The first interruption arrives early in Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind,” a glorious and teeming everyman epic about an Istanbul street vendor named Mevlut Karatas, a likable innocent whose fortunes are buffeted by political and social forces he only vaguely understands.
His cousin Süleyman, a bit of a snake, pipes up to deny the narrator’s claim that the dogs in their Turkish village would bark at him, though not at Mevlut, when they were children. Never happened, he says. “I just thought I should make that clear.” This may or may not be true, but if they did bark at Süleyman, they were on to something.
The narrator manages only another paragraph before someone else breaks in, addressing us: Abdurrahman Efendi, Mevlut’s future father-in-law, cheerfully introducing himself. Then comes Mevlut’s hot-tempered father, Mustafa.
In the midst of the massive sprawl that is Istanbul, at the juncture of West and East, Pamuk uses a bickering crowd of family and friends to tell the story of a factious, ever-changing culture and its many points of discord: religion, secularism, ethnicity, tradition, modernity, geography, prosperity, gender.
The women in these pages are fabulous, by the way. “I could write a book about all the men I’ve known,” a nightclub singer named Melahat informs us wryly, “and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.”
This is a novel with more than one elopement, including Mevlut’s with Abdurrahman’s middle daughter, the intelligent and good-hearted Rayiha. Though she’s not actually the girl Mevlut meant to run off with, he wastes little time being unhappy with his accidental lot in life.
Another girl elopes, and her rejected suitor vows vengeance. Nonsense, her father says. “Everyone knows that all these big proclamations about honor are really just excuses invented to let people kill each other with a clear conscience.”
When Pamuk (”The Museum of Innocence”) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the committee praised him for finding “new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures” in his “quest for the melancholic soul of his native city,” Istanbul, where he was born into the secular, educated middle class in 1952.
Mevluk, who savors the solitude of his late-night treks through the city, shares that melancholy, though there’s also a dreamy optimism in his soul. Born in 1957, he is 12 when he leaves his village for Istanbul, both to continue his studies and to hawk yogurt on the streets with his father.
When the weather turns cold, they sell boza, a fermented wheat drink that contains a small amount of alcohol — a fact Mevlut is taught to deny so as not to alienate his more conservative, religious customers.
“It’s enough for people to know that boza was our ancestors’ favorite drink,” he tells Süleyman, defending the livelihood he cherishes though he is barely scraping by. “That’s what the boza seller’s call reminds them of, and it makes them feel good to hear it.”
“So that means you’re like a symbol of something bigger,” his cousin says, and of course that’s true. Through the decades of the book, which ends in 2012, Mevlut is an echo of the past, reverberating through the present.
“A Strangeness in My Mind” is a pensive, intimate, critical, sometimes anxious ode to Istanbul and Turkish life. The title comes from a line in a sprawling, autobiographical poem by Wordsworth that lays out the evolution of the Romantic poet’s thinking. Pamuk’s novel traces the growth and tumult of the city’s last half century: the populations that arrived and those that were exiled, the segments of society that have risen to power and those that enjoy only partial freedom.
In recent days, amid news reports of terrorist violence in Ankara and chronic disunity in Turkey, it has been easy to imagine Mevlut watching the coverage on television, his preferred medium.
It’s unsettling stuff, and he’s not a political guy. But his life, like anyone’s, depends on how such things work out. What Mevlut wants is simple: for street vendors to be permitted to go about their business. Then he can keep walking through the neighborhoods of Istanbul, bringing boza to all kinds.
A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND
By Orhan Pamuk, Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap Knopf
624 pp., $28.95
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.