A Turkish tale told over 779 pages, written over six years, Orhan Pamuk’s everyman epic is a lavish and intricate homage to Istanbul and its many faces, shrouded in dusty everyday struggle, echoes of yearning and the heady yellow lights of distant hills. Street vendors, sellers of yoghurt and boza (a fermented beverage), broken carts, broken dreams, political extremism and factionalism, elopement, love and heartbreak, gangs and mafias, all these populate Pamuk’s meandering story. At the heart of the novel, though also interspersed with many other characters and voices, is Melvut Karatas, a sincere, passionate man who had moved from the village to Istanbul as a boy with his late father, selling yoghurt and boza, albeit taking on many other jobs in between since then (including an electrical inspector, a cafe manager, a parking lot guard, an icecream seller).
So much of the novel is concerned with the questions: What do our hearts really want? How do we live with our public and private selves? How do we move in a city that’s geographically home but a distance from our hearts?
If the young Melvut wrote years of love letters with Samiha in mind (specifically her eyes), but ended up, by his friend’s trickery, marrying her physically less attractive sister, Rayiha, was this kismet (Turkish for fate) at work and did it mean a less honest life? That he had to declare to family members and all publicly that he really had meant the letters for Rayiha, but privately admit to a different intention, what kind of secrets and tensions has a man to live with for so many years? As kismet perhaps would have it, Melvut ends up marrying Samiha after their respective spouses die at a relatively young age, but that’s when he knows what it means to finally get what you thought you wanted, then find himself somehow always thinking of Rayiha (she often appears to him in cypress-y dreams). But he is happy enough, as he possibly can be. And then there’s the idea the book alludes to that Samiha loves him more in their second marriage than Melvut loves her, which may be quite the opposite from the teenage dynamic that existed in their youth. Relationships change, feelings change, political views change, along gradients and hues, nothing remains static.
Certainly not the city, whose landscape wears different moods and faces, undergoes tides of changes, with new immigrants, from within the country and without, asylum seekers, countryside villagers, which sees its population swell by more than thirty million in a span of three to four decades.
Some of the most moving passages document Melvut’s attachment to his nightly wanderings in the different neighbourhoods of Istanbul, crooning with a wistful, melancholic voice “Boo-zaa!” - for boza in the setting of the novel is mostly a thing of the past, a drink most popular at a time where raki (an alcoholic drink) had not yet been legalised under Ataturk’s reign. Boza also functions as a double entendre (and there are many in this novel, including the question plaguing Melvut, to whom did you write the letters to?). Someone asks, tell me, boza seller, does boza contain alcohol? To which the boza seller replies, as he dishes out a generous topping of chickpeas, no, not at all, it’s a perfectly safe drink in keeping with the laws of our religion. But both he and the person who asks know otherwise. As customers are drawn to the emotion in the boza seller’s voice, so Melvut the boza seller is drawn to the dimly lit alleyways (always under threat of petty crime and stray dogs), a nighttime labyrinth of freedom, not merely in the streets, but in his mind. Selling boza was Melvut’s constant companion, his relief from capitalist suffocation.
There are substantial parts of the novel devoted to the backdrop of messy, violent political factionalism in Turkey, and the effects of capitalism on city planning, industry and the disenfranchised poor. But the final curtain call that left me reeling was Melvut’s resolution to the riddle that had arisen on one of his boza wanderings - What do I want to tell Istanbul and write on its walls? Istanbul, the city that had given him much of life, but also taken much from him.
And his answer (for it was both his public and his private view), contained in the novel’s majestic final line, will surely pierce your heart.