‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ by Orhan Pamuk


2005, 333p.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time.  It sounded interesting when it was first released, and then I heard it mentioned more recently in terms of a discussion of nostalgia.  Certainly the book is steeped in nostalgia, but Pamuk himself characterises this emotion as ‘huzun’ (the word needs little dotty things over the ‘u’s but I don’t know how to do them).

Pamuk distinguishes his use of the term huzun from other usages.  It is not, as the Koran uses it, a feeling of deep spiritual loss; not is it in the Sufi mystic tradition, a spiritual anguish because we cannot be close enough to Allah.  Instead, he uses it as

not the melacholy of a solitary person, but the black mood shared by millions of people together.  What I am trying to explain is the huzun of an entire city, of Istanbul.  (p. 83)

As such it is similar to, but not the same as, the melancholy felt in other cultures because it is deeply steeped in the specific landscape of Instanbul, and deeply imbued with the lost historical power of the Ottoman empire.  In a long riff that extends over several pages, he evokes the concrete and sensory manifestations of this mixture of pride and loss

I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early, of the fathers under the street lamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags.  Of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter, when sleepy sailors scrub the decks, a pail in their hand and one eye on the black-and-white television in the distance; of the old booksellers who lurch from one financial crisis to the next and then wait shivering all day for a customer to appear…

on and on it goes, over five pages- these snapshots and slivers of life, all beautifully and evocatively captured.

There’s a sense of the ‘other’ alternative history that Istanbul could have had, had the Ottomon Empire survived, and had it not been overlaid by a homogenizing,  deadening Westernization. This sense of the ‘other’ is the second thread that runs through this memoir: the little boy who could have been other than he was.  His family originally lived in a multi-storey apartment block inhabited entirely by different branches of the extended family, overseen by a bed-ridden grandmother matriarch.  The young Orhan was free to move from storey to storey with different aunts and uncles, but the richness of this family atmosphere was stripped away when, after the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, he was despatched to live alone with his mother’s sister’s family.  On the wall they had a picture of a nameless young boy who looked similar enough for them to nod at him and say “That’s you” and yet for him to know, most certainly, that it wasn’t him.  The childhood story is interwoven through the text, as we follow his combative relationship with his brother and the sad spiralling story of  his first love, a strange relationship cut short when her parents dispatched her to Europe in order to separate them.

Finally, there are the black-and-white photographs of Istanbul that appear throughout the book. They are not corralled in a glossy section, separate from the text, but are instead spread throughout, and their graininess and monochrome reflect the huzun he is working to evoke.  He speaks much of the outsider’s eye and its perception of Istanbul- through the writings of  Flaubert, Burton, Nerval, Gautier and Gide; and the paintings of the Bosphorus and the winding streets that Orhan himself imitated, over and over.   The photographs, Pamuk tells us in an endpiece, are largely from an archive of photographs by Ara Guler and Selahittin Giz.  In this regard, the book reminded me very much of Terence Davies Of Time and the City that I saw a few months back.  It wasn’t just the black and white photographs, but also the yearning, time-weary tone of both this book and the Davies documentary.  But there’s a bitterness about Davies’ work that is not found here- instead Pamuk’s writing is a long, wistful love song.

It comes as a surprise, then, to remember that Pamuk himself was born in 1952, and was too young to remember many of the scenes depicted in the photographs.  As almost a contemporary of myself, he grew into consciousness in the 1960s and 70s, as the pace of Westernization increased, and he is mourning a death that already underway during his own lifetime.  I can’t work out how this conservatism- or is it even ‘conservative’ if an imagined time never did exist?- works out at a political level.

Structurally, the emphasis on the visual and the sense of the other come together at the end of the book.  We have followed the adolescent Pamuk as he explores the streets of Istanbul with the painter’s eye, but in the final paragraph of the book we leave behind this intensely visual appreciation with his declaration to his mother “I don’t want to be an artist.  I’m going to be a writer”.  And as I closed the book, I realized that yes, this is what he has been all along.

2 responses to “‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ by Orhan Pamuk

  1. whisperinggums

    Oh, I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago…and have never forgotten hüzün (is that how it is? I’ve forgotten, but just had to show off the lovely little application thingy hubby has put on my computer). My f2f recently did Snow, which I have blogged about, and I was astonished to discover one of my good friends there didn’t like this book. Can’t understand it at all…

  2. Orhan Pamuk’s masterpiece touched me intensely, as if it were about my own life growing up in New York City, the son of an immigrant family from Greece. Although there are understandable hostile feelings among Hellenes toward the usurpers of a glorious Greco-Roman Empire, I never once felt betrayed by Mr. Pamuk’s objective yet sensitive portrayals of his city’s history. Perhaps this was so because his history too was somehow usurped by the conquering Turkish hordes some five hundred years ago and that his Circassian culture was being systematically erased. I believe this book will always have a permanent place as a reference to what happens when cultures are overtaken by others and how they manage to blend and survive even after the nomenclature has changed.

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