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The Soul in the City – Orhan Pamuk’s 'A Strangeness in My Mind'

Words like “comforting” and “reassuring” don’t seem sufficiently “sexy” praise for a literary work on this scale, but these are the only words to describe its effect (on this reader, at least).


“Boooooozaaaaaaaaa!” “Booooooooooozaaaaaaaa!!”

This cry rings out through the backstreets of Istanbul, from 1969 to 2012 in Orhan Pamuk’s grand, sprawling new novel A Strangeness In My Mind. Words like “comforting” and “reassuring” don’t seem sufficiently “sexy” praise for a literary work on this scale, but these are the only words to describe its effect (on this reader, at least). For all of its 624 pages, I felt enveloped in a sense of deep calm, anchored by Mevlut, a street vendor and the main character, who for four decades, through political convulsions, economic upheavals, and family dramas finds his sense of belonging in wandering the city streets at night selling boza, a thick, spiced, wheat-based, semi-alcoholic winter drink from Ottoman times, and a symbol of all that is sad and beautiful about civilization.

Mevlut is not exactly what you’d call a “go-getter.” Born in a small Turkish village, he follows his father to Istanbul as a teenager to sell yogurt in the streets (a profession soon to be doomed by refrigeration and mass production). Like tens of thousands of other poor workers, they colonize a square of land in one of Istanbul’s growing shantytowns and build a “gecekondu” (“night condo” — so called because they’re built literally overnight) with a dirt floor. For a while Mevlut goes to school, but growing political tensions in the city between nationalists and Kurds soon tear his high school apart, and Mevlut’s too exhausted from nocturnal work anyway to be much of a student. Ultimately, inevitably, he drops out and becomes a full-time street vendor.


Boza, a mildly alcoholic Turkish beverage traditionally sold by street vendors

There is a Turkish cultural trait — a sweetly melancholic emotion called huzun, which Pamuk writes about at length in his memoir Istanbul — Memories and the City. As an outsider from the chipper, forward-looking US of A, my best understanding of huzun is that it’s a kind of sweet surrender to fate, a cultural shrugging of the shoulders in response to the inevitable suffering of daily life. It’s hard to imagine an outlook more antithetical to the “Go West, Young Man!” entrepreneurial spirit of the country in which my own worldview was forged, although our traditional music — blues, folk-country, Appalachian high harmony — draws from a similar well of wistfulness and sorrow at things lost.

Mevlut is kind of the embodiment of huzun. Throughout his 40 year career and the rise of Istanbul from a city of 2 million to more than 9 million people, he sells yogurt, rice with chickpeas, and boza, always making barely enough money to get by. Relatives advise him to get into some other line of work, but he cheerfully refuses, stoically shouldering his baskets each day and setting forth with a sense of inevitability and belonging. In selling boza (a constant nocturnal activity throughout his life), Mevlut is consciously calling out to and from Istanbul’s ancient past, stitching together its fragmented social fabric.* And after 200 pages of feeling frustrated with him for not being more ambitious (silly American!), I ultimately had to accept the fact that Mevlut is happy. Happy with his job, happy with his wife Rayiha and their two daughters, happy with his little life, in part because of his huzunlu acceptance that it’s his lot in life — his fate.

Meanwhile, all around Mevlut, the city is changing. One subtheme of the book (and a fact of life for Istanbul’s millions of residents) is the tectonic inevitability of massive earthquake that is expected at any moment to level the entire city. The earthquake never happens, of course, but all around Mevlut political revolutions and aggressive waves of industrialization repeatedly tear down and rebuild the city around him. Through it all, Mevlut is the constant, the only reliable thing in a world that’s constantly reinventing itself. And while contempt is an easy reaction to his intractability, his personal conservatism, he is also in a sense the soul of the city, the thing that makes Istanbul Istanbul, and that no amount of progress can erase.

*One fun note about boza: Its typical alcohol content is around 3 percent, which made it popular in Islamically strict Ottoman Turkey (prior to the establishment of the modern Republic in 1923) because people could pretend it was non-alcoholic. Even in Mevlut’s day, the few remaining boza vendors won’t admit to customers that boza contains alcohol, although everyone knows that it does. Like Istanbul (or any great city), boza is subtle, sublunary, not always what it seems.

-- 

@jgots is me on Twitter

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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