A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk
Read an extract from Orhan Pamuk's novel
Mevlut and Rayiha
Elopement Is a Tricky Business
This is the story of the life and daydreams of Mevlut Karataş, a seller of boza and yogurt. Born in 1957 on the western edge of Asia, in a poor village overlooking a hazy lake in Central Anatolia, he came to Istanbul at the age of twelve, living there, in the capital of the world, for the rest of his life. When he was twenty-five, he returned to the province of his birth, where he eloped with a village girl, a rather strange affair that determined the rest of his days: returning with her to Istanbul, he got married and had two daughters; he took a number of jobs without pause, selling his yogurt, ice cream, and rice in the street and waiting tables. But every evening, without fail, he would wander the streets of Istanbul, selling boza and dreaming strange dreams.
Our hero Mevlut was tall, of strong yet delicate build, and goodlooking. He had a boyish face, light brown hair, and alert, clever eyes, a combination that roused many a tender feeling among women. This boyishness, which Mevlut carried well into his forties, and its effect on women were two of his essential features, and it will be worth my reminding readers of them now and again to help to explain some aspects of the story. As for Mevlut’s optimism and goodwill—which some would call naïveté—of these, there will be no need for reminding, as they will be clear to see throughout. Had my readers actually met Mevlut, as I have, they would agree with the women who found him boyishly handsome and know that I am not exaggerating for effect. In fact, let me take this opportunity to point out that there are no exaggerations anywhere in this book, which is based entirely on a true story; I will narrate some strange events that have come and gone and limit my part to ordering them in such a fashion as to allow my readers to follow and understand them more easily.
So I will start in the middle, from the day in June 1982 when Mevlut eloped with a girl from the village of Gümüşdere (linked to the Beyşehir district of Konya and neighboring his own village). It was at the wedding of his uncle’s eldest son, Korkut, celebrated in Mecidiyeköy, Istanbul, in 1978, that Mevlut had first caught sight of the girl who would later agree to run away with him. He could scarcely believe that this girl, then only thirteen—a child still—could possibly reciprocate his feelings. She was the little sister of his cousin Korkut’s wife, and she had never even seen Istanbul before that day. Afterward, Mevlut would write her love letters for three years. The girl never replied, but Korkut’s younger brother Süleyman, who delivered Mevlut’s letters, gave Mevlut hope and encouraged him to persevere.
Now, Süleyman was helping his cousin Mevlut again, this time to take the girl away. Driving his Ford van, Süleyman returned with Mevlut to the village of his childhood. The two cousins had hatched a plan to run away with the girl without being detected. According to the plan, Süleyman would wait in the van at a spot about an hour away from Gümüşdere. Everyone would assume the two lovebirds had gone off to Beyşehir, but Süleyman would drive them north over the mountains and drop them off at the Akşehir train station.
Mevlut had gone over the plan many times in his head and twice made secret reconnaissance expeditions to crucial locations like the cold fountain, the narrow creek, the wooded hill, and the back garden of the girl’s home. Half an hour before the appointed time, he stopped off at the village cemetery, which was on the way. He turned toward the tombstones and prayed to God for everything to go smoothly. He was loath to admit it, but he didn’t quite trust Süleyman. What if his cousin failed to bring the van to the appointed spot near the fountain? Mevlut tried not to think about it too much; no good could come of these fears now.
He was wearing the dress trousers and blue shirt he’d bought from a shop in Beyoğlu when he was back in middle school and selling yogurt with his father. His shoes were from the state-owned Sümerbank factory; he’d bought them before doing his military service. At nightfall, Mevlut approached the crumbling wall around the white house of Crooked-Necked Abdurrahman, the girl’s father. The window at the back was dark. Mevlut was ten minutes early and anxious to get going. He thought of the old days when people trying to elope got entangled in blood feuds and wound up shot, or when, running away in the dead of night, they lost their way and ended up getting caught. He thought of how embarrassing it was for the boys when girls changed their minds and decided not to run away after all, and he stood up with some trepidation. He told himself that God would protect him.
