What matters more in love: what we wish for, or what our fate has in store? Do our choices dictate whether we will be happy or not, or are these things determined by forces beyond our control? This book answers these questions while portraying the tensions between urban life and family life, and helplessness of women inside their homes. Being the adventures and dreams of Mevlut Karata, a seller of boza, and of his friends, and a portrait of life in Istanbul between 1969 and 2012 from many different points of view : a novel /
Don't get me wrong - Its well written, well translated and engaging, very funny in parts and bitingly critical of the condition of women - who have very little freedom or choice in their destiny unless they take the massively risky step of eloping. But for me, it lacks something. Melvut, the main protaganist, is a street vendor by occupation and inclination, and as he walks the streets of Istanbul we see the changes to the city and to culture through his eyes and in the lives of his family. I think the reader is supposed to be struck by conflicts between the traditional and the modern, religious vs secular lifestyles etc. But to me, most of this seemed to be the normal growing pains an urbanising country with rural cultural roots is bound to undergo.
In short I was quite interested in Melvut's progress, but rarely surprised by it. If you haven't read any of Pamuk's other work, I wouldn't start here. Read My Name Is Red, or Snow, or The Museum Of Innocence, first
Pamuk’s intention is to show how Turks come to terms with an Islamic heritage while living in an environment that is rapidly becoming Westernized and secular. His characters struggle with achieving this cultural balance, succeeding to varying extents. Not only is Melvut exposed to people who advocate for Turkey to return to its Islamic roots, but also to radicals who espouse revolution and adoption of communism. Others pay particular attention to the city’s opportunities for personal enrichment. In his travels, Melvut sees modernist trends, criminality, racial bigotry and corruption. He struggles to understand his own “strangeness” and where he fits in this mix. The reader becomes familiar with the other characters, most of whom are members of his extended family through first person monologues that Pamuk inserts into his third person narrative. This approach injects a humorous and unpretentious tone to the story.
Pamuk succeeds in evoking the setting of Istanbul during this period. He describes the crude dwellings built by the newcomers as a strategy to claim land on the hills surrounding the city and how these become replaced by sterile high-rise buildings. We experience the narrow alleys of the old city where inhabitants lower baskets to street level to obtain their boza. We follow Melvut into cemeteries where he is threatened by packs of feral dogs. We experience the tradition of inviting the boza seller up to the apartment. What results is a mood that is at times mysterious and threatening, while at others quite humane and inviting. Although the story develops slowly and lacks tension, Pamuk obviously delights in telling the story of his city and its people. This makes for an engaging and satisfying read.
All of the parts of the story about Mevlut are told in the first person, but along the way there are first-person asides from the other characters as they tell their point of the story. These multiple viewpoints are an interesting narrative device.
Ultimately, the story felt pretty rambling and unfocused. The book was probably more interesting as a history of Istanbul than as a story about Mevlut.
"Mevlut liked to listen to him and daydream as he sat in the front seat of the Dodge, watching hundreds, thousands of lights shining out of cars and windows; the depths of the dark, velvety Istanbul night; and the neon-colored minarets going past. Mevlut used to toil on foot through mud and rain, up and down these very same streets, and now here they were slipping right through with ease. Life, too, slipped by in much the same way, speeding up as it ran along the tracks laid out by time and fortune."
Orhan Pamuk's long novel is as much the story of Istanbul as it is the tale of Mevlut, a Boza seller who moves to Istanbul as a child in 1969 to learn the trade from his father. Mevlut falls in love with a girl he sees at his cousin's wedding; he begins to send her beautiful and heartfelt love letters and eventually they elope together with the assistance of yet another cousin. Mevlut almost immediately realizes that the girl with whom he has run away and to whom he is now committed for life is not the girl with whom he fell in love. Rather, this is her unattractive older sister. Thus begins the life of Melvut, a man of principle and ambition, and the family with whom he is forever bound. As Istanbul's population explodes, political winds shift, and modernity intrudes upon their culture, Mevlut and his cousins dream of wealth and property; their minimal education and the intractable class barriers make advancement difficult. But they also dream of love and hold fast to family; on these, only time can intrude.
I've never heard Pamuk speak but I believe he loves the city of Istanbul. This novel, a bit of a slog at times, was nonetheless enjoyable and a fascinating glimpse of Turkish culture and history since the 1960s.
The first two chapters are out of sequence - the first covers the night when Mevlut elopes with his wife Rayiha. He has been writing to Rayiha since seeing her sister at a family wedding - his cousin Suleyman has tricked him into addressing the letters to the "wrong" sister, but it soon becomes clear that Rayiha is the better match. The second chapter is many years later as Mevlut suffers a crisis of confidence after being robbed by ruthless street thieves. The rest of the book is told in chronological order, starting when Mevlut arrives in the city as a boy to help his father in his yogurt and boza selling business.
The real subject of the book is the city itself - Pamuk chronicles its expansion, modernisation, political and sociological changes in great detail. The incorruptible but poor Mevlut is contrasted with his scheming (and richer) cousins.
For such a long book, this is a surprisingly easy read - the story telling always keeps you interested despite the mundane nature of much of the story. A pleasure to read.