By Vincent Czyz
In his latest book, acclaimed writer Orhan Pamuk has penned an intriguing memoir that focuses on his relationship with Istanbul, the city in which he has always lived.
Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk. Knopf.
Ottoman poets were fond of referring to Istanbul, then known to the world as Constantinople, as the Threshold of Happiness. In 1850, French novelist Gustave Flaubert visited Istanbul: the city’s street life so impressed him he predicted it would become the world’s capital a century hence. In his new book, “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” acclaimed novelist Orhan Pamuk, born 102 years after Flaubert’s sojourn in Istanbul, points out that the “reverse came true.” The city into which Pamuk was born in 1952 is “poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand-year history.”
Pamuk’s memoir is an intriguing account of the author’s private life, of the city in which he has always lived, and above all, of his relationship to this city. The second of two sons born into a wealthy family, he endured a lonely childhood sequestered in an apartment building in which each floor belonged to a different set of relatives. Every apartment had “a locked glass cabinet displaying Chinese porcelains, teacups, silver sets, sugar bowls, snuff boxes, crystal glasses, rosewater ewers, plates, and censers that no one ever touched…”
Why the fascination with things from the West? Pamuk says “sitting rooms were … little museums designed to demonstrate to a hypothetical visitor that the householders were westernized.” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in great part responsible for salvaging a Turkish republic out of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, only decades earlier had imposed a series of reforms on the new nation: a Romanized alphabet, western dress, and a society no longer founded on religion but on secular values.
Fights with his older brother, frequent arguments between his parents, and his father’s prolonged absences (at first on business trips and later for more disturbing reasons), encouraged the young Pamuk to create “a second world.” While the family fortune slowly eroded through his father’s and uncle’s misguided business ventures, the future author retreated into an imaginary realm, eventually taking up painting.
In contrast to the Ottoman poets, Pamuk’s Istanbul is the threshold of melancholy. “I love the early evenings,” he writes, “when autumn is slipping into winter, when the leafless trees are trembling in the north wind and people in black coats and jackets are rushing home through the darkening streets.” Apprehending “the city’s soul in black and white,” he enjoys watching “dusk descend like a poem in the pale light of the streetlamps to engulf these old neighborhoods…”
His evocation of spiritual malaise is the centerpiece of the book. Pamuk calls it huzun, a Turkish word suggesting society-wide melancholy. To illustrate, he deftly creates a montage into a three-page sentence in which he speaks “of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter, where sleepy sailors scrub the decks, pail in hand and one eye on the black-and-white television in the distance … of the women peeking through their curtains as they wait for husbands who never manage to come home in the evening; of the old men selling thin religious treatises, prayer beads, and pilgrimage oils in the courtyards of mosques … of the city cemeteries, which seem like gateways to a second world … of the dim lights that you see of an evening on the boats crossing from Kadikoy to Karakoy …”
Dwelling among ruins is bad enough, but Ataturk’s reforms and the yearning to be more Western also led to a collective urge to obliterate the Ottoman past. Pamuk watches with increasing regret as Ottoman neighborhoods are demolished and replaced by “modern” blocks of concrete, as neighborhood shops give way to new enterprises, as the beautiful wooden mansions built by pashas on the shores of the Bosphorus fall into decay, burn, or are cut up into apartments.
Pamuk’s urban memoir includes views of Istanbul as seen through Western eyes — not only those of visual artists, such as the 18th century painter Antoine-Ignace Melling, but also writers such as the French poet Gerard Nerval, Nerval’s friend Theophile Gautier, Flaubert, and novelist Andre Gide. These European authors, in turn, profoundly influenced four of Pamuk’s literary heroes — Yahya Kemal, Resat Kerem Kocu, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, and Adbulhak Sinasi Hisar.
A generation or so before Pamuk, these four men celebrated the city in poetry, novels, newspaper articles, and in an “Istanbul Encyclopedia,” a collection of facts and curiosities, “an unrivaled guide to the city’s soul” as Pamuk calls it. In it, Kocu documented “the weirdness of life in the margins.” Pamuk develops his own instinct for collecting and, during somnambulistic walks through the city, he would “bring home a serrated telephone token … no longer in circulation … a chip of a brick that had fallen off a thousand-year-old wall; a wad of imperial Russian banknotes … a stamp from a company that had gone under thirty years earlier …” The older Pamuk, with his anecdotes and facts, and his younger self, obsessed with mundane objects, share a keen and loving sense of futility.
While, for the most part, well-written and meticulously composed, “Istanbul” is a little repetitive and, more importantly, suffers from a certain amount of sprawl. Pamuk’s cataloguing (like the three-page montage) covers a large surface area but sometimes lacks depth. The reader never enters into the life of Ottoman Istanbul in all of its glory — yes, we see it as a landscape, particularly through the eyes of Melling, but we don’t get a sense of the society or a feeling for the street life with which Flaubert was so taken.
Thus Pamuk fails to convey how far the city has fallen from its peak or the complex impact of Ataturk’s modernizing reforms. Some of the book’s 206 photographs — lovely as the vast majority are — might have been left out to make way for a few more revelatory anecdotes. Moreover, a historical outline, however brief, would have given the reader unacquainted with Turkey’s past a context in which to place more contemporary events.
These complaints aside, Pamuk has written an absorbing and insightful account of his native city and culture. As a companion to his first rate fiction, in particular “The Black Book” and “The White Castle,” “Istanbul” is both a bildungsroman and an important historical document doused in a poetic sensibility. Filled with family reminiscences, metaphysical meanderings, social commentaries, and art critiques, the book suggests that Pamuk and his vision of Istanbul are as inseparable as the dancer and the dance.
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.