Recent reading: Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul

Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul: Memories and the City. Translated by Maureen Freely. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Pamuk projects his personal melancholy -- hüzün in Turkish -- onto this once-great city, interspersing reminiscences of a privileged but cloistered childhood with meditations on writers and artists who have portrayed the city.

Istanbul’s hüzün, he tells us, is different from the tristesse that Claude Lévi-Strauss found in tropical cities such as Delhi or São Paulo, because “in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. … For the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture.” (p. 101) Sensitive and attuned though he may be, he appears unaware that Delhi had “a glorious past civilization” of its own, even more ancient than Istanbul/Constantinople.

Flaubert, Gérard de Nerval, Théophile de Gautier and other foreign visitors help shape Pamuk’s vision of what the city was like before he knew it, and also, he argues, shaped the way of looking at it of later Turkish writers, particularly “the great fat poet, Yahya Kemal”; “the popular historian Reshat Ekrem Koçu”; the memoirist Abdülhuk Shinasi Hisar; and the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. (Spellings approximate; I don’t have a Turkish font.)

To me the most interesting chapter was “The Rich,” the class from which Pamuk’s family was descending (falling) throughout his childhood, which includes this acute observation:

“If Istanbul’s westernized bourgeoisie gave support to the military interventions of the past forty years, never strenuously objecting to military interference in politics, it was not because it feared a leftist uprising (the Turkish left in this country [sic] has never been strong enough to achieve such a feat); rather, the elite’s tolerance of the military was rooted in the fear that one day the lower classes would combine forces with the new rich pouring in from the provinces to abolish the westernized bourgeois way of life under the banner of religion.” (p. 183)

His personal story here goes up to about age 20, when, in the final sentence, he declares that he is going to be a writer. His reminiscences of childhood help explain some of the peculiarities of his fiction, for example his childhood fascination with an imaginary double (“the other Orhan”), which is the central theme of The White Castle, and his fascination with miniaturists and meticulous reproduction of familiar scenes, as in My Name is Red. And the many photographs and other illustrations, one or more on almost every page, all in black and white, seem to confirm his vision of his own and his city’s hüzün.