Nobel laureate Pamuk (The Museum of Innocence, 2009, etc.) sets a good-natured Everyman wandering through Istanbul’s changing social and political landscape.
Tricked by his scheming cousin Süleyman into writing impassioned love letters for three years to Rayiha, Mevlut finds himself eloping with the older sister of the girl whose dark eyes intoxicated him at a relative’s wedding. (Süleyman gave him the wrong name because he wanted the beautiful youngest for himself.) This being Turkey in 1982, and Mevlut being easygoing in the extreme, rejecting a woman who has compromised herself by agreeing to run away with him is unthinkable. The young couple prove to be well-matched and quite happy, although Mevlut doesn’t make much money. His checkered day jobs in food services, selling rice with chickpeas from his own cart and ineffectually managing a cafe among them, give the author a chance to expatiate on Istanbul’s endemic corruption, both municipal and personal. Pamuk celebrates the city’s vibrant traditional culture—and mourns its passing—in wonderfully atmospheric passages on Mevlut’s nightly adventures selling boza, a fermented wheat beverage he carries through the streets of Istanbul and delivers directly to the apartments of those who call to him from their windows. Although various characters from time to time break into the third-person narration to address the reader, this is the only postmodern flourish. If anything, Pamuk recalls the great Victorian novelists as he ranges confidently from near-documentary passages on real estate machinations and the privatization of electrical service to pensive meditations on the gap between people’s public posturing and private beliefs. The oppression of women is quietly but angrily depicted as endemic; even nice-guy Mevlut assumes his right to dictate Rayiha’s behavior (with ultimately disastrous consequences), while his odious right-wing cousin Korkut treats his wife like a servant. As Pamuk follows his believably flawed protagonist and a teeming cast of supporting players across five decades, Turkey’s turbulent politics provide a thrumming undercurrent of unease.
Rich, complex, and pulsing with urban life: one of this gifted writer’s best.