city.” This in turn has generated its own response as we see in Mevlut. He embraces the family more and more, including his contentious cousins, as he feels more alone in the forest of the modern city.
“Political Islam itself has transformed from a static posture to a politics of economic development that is responsible for the mushrooming high-rises that have changed the city’s skyline.”
The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk worries about what such plastic identities always in transition will mean. Modernity, especially as its pace of change quickens, is a steady rupture in which we always feel out of place, “not of this hour.”
Sloterdijk has argued that the “excess reality” mobilized by modern energies outstrips any narrative of origins and continuity that can tie a society together. The steady disruption of these energies has led to persistent asymmetry and disequilibrium, perpetual alienation and a lack of balance. Would you agree?
I agree with Sloterdijk as far as it goes. The new influences of global culture are so fast and so rich that the national cultures are broken. The comfort of simple stories no longer can shape a convincing narrative. But I want to underline one difference with Sloterdijk. People adapt the way Mevlut does, as I have already mentioned: He embraces the family.
This is a third dimension. For Mevlut, family is his castle, his refuge and rampart, against the rapidly changing, economically demanding and politically dangerous life of urban Istanbul. It is another world that modernity cannot penetrate. When all else melts, the family is solid.
“I’m hoping that the parliamentary elections will pave the way for a coalition that will calm down the turmoil by including the opposite poles of Turkey into a unified sense of national purpose.”
Are we seeing the consequences of such rapid change in the political turmoil today in Turkey? The society as a whole can’t seem to decide if Turkey wants to go back to the Ottoman past, forward to a European future or something else. In the vacuum of a convincing narrative, division and violence fill the void, as we saw in the recent Ankara bombing.
With the elections coming up in the wake of the Ankara bombing, what’s next for Turkey as you see it?
I’m hoping that the parliamentary elections on Nov. 1 will pave the way for a coalition that will calm down the turmoil by including the opposite poles of Turkey into a unified sense of national purpose. In short, to embrace the very diversity of society we have been discussing as the precondition for stability and democracy. There has been too much polarization, too much aggression in Turkish politics today. Politicians should put the brakes on.