A Strangeness in My Mind is Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel (2015), set in Istanbul over the decades of the 1970s to the present time. It is a love story wrapped around a cultural artifact—the selling of boza, an old-Turk fermented wheat beverage.
The book is a biography of a simple boza street seller, his extended family, and friends. The twist is that this young man, who emigrates from his village to work with his father on the street, elopes with a girl from a neighboring village—but [spoiler alert!] in the dark she turns out to be a different girl from his intended love! What to do?
The story is delightful, charming and moving, even as the hard life of a street vendor is grueling and depressing. Somehow he ekes out an existence, but there is nothing simple about his life’s journey. There is plenty of intrigue, from both families and in-laws, and plenty of angst from moral and economic conflicts.
Istanbul, growing these decades like a petri dish full of mold, expands and smothers everything. Cultural and economic changes are at the forefront of the story, particularly the rise of the Islamic Party and an urban society that is increasingly modern (and to some eyes corrupt). Bribes to officials and local mafia bosses are required, and a person of virtue like our protagonist is loath to pay. Our hero for a while becomes an electric utility inspector after the industry is privatized, and the electric company seeks to reign-in the ubiquitous practice of illegally tapping into the lines.
Part of the economic lesson has to do with property rights, or in this case the mishmash of arbitrary and informal property rights created by squatters and politicians, that give rise to cloudy titles. With developers scrambling for land to build high rises, the slums of the poor street vendors take on significance. Learning about Istanbul's gigantic property rights mess through the eyes of a poor person is enlivening.
One of the wonderful things about this novel is the way the voices of other characters take over to tell the story from their own first-person views. The author offers subtle insights into love, the human condition, and the “progress” of a big urban city in a developing country. Highly recommended.