The dogs barked. The window lit up for a moment and then went dark again. Mevlut’s heart began to race. He walked toward the house. He heard a rustling among the trees, and then the girl calling out to him in a whisper:
It was a voice full of love, the voice of someone who had read the letters he’d sent during his military service, a trusting voice. Mevlut remembered those letters now, hundreds of them, each written with genuine love and desire; he remembered how he had devoted his entire being to winning over that beautiful girl, and the scenes of happiness he’d conjured in his mind. Now, at last, he’d managed to get the girl. He couldn’t see much, but in that magical night, he drew like a sleepwalker toward the sound of her voice.
They found each other in the darkness. They held hands without even thinking about it and began to run. But they hadn’t gone ten steps when the dogs started barking again, and, startled, Mevlut lost his bearings. He tried to find his way on instinct, but his head was a muddle. In the night, the trees were like walls of concrete looming in and out of view; they dodged them all as in a dream.
When they reached the end of the footpath, Mevlut made for the hill ahead, as planned. At one point, the narrow, winding path through the rocks and up the hill was so steep that it seemed to reach all the way to the clouded pitch-black sky. They walked hand in hand for about half an hour, climbing without rest until they reached the peak. There, they could see the lights of Gümüşdere and, farther back, the village of Cennetpınar, where Mevlut had been born and raised. Mevlut had taken a circuitous path away from Gümüşdere, partly to avoid leading any pursuers back to his own village, and partly on instinct, in order to thwart any treacherous scheme of Süleyman’s.
The dogs kept barking as if possessed. Mevlut realized that he was, by now, a stranger to his village, that none of the dogs recognized him anymore. Presently, he heard the sound of a gunshot coming from the direction of Gümüşdere. They checked themselves and continued to walk at the same pace, but when the dogs, who’d gone quiet for a moment, started barking again, they broke into a run down the hill. The leaves and branches scraped their faces, and nettles stuck to their clothes. Mevlut couldn’t see anything in the darkness and feared that they might trip and fall over a rock at any moment, but nothing of the sort happened. He was afraid of the dogs, but he knew that God was looking out for him and Rayiha and that they would have a very happy life in Istanbul.
They reached the road to Akşehir, out of breath. Mevlut was sure they were on time. All that remained now was for Süleyman to turn up with the van, and then nobody could take Rayiha away from him. Mevlut had begun every letter invoking this girl’s lovely face and her unforgettable eyes, inscribing her beautiful name, Rayiha, with lavish care and desperate abandon at the head of each missive. Now he was so happy at the thought of those feelings that he couldn’t help but quicken his step.
In that darkness, he could scarcely see the face of the girl he was eloping with. He thought he might at least take hold of her and kiss her, but Rayiha gently rebuffed his attempts with the bundle she was carrying. Mevlut liked that. He decided that it would be better not to touch the person he was to spend the rest of his life with until they were married.
Hand in hand, they crossed the little bridge over the river Sarp. Rayiha’s hand in his was light and delicate as a bird. A cool breeze carried the scent of thyme and bay leaves over the murmuring water.
The night sky lit up with a purple hue; then came the sound of thunder. Mevlut worried about getting caught in the rain before the long train ride ahead, but he did not speed up his pace.
Ten minutes later, they saw the taillights of Süleyman’s van beside the gurgling fountain. Mevlut felt himself drowning in happiness. He felt bad for having doubted Süleyman. It had started raining, and they broke into a joyful run, but they were both exhausted, and the lights of the van were farther away than either of them had judged. By the time they reached the van, they were soaked through.
Rayiha took her bundle and sat in the back of the van, engulfed in darkness. Mevlut and Süleyman had planned it that way, in case word got out that Rayiha had run away and the gendarmes started searching vehicles on the roads. It was also to make sure that Rayiha wouldn’t recognize Süleyman.
Once they were seated up front, Mevlut turned to his accomplice and said, “Süleyman, as long as I live, I will be grateful for this, for your friendship and loyalty!” He couldn’t stop himself from embracing his cousin with all his strength.
