I am continuing in the vein of my previous blog post and writing about a book I read in the place it was set. I picked up Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, in anticipation of a trip to Istanbul and finished reading it while I was in the city. I haven’t read any of Pamuk’s novels and I thought this would be a good introduction to his writing. It didn’t turn out to be quite the book I was looking forward to reading during my stay. The city I visited was colorful and bustling, a far cry from the dismal picture painted by the writer. Although the book was published in 2005, Pamuk is describing the city of his childhood and young adulthood, the Istanbul of the fifties and the sixties. He depicts a city that no longer exists, a city in memory. The Istanbul I visited has been rebuilt for the most part and has a vibrancy and vitality that the memoir fails to capture. That being said, I am well aware that an outsider’s temporary experience of the city is remarkably different from that of a person born and brought up there.
Pamuk bemoans the decline of a city that was once a glorious Empire. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey and its first President introduced sweeping reforms in the twenties and thirties to westernize and secularize society within a short span of time. He got rid of the harems and the janissaries and the dress codes of the past. The Arabic alphabet was abandoned for a Romanized one. Old Pasha mansions along the Bosphorus burned down symbolic of a civilization going up in flames. The feeling of decay and loss affects the inhabitants who experience a melancholy, which, according to Pamuk is best described by the Turkish word ‘ huzun’: it is the collective melancholy that weighs on the city like a shroud when you see the evidence of the ruins around you:
“If I am to convey the intensity of the huzun that Istanbul caused me to feel as a child, I must describe the history of the city following the destruction of Ottoman Empire, and – even more important – the way this history is reflected in the city’s ‘beautiful’ landscape and its people. The huzun of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry, it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only in a spiritual state, but a state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating.”
“Still, the melancholy of this dying culture was all around us. Great as the desire to westernize and modernize may have been, 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.”
This is a society in transition where the residents live literally and symbolically among the ruins of a great empire, Pamuk does not describe the famous touristic sites of the city. We get the perspective of a local flâneur who takes us to the back alleys and streets through decaying neighborhoods where stray dogs roam and wooden buildings burn down. Interspersed throughout the memoir are black and white photographs ( unfortunately without captions), captured mostly through the lens of the award winning photographer Ara Güler. The monochromatic photographs add to the wistful tone and convey the ‘huzun’ of the city shrouded in fog and soot.
And amid all the changes, the beautiful Bosphorus continues flowing while it has witnessed the ebb and flow of the tides of civilisation – the rise and fall of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The strait is the focal point of the city and dear to Pamuk. He would count the number of ferries passing through the Bosphorus from his window and witness the explosions of ships or the dramatic fires that would on occasion engulf the yalis (the houses of the pashas of the Ottoman era) lining its shores.
“If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness. Instanbul draws its strength from Bosphorus.”
He bemoans the lack of a literary tradition in Turkey. He describes the impressions of western writers like Nerval, Flaubert, Gautier and Apollinaire on the Istanbul of the 19th century. Among the few Turkish writers he admires are Yahya Kemal, Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar and Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar but even these authors followed the footsteps of the French writers in evoking the ‘huzun’ of the city. How could they create a unique voice while still under the spell of European literary traditions?
He dwells at length on the unfinished “Istanbul Ansiklopedisi”, that was put together by Reşat Ekrem Koçu over many years and which recounts, between its pages, fascinating entries of the day to day life of Istanbullus, reflecting the spirit and atmosphere of the Ottoman period There is also a delightful chapter dedicated to humor in newspapers and journals-… ‘a random sampling of some of the …advice, warnings, pearls of wisdom, and invective… from Istanbul columnists… over the past 130 years.”
Along with describing the city that struggles to come on its own, the memoir recounts the coming of age story of the author. Just like the city, Pamuk grapples with his own identity. Once wealthy, the Pamuks are suffering business losses and the extended family is squabbling. Three generations live in one apartment building, each family on a different floor, His grandfather was wealthy but his father and uncle were not financially savvy. Besides, his parents are unhappy in the marriage. The dwindling fortunes of his family and the philandering nature of his father made them move several times. A sensitive soul, he found refuge in a world of make believe and games. He had strange morbid dreams and a vivid imagination so much so that he conjured up his own double living somewhere in the city.
The memoir also describes his experiences of sibling rivalry with his brother, the adolescent angst of first love and his struggle with career decisions. He goes to architecture school but would rather be an artist, a profession frowned upon in Turkey. He is interested in painting but eventually decides to take up writing as a career.
Just as Istanbul is caught between two worlds, so is the author. His family is westernized and are not practicing Muslims. In fact they frown upon religion believing that fasting for Ramadan was something that only backward people would do. The lack of spirituality leaves a void in the family and similarly the city with its increasing modernization has no anchor. Of course, the pendulum has swung the other way in Erdogan’s present day Turkey and this sentiment of the author has no longer the same relevance. I also found it interesting that whenever Pamuk talks about God, he imagines her as a woman which is something completely contrary to his faith.
Pamuk is not as popular in Turkey as he is in the West because of his westernized depictions and his observations from his privileged ivory tower. This book was a mixed bag for me. The structure is rambling and not well organized. His candor is extreme and unnecessary. For instance, his masturbatory inclinations and sadistic thoughts are completely irrelevant to the narrative. I also felt that he describes the melancholy of the place instead of capturing it. He distances himself from his subject matter and has an almost clinical approach. But I do have a better understanding of the city, of all its shades monochromatic and otherwise, and of all its states, happiness and ‘huzun’, through the distorted foggy lens of memory. It is important to understand that this is not a love letter to a city but a bittersweet and complex relationship with Istanbul that like the author is caught between the east and west, between tradition and modernity, and which makes him cry out in frustration:”I’ve never wholly belonged to this city, and maybe that’s been a problem all along.”