Saturday, 14 November 2015

Book review: A Strangeness In My Mind, Orhan Pamuk (2015)

This book was a big disappointment. You can see that I didn't read very far and soon put the book aside.

The book tells another story of the author's beloved Turkey but this time it is told through the eyes of two generations of yoghurt and boza sellers. (Boza is a fermented dairy drink that is famous in Turkey as a traditional item of consumption.) But the misery is unrelenting and Pamuk fails to link his story to that of the international middle class. He also fails to inject sufficient magic into the prose to sustain an inquisitive mind. There is something journeyman-like and adequate about the writing in this book that seems particularly suited to telling the life story of a largely illiterate street hawker.

The book opens with a short, digressive chapter in which Mevlut elopes with his intended wife, spiriting her away from a small, rural village with the help of a friend and onto the train to Istanbul. The tale dovetails therefore nicely with the larger story of Turkey's modernisation following WWII. Here you have the exodus of workers from rural poverty to life in a different kind of misery in the slums surrounding the metropolis. But there's something unrelenting about the misery. When he finally gets the young girl - she is just 16 years old - into the train he has the idea that he has stolen the wrong sister away. The girl registers his dismay and starts to cry.

Later, in another story, Mevlut is nearing the end of his life selling boza and yoghurt in the streets of Istanbul and in the night he is waylaid by two thugs who steal his money. We also get the story of Mevlut's father's life as a street seller. More misery. No exit. Just a crushing sameness. Why would you continue reading this kind of thing if you were looking for something to divert you? The lack of spark reminded me that I had not even finished reading Pamuk's previous novel, the 2008 Museum of Innocence.

It is sad when you are forced to turn away from a favourite author because their output has not kept pace with your expectations. It seems to me also that unfortunately tales of third world misery are set to multiply as more and more authors emerge from the slums and barrios that grow like topsy around the cities in many countries around the world, each looking to tell their own story for a global audience. The disappointing A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James - the book that just recently won this year's Man Booker Prize in the UK - comes to mind. James furthermore magnifies the unrelenting horror of slum life by deploying a kind of creole as well, a type of language that it is very difficult to produce poetry in as it is not actually a shared medium to form a bridge with a reader living in a different country. I'm also reminded of the deeply depressing effect of the crushing dystopia in J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus (2013) and that found in Charlotte Wood's dull The Natural Way of Things (2015).

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