When Süleyman failed to reciprocate his enthusiasm, Mevlut blamed himself: he must have broken Süleyman’s heart with his suspicions.
“You have to swear you won’t tell anyone that I helped you,” said Süleyman.
“She hasn’t closed the back door properly,” said Süleyman. Mevlut got out and walked toward the back in the darkness. As he was shutting the door on the girl, there was a flash of lightning, and for a moment, the sky, the mountains, the rocks, the trees—everything around him—lit up like a distant memory. For the first time, Mevlut got a proper look at the face of the woman he was to spend a lifetime with.
He would remember the utter strangeness of that moment for the rest of his life.
Once they had started moving, Süleyman took a towel out of the glove compartment and handed it to Mevlut: “Dry yourself.” Mevlut sniffed at the towel to make sure it wasn’t dirty and then passed it to the girl in the back of the van.
A while later, Süleyman said to him “You’re still wet, and there aren’t any other towels.”
The rain peppered the roof, the windshield wipers wailed, but Mevlut knew they were crossing into a place of endless silence. The forest, dimly lit by the van’s pale orange headlights, was thick with darkness. Mevlut had heard how wolves, jackals, and bears met with the spirits of the underworld after midnight; many times at night, on the streets of Istanbul, he had come face-to-face with the shadows of mythical creatures and demons. This was the darkness in which horn-tailed devils, big-footed giants, and horned Cyclopes roamed, looking for all the hopeless sinners and those who had lost their way, whom they would catch and take down to the underworld.
“Cat got your tongue?” Süleyman joked.
Mevlut recognized that the strange silence he was entering would stay with him for years to come.
As he tried to work out how he had fallen into this trap life had set for him, he kept thinking, It’s because the dogs barked and I got lost in the dark, and even though he knew his reasoning made no sense, he held fast to it, because at least it was of some comfort.
“Is something the matter?” said Süleyman.
As the van slowed down to take the turns in the narrow, muddy road, and the headlights lit up the rocks, the ghostly trees, the indistinct shadows, and all the mysterious things around them, Mevlut beheld these wonders with the look of a man who knows he will never forget them for as long as he lives. They followed the tiny road, sometimes snaking up a hill, then back down again, stealing through the darkness of a village sunk in the mud. They would be met by barking dogs every time they crossed a village, only to be plunged once again into a silence so deep that Mevlut wasn’t sure whether the strangeness was in his mind or in the world. In the darkness, he saw the shadows of mythical birds. He saw words written in incomprehensible scripts, and the ruins of the demon armies that had traversed these remote lands hundreds of years ago. He saw the shadows of people who had been turned to stone for their sins.
“No regrets, right?” said Süleyman. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I doubt anyone is following us. I’m sure they all knew the girl was going to run away, except maybe her crooked-necked father, and he’ll be easy to deal with. You’ll see, they’ll all come around in a month or two, and then before the summer’s over, you two can come back to get everyone’s blessing. Just don’t tell anyone I helped you.”
As they turned a sharp corner on a steep incline, the van’s back tires got stuck in the mud. For a moment, Mevlut imagined that it could all be over, that Rayiha would go back to her village and he would go back to his home in Istanbul, without any further trouble.
But then the van started moving again.
An hour later, one or two lonely buildings and the narrow lanes of the town of Akşehir appeared in the headlights. The train station was on the outskirts, at the other side of town.
“Whatever happens, don’t get separated,” said Süleyman as he dropped them off at Akşehir railway station. He glanced back at the girl waiting with her bundle in the darkness. “I shouldn’t get out, I don’t want her to recognize me. I’ve got a hand in this, too, now. You must make Rayiha happy, Mevlut, got it? She’s your wife now; the die is cast. You should lie low for a while when you get to Istanbul.”
Mevlut and Rayiha watched as Süleyman drove away until they could no longer see the van’s red taillights. They walked into the old train station building without holding hands.
