Sunday, October 24, 2010

Istanbul: Memories and the City
Istanbul: Memories and the City 

by Orhan Pamuk

The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy.
- Ahmet Rasim

Orhan Pamuk begins his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, with a meditation on his doppelganger, the other Orhan in his life when he was a young boy. This is both an indication of the budding artist within and a metaphor for the city without, the city in which he was to grow up and live. Capturing a sense of the Istanbul of memory and tradition and juxtaposing it with the Istanbul as seen by outsiders, especially the literary lights that visited Istanbul over the years, Pamuk creates a rich texture for his story of the memories and city. Augmented by literally hundreds of photographs of city, family and history this is a unique look at one of the great centers of civilization.

The memoir is colored by melancholy, a word rooted in the Greek melankholia referring to pensive reflection marked by a dark or sad outlook. The Turkish word for melancholy is huzun and it has an Arabic root with a much more nuanced meaning that spans thoughts of both material pleasure and spirtual loss. According to Pamuk:

"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 a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating." (p 91)

It is this feeling that Pamuk tries to capture in his discussions and digressions on his own experience of Istanbul and that of the others, often from the West, who have observed its life. So we encounter comments and thoughts from writers as diverse as Levi-Strauss, Ruskin, Flaubert, Gide and Gerard de Nerval. But there are also the insights of local writers like the novelist Tanpinar who, influenced by the French poet Theophile Gautier, wrote in a poetic and painterly mode of the vistas of Istanbul and extolled "the painterly style of writers like Stendahl, Balzac, and Zola" (p 227).

While Pamuk discusses the view of Istanbul "Under Western Eyes" (pp 234-44) he also finds the source of this melancholy in the ruins of the old city as seen both in his personal experience and through his reading of Tanpinar and others. He also meditates on the impact and meaning of the Bosporus to himself and his family. The city becomes a dream to which its denizens could aspire. "We might call this dream -- which grew out of the barren, isolated, destitute neighborhoods beyon the city walls -- the 'melancholy of the ruins'" (p 253)

The sum of all these thoughts and more is a brilliant and evocative image of the Istanbul that encourages the reader to read more and the traveller to visit and see for himself. This reader found in the memoir everything that he had come to expect from Pamuk's fiction melded with a passion for family, literature and city. It has become another favorite of mine from the pen of this great writer.

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk. Vintage Books, New York. 2006 (2003)
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