Orhan Pamuk – Istanbul: Memories and the City
By Zehra Mustafa
(Published In ‘Avrupa’ Newspaper)
Pamuk’s account of Istanbul is not one that belongs to the city alone, but one that intertwines his life with the very life force of Istanbul which he refers to as hüzün, meaning a form of melancholy. Pamuk’s memoir can be read as a poet’s guide book to life in the streets of what comes across as a confused culture caught in a state of unmovable debris, which offers one a strong sense of melancholy and beauty all at once. As a reader, we are aware that we are about to read a memoir, and as with all memoirs, we take caution as it is one of the most subjective subjects to tackle. What certainly makes us aware of his stance is the way in which we are immediately thrust into a head-on collision with his imagination and his belief in an invisible world, one in which his ‘fictional’ self inhabits.
Pamuk sets off immediately into questioning the loud, unrelenting voice in his head that leads to a desire in knowing and understanding himself within his own setting and home. One of the ways in which he goes about to do this, can be seen in the structure and ordering of each chapter. The chapters jump from focusing on elements of Istanbul, such as the Bosphurus, and then divert our attention to elements that belong to the people of Istanbul, such as his family and other writers of Istanbul; he does this in such a way that they become entwined with such strength that they become one.
As Pamuk takes us through the dark, bumpy streets of Istanbul, and among the old ruins that belonged to the Ottoman Empire, he questions his inability to detach himself from a city which he feels to be locked in the grip of a mighty past, whilst at the same time, attempting to become westernized. He questions how it was possible for writers such as Nabokov and Conrad to do what he has been unable to do, which was to make a transition from one culture and language to another; and we become more aware of this inability when we find out that he is writing this in the Pamuk Apartments, were he grew up.
Much of the book return’s its focus on Pamuk’s and other Istanbullu’s desire to return to the ‘yesteryear’, to the Istanbul that Flaubert had once predicted to become the capital of the world. Pamuk, even though at times speaks with a cynical voice, can not even help himself but to romanticize and dream about the city’s state, which he sees sadly, as a ‘has-been’. What seems important to Pamuk is to be able to describe and convey reality, not something fantastical as seen in typical images depicted by westerners, however, at times, he captures a grittiness that can be hidden as long as the right kind of light is cast upon it, and this he is thankful for. Pamuk deals with his surroundings by “…either battling with this melancholy, or (like all Istanbullus) making it my own.” Pamuk describes the loss of the Empire in a number of ways, at one point, he writes about the Pamuk Apartments being built on the edge of land which once belonged to the gardens of the pasha’s mansion. Along with this image, is the image of people living among ruins, crumbling fountains, walls and more that belonged to the Ottoman empire that have been built around. We are provided with images of the yalis by the Bosphurus, which were being one by one burnt down, sometimes in the hope of building something there anew.
Pamuk unearths the reader by invoking an image of a ghostly city, and merges this with personal experiences. The first is his belief in his ghostly other that is able to live out another life, a life that he wishes to escape to and become a part of, this image immediately reminds me of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and as we know, in the case of the doppelgänger (a ghostly other) a happy ending is terribly seldom, and happiness is always scarce. Happiness, however, is not something that Pamuk is after, as he believes that Istanbul is locked in a tight hold with hüzün, even though melancholy is not a state that one wishes to remain in, it is this that makes Istanbul beautiful. Pamuk describes much of the Istanbul inhabitant’s sadness to derive from their need to literally disinherit their Ottoman past, as it had become too painful, living amongst the ruins. He believes that the way people could deal with this, was to look towards the west, to become westernized, and this way, they would be medicating their grief; he writes, “There are nothing like the remains of great empires to be seen in western cities, preserved like museums of history, and parody displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amongst the ruins.”
Amongst images of debris, Pamuk describes intensely beautiful images of Istanbul, making the reader experience pangs of excitement and desire to witness the tastes and colour’s of the city for oneself, as Pamuk seems to favour sticking to the shadows and seeing life in black and white rather then colour. His obsession with black and white imagery, even as a painter, leads one to believe that the intensity of colour and warmth seems to be too much for him to bear; making him feel more at ease with the dark and harsh. He almost comes across as a Turkish Stephen King, as he is someone who takes a great deal of note and pleasure in the image of crumbling decay in which he manages to find the sense of peace.
Pamuk returns repetitively to a sense of shame that has been cast over Istanbul, over it’s loss, but at the same time it is from this strange sense of loss that Pamuk draws his creativity from, whether it was through painting and writing; he is therefore, both proud and shy about his city’s poverty, allowing him to find a strange sense of solace as the night’s darkness blankets the city, along with asphalt that has replaced ancient cobbled stone. Pamuk, who was fifty at the time, keeps on reminding us his age, making his writing appear more nostalgic as he plunges deeper into the blindness of it. He continues to seek the secrets and answers of the city, believing that once he has the answers, he is able to understand himself; likewise, he looks at this beauty believing that if he is able to see it within this fantastic city then he will find beauty within himself too, turning Istanbul into his metaphorical key. Amongst all this melancholy, and beauty in the shadow, Pamuk includes a chapter that lightens the mood, as there are old clippings from newspapers that bring much humour, one of them dated in 1953 reads “The rainy season has come, and the umbrellas of the city, God bless them, are out in force, but tell me, how many of us are able to hold an open umbrella without poking people in the eye, bumping into other umbrellas like dodgem cars at Lunapark, and wandering all over the pavement like brainless bums just because the umbrella has impeded our vision?”. This chapter titled “Don’t walk Down the Street with your Mouth Open” truly lifts the spirits and shows the warmer and humorous side of Pamuk’s writing.
Pamuk’s account of Istanbul is one out of pure love and respect for his city and it’s people, although it may come across as though he is dismissing it, he is in fact accepting it for what it is and what it has come to mean to him and all Istanbullus, making the book one worth a read to have a true view from an Istanbullu, which truly holds a tale of two cities.
© Zehra Mustafa