Inside the brightly lit train station, gleaming under fluorescent lights, Mevlut looked once again at the face of the girl he had run away with, a closer look this time, enough to confirm what he had glimpsed but not quite believed while shutting the back door of the van; he looked away.
This was not the girl he had seen at the wedding of his uncle’s elder son Korkut in Istanbul. This was her older sister. They had shown him the pretty sister at the wedding, and then given him the ugly sister instead. Mevlut realized he’d been tricked. He was ashamed and couldn’t even look at the girl whose name may well not have been Rayiha.
Who had played this trick on him, and how? Walking toward the ticket counter at the train station, he heard the distant echoes of his own footsteps as if they belonged to someone else. For the rest of his life, old train stations would always remind Mevlut of these moments.
In a daze, he bought two tickets for Istanbul.
The man at the counter had said, “It’ll be here soon,” but there was no sign of the train. They sat on the corner of a bench in a tiny waiting room crowded with baskets, parcels, suitcases, and tired passengers and did not say a single word to each other.
Mevlut recalled that Rayiha did have an older sister—or, rather, the pretty girl he thought of as Rayiha, because the real Rayiha had to be this girl. That’s how Süleyman had referred to her earlier. Mevlut had sent love letters addressed to Rayiha but with someone else, a different face, in mind. He didn’t even know the name of the pretty sister he had always pictured. He had no clear understanding of how he had been tricked, no memory of how he’d arrived at this moment, and so the strangeness in his mind became a part of the trap he had fallen into.
As they sat on the bench, he looked only at Rayiha’s hand. This was the hand he had lovingly held such a short while ago; it was this hand, as he had written in his love letters, that he had yearned to hold, this well-formed, pretty hand. It rested quietly on her lap, and every now and then it carefully smoothed the creases on her skirt and on the cloth wrapped around her possessions.
Mevlut got up and went to the station café. As he walked back toward Rayiha with two stale buns, he observed her covered head and her face once more from afar. This definitely wasn’t the beautiful girl he had seen at Korkut’s wedding, a wedding he had attended even though his father had told him not to. Once more, Mevlut was sure he had never even seen this girl, the real Rayiha, before. How had they come to this moment? Did Rayiha realize that his letters had actually been intended for her sister?
“Would you like a bun?”
Rayiha held out her delicate hand and took it. In her face, Mevlut saw gratitude—not the excitement of runaway lovers.
With Mevlut sitting next to her, Rayiha labored over her bun as if committing a crime. He ate the other stale bun, not with any relish but only because he wasn’t sure what else to do.
They sat without talking. Mevlut felt like a boy waiting for the end of the school day, finding that time just would not pass. His mind kept working unbidden, trying to figure out what mistake he had made to find himself here.
His thoughts returned repeatedly to the wedding where he’d first seen the pretty sister to whom he had written all those letters; his late father, Mustafa Efendi, telling him not to go to that wedding; and how he had snuck away from the village and gone to Istanbul anyway. Could that one act really have caused all of this? Like the headlights of the van that had brought them here, his thoughts roamed over a half-lit landscape, the gloomy memories and shadows of his twenty-five years, trying to shed some light on the present situation.
The train did not arrive. Mevlut got up and went to the café again, but now it was closed. Two horse-drawn cabs were waiting to take passengers to town. One of the coachmen was smoking a cigarette in the boundless silence that reigned. Mevlut walked up to an ancient plane tree next to the station building.
In the pale light from the station he could make out the sign under the tree.
THE FOUNDER OF OUR REPUBLIC
MUSTAFA KERMAL ATATÜRK
DRANK COFFEE UNDER THE SHADE
OF THIS ANCIENT PLANE TREE
WHEN HE CAME TO AKŞEHIR IN THE YEAR 1922.
Mevlut remembered Akşehir from his history lessons. He had learned about the important role this village had played in Turkish history, but at that moment he couldn’t remember any of it, and he blamed himself. He just hadn’t worked hard enough in school to be the kind of student that his teachers would have wanted. Maybe that was his biggest flaw. But, he thought with some optimism, he was only twenty-five and had plenty of time to improve himself.
