Orhan Pamuk is one the most important authors alive today. He’s important not just because he is a great writer, but because he and his corpus straddles that mysterious chasm, the divide between the West and the (Middle) East.
Pamuk’s first book (or the first one to become really popular) was Snow. This book is set in Van, the largest city in eastern Turkey. This is not the Turkey that we know; that is westernised Istanbul. No. Eastern Anatolia is, as events in Syria and Iraq have made clear, a very different place; almost a difference country.
In Snow, a westernised Istanbul journalist travels to Van to investigate the situation. What follows is a razor-taunt mix of political thriller, mystery, and cultural exploration all in the context of a Tolstoy-esque story of personal growth and discovery. There is a distinct sense that Pamuk is trying to explain the West to the East and the East to the West.
You probably anticipated this, but Pamuk’s novels always take place around a culture clash, be it East and West, or in the case of A Strangeness in My Mind, the clash between rural Anatolian immigrants coming of age in Istanbul.
I loved Snow, one of the best books ever. But I’ve had quite a lot of trouble enjoying Pamuk’s other stuff. My Name is Red is tentatively about the murder of an Ottoman miniaturist. I picked this book up eagerly expected some sort of masterpiece that mixes Agatha Christie with John Julius Norwich and some sort of great novelist. Well its not that. It’s a pretty good book; think Umberto Eco.
But it goes downhill from there. Pamuk seems to be writing sadly sweet, thoughtful books about Istanbul these days. A Strangeness in My Mind is just that. Poor immigrants move to Istanbul. They remain fairly poor and uninteresting. The main character is sweet and not terribly bright. I struggled to find a reason to continue reading.
I love Istanbul, but there was just nothing in this book that I found to be of interest, aside from some cultural asides and insights that where nifty to know about. But that’s about it.