Joy Stocke's Reviews > Istanbul: Memories and the City

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
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Jul 27, 2012

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Paying attention to beauty in all its forms, but especially its melancholic form comes naturally to Orhan Pamuk, who tells us in his new memoir, Istanbul, Memories and the City, that before becoming a writer he had planned to become a painter.


By the time he reveals that fact he has used his painterly eye and gift for language to draw us into a world where life with his charming, philandering father, his beautiful, sad mother, and his older brother echoes and reflects the complicated, melancholy city of Istanbul itself. Readers of Pamuk’s first novel, The Black Book, will recognize Pamuk’s home, the Pamuk Apartments, in the upscale neighborhood of Nisantasi on the European side of the Bosphorus, where he grew up surrounded by an extended family.

As the title of his memoir suggests, Pamuk’s portrait of Istanbul remains intimately connected to his family and their bourgeois middle class life. From there it spills out along the shores of the Bosphorus where the family summered, and finally into every nook and cranny of the great and sprawling city.

“Here we come to the heart of the matter,” Pamuk writes. “I have never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood. My imagination requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing on the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it made me who I am.”

And so a double journey begins, one through the labyrinth of Pamuk’s mind and another through the labyrinthine streets of Istanbul. Following in the footsteps of Western writers he admires and to whom his work has been compared — Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino — Pamuk succeeds in reshaping Istanbul to match his vision, a vision shaped as much by his Western education as his Turkish roots. He rides in a fancy western car with his friends to the shores of the Bosphorus to watch a lovely wooden yali, or Ottoman seaside home, burn to the ground, thrilled by the awful spectacle. Or he wanders past ornate palaces that once housed Pashas, who in the latter days of the Ottoman Empire tried to westernize their dress and surroundings.

“Great as the desire to westernize and modernize may have been,” writes Pamuk, the more desperate wish was probably to be rid of all the bitter memories of the fallen empire, rather as a spurned lover throws away his lost beloved’s clothes, possessions, and photographs. But as nothing, western or local, came to fill the void, the great drive to westernize amounted mostly to the erasure of the past; the effect of culture was reductive and stunting, leading families like mine, otherwise glad of republican progress, to furnish their houses like museums.”

In many ways Pamuk’s Istanbul has become a museum whose caretakers no longer find value in their treasures, readily tearing down whole neighborhoods. But Pamuk is not willing to let go of the past, setting a grand stage for his memories by walking through the neighborhoods winding his way down alleys that lead to disintegrating cemeteries; or as a young boy flirting with the spirituality missing in his staunchly secularist family’s life when he visits a mosque with the maid. A quarter of the way into his narrative, he reveals his thesis: Istanbul can be best summed up by the complicated word huzun, translated into English to mean melancholy.

“To feel this huzun,” writes Pamuk, “is to see scenes, evoke memories in which the city itself becomes the very illustration. I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early, of the fathers under the streetlamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags. Of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter, where sleepy sailors scrub the decks; of the empty boathouses of old Bosphorus villas; of the teahouses packed to the rafters with unemployed men; of the patient pimps striding up and down the city’s greatest square on summer evenings in search of one last drunken tourist; of crowds rushing to catch ferries on winter evenings; of the old men selling thin religious treatises, prayer beads, and pilgrimage oils in the courtyards of mosques; of the tens of thousands of identical apartment house entrances.”

Pamuk has cleverly structured his history of the city to fit within his formative years, taking us from his earliest memories at age 3 to age 20 when he is on the threshold of becoming a writer. He poignantly shows us the pain of first love and how, when it is ending, he and his girlfriend spend afternoons in the Museum of Painting and Sculpture on the grounds of the Dolmabahçe Palace where they are mesmerized by a painting by the artist Halil Pasha called The Reclining Woman.

In a scene that recalls the drama of a Persian love story, his girlfriend, whom he calls The Black Rose, informs him that her father has forbidden her to see him because as she says, “You’ll become a poor drunken painter, and I’ll be your nude model.” When she is shipped off to a Swiss boarding school, Pamuk reads her final letter in a pudding shop while smoking a cigarette.

Back and forth the memoir goes, examining bits of history, stopping for a moment on the destruction of the Greek quarter in the l950s and avoiding almost completely the student unrest in the late 70s before a coup in l980 put the country in the hands of its military. Pamuk’s aim is not to write a political memoir, and as he says, he was shielded in his bourgeois world from the strife so many young people endured.

Author Maureen Freely has created a superb and beautifully delicate translation. She too grew up in Istanbul, daughter of the writer John Freely. Steeped in the grandeur of the city, she has artfully captured the huzun that Pamuk uses as the leitmotif of his memoir.

Here is a review I wrote for online magazine Wild River Review, www.wildriverreview.com

In many ways, Pamuk has become a controversial figure, a lightning rod for Turkey’s collective consciousness. “My sense of the melancholy of the city is a melancholy due to the loss of the Ottoman Empire,” he says. Its multiple and rich culture, and its wonderful, colorful history. The younger generation says to me, ‘Oh Orhan, our sense of the city is not that black and white. For us this is a city of blue, sun, and summer. We’ve come from other parts of Turkey to enjoy the city and we are enjoying it. Why did you write this sad book?’”

In Pamuk’s answer lies a challenge. “The fact is, the Ottoman Empire declined,” he says. “And a city, which in 1852 Flaubert predicted would be the cultural capitol of the world, disintegrated into a poor, provincial decaying town. My book is about these things.

“I have seen so many young writers coming to terms with the stories of the Ottoman past,” he adds. “They are fortunate because the art of the novel and of the memoir have become international forms. I would like to write my memoir as a trilogy of my life in Istanbul and in the next book my hope is to show how I made myself a novelist in Turkey, my problems with the art of the novel, and then the success and my reaction to all of this. I hope to show young writers that the form has opened up for them and their vision of Istanbul as well.”

Near the end of his memoir Pamuk records a journey he took on a ferry up the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn. “Here amid the old stones and the old wooden houses,” he writes, “history made peace with its ruins; ruins nourished life and gave new life to history.”

In Istanbul, Memories and the City, its pages filled with illustrations and photographs, some from Pamuk’s personal collection, and many photographs by renowned photographer Ara Guler, Pamuk has invited us to see Istanbul through his eyes, one we might even recognize, refracted in the prism of huzun.
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