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PAMUK, Orhan

A Strangeness in My Mind

For one and half school years, between sixth and seventh grade, Mevlut worried constantly about where to sit in the classroom. The inner turmoil he endured while grappling with this question was as intense as the ancient philosophers' worries over how to live a moral life. Within a month of starting school, Mevlut already knew that if wanted to become "a scientist Atatürk would be proud of," as the principal liked to say, he would have to befriend the boys from good families and nice neighbourhoods, whose notebooks, neckties, and homework were always in good order. Out of the two-thirds of the student body who, like Mevlut, lived in a poor neighbourhood, he had yet to meet anyone who did well in school. Once or twice in the school yard, he'd bumped into boys from other classes who took school seriously because they, too, had heard it said, "This one's really clever, he should be sent to school," but in the apocalyptically overcrowded school, he had never managed to communicate with these lost and lonely souls who, like the quiz team, were belittled by the rest as nerds. This was partly because the nerds themselves regarded Mevlut with some suspicion, as he, too, was from a poor neighborhood. He rightly suspected that their rosy worldview was fatally flawed: deep down, he felt that these "clever" boys, who thought they would become rich one day if only they could learn the sixth-grade geography textbook by heart, were, in fact, fools, and the last thing he wanted was to be anything like them.

The White Castle

We were sailing from Venice to Naples when the Turkish fleet appeared. We numbered three ships all told, but the file of their galleys emerging from the fog seemed to have no end. We lost our nerve; fear and confusion instantly broken out on our ship, and our oarsmen, most of them Turks and Moors, were screaming with joy. Our vessel turned its bow landward, westward, like the other two, but unlike them we could not gather speed. Our captain, fearing punishment should he be captured, could not bring himself to give the command to whip the captives at the oars. In later years I often thought that this moment of cowardice changed my whole life.

But now it seems to me that my life would have been changed if our captain had not suddenly been overcome by fear. Many men believe that no life is determined in advance, that all stories are essentially a chain of coincidences. And yet, even those who believe this come to the conclusion, when they look back, that events they once took for chance were really inevitable. I have reached that moment now, as I sit at an old table writing my book, visualizing the colours of the Turkish ships appearing like phantoms in the fog; this seems the best of times to tell a tale.

Our captain took heart when he saw the other two ships slip away from the Turkish vessels and disappear into the fog, and at last he dared to beat the oarsmen, but we were too late; even whips could not make the slaves obey once they had been aroused by the passion for freedom. Cutting the unnerving wall of fog into waves of colour, more than ten Turkish galleys were upon us at once. Now at last our captain decided to fight , trying to overcome, I believe, not the enemy, but his own fear and shame; he had the slaves flogged mercilessly and ordered the cannons made ready, but the passion for battle late to flame, was also quick to burn out. We were caught in a violent broadside volley - our ship would surely sink if we did not give up at once - we decided to raise the flag of surrender.

While we waited on a calm sea for the Turkish ships to draw alongside, I went to my cabin, put my things in order as if expecting not arch-enemies who would change my whole life, but a few friends paying a visit, and opening my little trunk rummaged through my books, lost in thought. My eyes filled with tears as I turned the pages of a volume I'd paid dearly for in Florence; I heard shrieks, footsteps rushing back and forth, an uproar going on outside, I knew that at any moment the book would be snatched from my hand, yet I wanted to think not of that but of what was written on its pages. It was as if the thoughts, the sentences, the equations in the book contained the whole of my past life which I dreaded to lose; while I read random phrases under my breath, as though reciting a prayer. I desperately wanted to engrave the entire volume on my memory so that when they did come, I would not think of them and what they would make me suffer, but would remember the colours of my past as if recalling the cherished words of a book I had memorized with pleasure.