On his way back to their bench, he looked at Rayiha one more time. No, he couldn’t remember seeing her at all at the wedding four years ago.
The rusty Istanbul train groaned its way into the station four hours late, and they managed to find an empty carriage. There was no one in their compartment, but still Mevlut sat next to Rayiha rather than across from her. Every time they went over a switch or a worn stretch of railroad, the train shook, and Mevlut’s upper arm brushed against Rayiha’s. Even this seemed strange to Mevlut.
He went to the toilet and listened to the click-clacking sound coming through the hole in the floor, just the way he used to do as a child. When he returned to his seat, the girl had fallen asleep. How could she sleep so peacefully on the night she had run away from home? “Rayiha, Rayiha!” he whispered in her ear. The girl woke up as naturally as only someone whose name was really Rayiha could have done and smiled at him sweetly. Mevlut sat next to her without a word.
They did not speak as they looked out the carriage window, like a couple who had been married for years and had nothing left to say to each other. Every now and then they saw the streetlamps of a little hamlet or the taillights of a car on an isolated road and the green and red lights of railroad signals, but mostly the world outside was pitch black, and they could see nothing but their own reflections in the windowpane.
Two hours later, at dawn, Mevlut saw that there were tears in Rayiha’s eyes. The compartment was still empty, and the train was making its noisy way down a purple-hued landscape with cliffs at every corner.
“Do you want to go back home?” Mevlut asked her. “Have you changed your mind?”
She cried even harder. Mevlut put his arm around her shoulders awkwardly, but then, because it was so uncomfortable, he pulled his arm back. Rayiha cried for a long time. Mevlut felt guilt and remorse.
“You don’t love me,” she said at length.
“Why do you say that?”
“Your letters were so loving, but you tricked me. Was it really you who wrote them?”
“I wrote them all myself,” said Mevlut.
Rayiha kept crying.
An hour later, when the train stopped at Afyonkarahisar station, Mevlut jumped off the carriage and bought some bread, two triangles of cream cheese, and a pack of biscuits. A boy was selling tea from a tray. They bought some to have with their breakfast while the train made its way alongside the river Aksu. Mevlut was happy to watch Rayiha as she looked out of the carriage window at the towns they passed, the poplars, the tractors, the horse carts, the kids playing football, and the rivers flowing under steel bridges. Everything was interesting; the whole world was new.
Between Alayurt and Uluköy stations, Rayiha fell asleep with her head on Mevlut’s shoulder. Mevlut couldn’t deny that this made him happy, nor that it made him feel a sense of responsibility. Two gendarmes and an old man came to sit in their compartment. Mevlut saw transmission towers, trucks on the asphalt roads, and new concrete bridges and read them as signs that the country was growing and developing. He did not like the political slogans he saw scrawled on factory walls and around poor neighborhoods.
Mevlut fell asleep, surprised that he was about to fall asleep.
They woke up together when the train stopped at Eskişehir and panicked for a moment, thinking the gendarmes had caught them, but then they relaxed and smiled at each other.
Rayiha had a very genuine smile. It was hard to believe that she might be hiding anything or to suspect her of scheming in some way. She had an open, decent face, full of light. Mevlut knew deep down that she must have colluded with those who had tricked him, but when he looked at her face, he couldn’t help but think that she had to be innocent in all of this.
As the train moved closer to Istanbul, they talked about the huge factories they passed along the way and the flames that poured out of the tall chimneys of the Izmit oil refinery, and they wondered what corner of the world the big freight ships they spotted might be headed for. Like her sisters, Rayiha had gone to elementary school, and she could name the distant countries across the sea without too much trouble. Mevlut felt proud of her.
Rayiha had already been to Istanbul once for her elder sister’s wedding. But still she humbly asked, “Is this Istanbul now?”
“Kartal counts as Istanbul, I suppose,” said Mevlut, with the confidence of familiarity. “But there’s still a ways to go.” He pointed out the Princes’ Islands ahead of them and vowed to take her there one day.
Not once during Rayiha’s brief life would they ever do this.