Orhan Pamuk seems to be infatuated with the idea of love at first sight.
The postmodern novelist, who in 2006 became the first Turkish author to win a Nobel Prize in literature, mines that particular topic in two of his greatest novels, Snow (2002) and The Museum of Innocence (2008). Pamuk's sometimes hapless heroes, overeducated men of class, distinction, and intellect, fall hopelessly under the spell of beauties they glimpse for but a moment. The result is usually less than heartwarming: The men generally end up alone and miserable.
Pamuk uses the trope again in his latest novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, a magical literary offering otherwise very different from its predecessors.
This time the man pierced by Cupid's arrow is not an intellectual or a poet, but a working-class street peddler. And his ardor doesn't lead him down dark alleys of despair and loneliness, but to a comical misadventure and a happy marriage.
Pamuk discusses the novel with Ursinus College professor of philosophy and humanities Carlin Romano Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
A Strangeness in My Mind tells the epic life story of Mevlut Karatas, a vendor who hawks yogurt and bozu - a traditional beverage of fermented wheat with a low alcohol content - through the streets of Istanbul.
Born to illiterate parents in a rural village in central Anatolia, Mevlut follows his dad to the big city in the late 1960s when he's 12, where he learns the ropes, eventually taking over the business.
He toils at it for decades. He gets married and raises two daughters. He has a life. An ordinary life. The life of an average Istanbullu.
Yet Mevlut's is an epic story because it's the tale of Pamuk's beloved city of Istanbul. It's a love poem to a great city as it grows and mutates over 40 years.
"I experienced all these changes. I am writing about things I have seen and experienced, things that are close to me," Pamuk said in a phone interview. "These are my buildings and my shops. These are my streets. It's my city. And in my lifetime I have seen it grow from 1 million to 16 million people."
Pamuk tells his city's story through the eyes of a wildly inventive, imaginative, curious mind. Mevlut may not be educated beyond eighth grade. He may not be a poet by trade. But he is possessed of a certain strangeness in the mind, as Pamuk calls it, referring to one of his favorite lines from William Wordsworth's The Prelude.
"I gave [Mevlut] a strangeness of mind, a lively intellectualism so that he would notice and see the strangeness of life around him in the streets," said Pamuk.
Like that other great literary non-poet, Leopold Bloom, whose perambulations - physical and mental - constitute the skeletal structure of James Joyce's ode to Dublin, Ulysses, Mevlut discloses a unique view of Istanbul through his observations.
"Novels are born out of the desire to see the world through some other person's point of view, through some other person's life," said Pamuk, "and Mevlut has a romantic, philosophical, and poetic imagination."
But unlike Pamuk's other heroes, Mevlut doesn't make a living out of his imagination. He's just a working-class guy trying to make ends meet.
"The greatest challenge of the book was to explore and write about the life of a working-class character, something which is done so rarely in fiction," said Pamuk. "In fiction, poor characters are often in the background. Novels usually are about middle- and upper-middle-class characters. It's their class which is glamorized."
Pamuk said he researched the character and his life by talking to folks he met during a typical day in Istanbul.
"You know, I would buy some chicken with rice and get talking [with the vendor] and he'd invite me upstairs for a conversation," said Pamuk, who spends part of each year teaching writing and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.
The protagonist isn't the only unique thing about Pamuk's new book. The style is radically different from that of predecessors. There's no meta-fiction here, none of the playful postmodern touches that have made Pamuk the Jorge Luis Borges of Turkey.
"This is Pamuk putting aside some of the postmodern devices he's known for and becoming the Dickens or Tom Wolfe of Istanbul," said Romano, who is the Chronicle of Higher Education's critic-at-large and a former Inquirer staff writer. "It's as fine a read as Pamuk's earlier masterpieces, but very different - a triumph of old-fashioned realism."
A Strangeness in My Mind has at its heart a most unusual love story. One day at a wedding, Mevlut falls hopelessly in love with a teenage girl after seeing her for a few seconds. He spends the next three years writing her hundreds of love letters. Using his cousin Süleyman as a go-between, Mevlut eventually asks the girl to elope with him, and she accepts.
But his cousin has Mevlut fooled: Instead of uniting Mevlut with the beauty whose eyes had so smitten him, Süleyman hooks him up with the girl's homelier sister, Rayiha.
A comedy of errors of Shakespearean proportions ensues as Mevlut uses the cover of night to steal away with the young woman, only to realize too late he has the wrong girl. But he's a man of honor, so he marries her.
Pamuk said he wanted to use Mevlut's strange love story to explore the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes toward marriage.
"In most of the non-Western world, marriages are still arranged by the families. So for someone to run away and elope for love, it's a way to reject the shackles that the family is imposing," said Pamuk.
But he injected the ironic twist to explode the myth of love at first sight.
"The book is saying that the love we romanticize and cherish so much may be fine as a beginning point to a marriage," he said, "but that no amount of love will necessarily mean the couple will be happy."
Though Pamuk agrees Mevlut's story may be inseparable from the story of Istanbul, he said he hoped it touched on universal themes.
"This story is about the things we love in life, the family we are given or the city," he said. "I want to write about what it means to be a human being, about humanity."
Orhan Pamuk: "A Strangeness in My Mind"
In conversation with Carlin Romano at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
Tickets: $15, $7 students. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org