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Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books
[28 July 2006]


This week: Istanbul: Memories of a City — His Istanbul is a cry against the city itself and all that it contains being forgotten.

Istanbul: Memories of a City
by Orhan Pamuk
Faber and Faber / July 2006, 348 pages, $14.95

Orhan Pamuk and the City of Dreams

You need more than a map to understand a city. You need a soul, a voice.

Of course Lou Reed’s New York is a very different place to Woody Allen’s. The Baghdad of fairy tales does not have the same exotic lilt to an American soldier. The London of Charles Dickens and his line of influence through contemporary writers like Martin Amis and Zadie Smith is not the London of a terrorist. But their visions all tell us a story, of one kind or another. And in this way a city accumulates into something path-ridden and alive we can ‘read’.

For the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk that crucial city is Istanbul. I’ve visited the place myself and been taken with its minarets, mosques and fish markets, its sprawling yet oddly gnarled agglomeration of West and East, the traffic and apartment blocks, the call of muezzin to prayer. For all that, I’m not then especially inclined to dive into a book of such ethereal, encyclopaedic ambition as Istanbul: Memories of a City. At times, I must confess, this book was simply too much. It drowned me in its depths.

But Pamuk, well Pamuk had me by the soul well before. Almost a year ago I read his novel Snow, the story of a failed poet and would-be journalist who travels to the ‘wild east’ of Turkey to investigate a series of female suicides in an Islamic border town. By the time I had finished the book I wanted to weep, and was possessed by the urgent sense that Pamuk — who writes with all the sweep of the great 19th century Russian authors — was one of the most important novelists working today. Snow, with its profound meditations on identity, sorrow and anger evoked ‘the Clash of Civilizations’ up close and personal. There was no other word for it: you felt it. And with that feeling you sensed the true depth of the troubles brewing in our world today.

His Istanbul is just as magnificent — though clearly aimed at a narrower, perhaps more partisan audience. Essentially it is a history of the city twined with a memoir of family and growing up that ends with a stunning chapter on first love — and failing to understand its force till that force has come and gone.

“If we’ve lived in a city long enough to have given our truest and deepest feelings to its prospects,” Pamuk says, “there comes a time when — just as a song recalls lost love — particular streets, images and vistas will do the same.” In this sense Istanbul is a young man’s book, and a boy’s book too, encircled by grief and age. It is, in short, the story of how and why Pamuk became a writer.

It’s hard to quote Pamuk economically and get inside the wave-like, gathering style that can suddenly grip you for pages at a time. Certainly he is not a ‘perfect’ writer. He can be thematically repetitious and over-dependent on riffing flows of detail that build into a poetic mass or suggest undisciplined obsession. Undoubtedly passionate (thus the Russian comparisons), he nonetheless succeeds in making what should be a weakness or an over-bearing stylistic tic into something strangely right for him, circling things, returning to them over and over, till at last he lifts up or plunges down into the spiralling intensities and insights you keep holding on for.

Near the beginning he defines his literary and personal mission in this way:

“At times when I accept as my own stories I’ve heard about my city and myself, I’m tempted to say, ‘Once upon a time I used to paint. I hear I was born in Istanbul, and I understand that I was a somewhat curious child. Then, when I was 22, I seem to have begun writing novels without knowing why’. I’d have liked to write my entire story this way — as if my life were something that happened to someone else, as if it were a dream in which I felt my voice fading and my will succumbing to an enchantment. Beautiful though it is, I find the language of the epic unconvincing, for I cannot accept that they myths we tell about our first lives prepare us for brighter, more authentic lives when we awake. Because — for people like me, at least — that second life is none other than the book in your hand.”

So we walk the streets of Istanbul with Pamuk and wander the apartment rooms of his extended family home and his childhood imagination; we move through swathes of historical detail and obscure ephemera that only an inhabitant can glorify — from ferry names and beggars and shops to the way you “can tell from the soft scent of algae and sea on an autumn evening that the south winds are bringing us a storm”.

We also discover how Istanbul saw itself through visiting French writers like Nerval and Gaultier, and their influence on 20th century Turkish writers like Tanpinar and Yahya Kemal. In this way Pamuk identifies himself as the son of a family, the son of a city, and the son of a related artistic and literary heritage he calls the hüzün, a Turkish word “which denotes a melancholy that is communal rather than private”.

Fundamentally, you see, Istanbul is about loss. About growing up in the shadows of the Ottoman Empire, where a once great city is now poor and ashamed. About growing up in a family whose wealth is dwindling, squandered away by a kind but philandering father (to whom this book is lovingly dedicated). About Pamuk’s distant mother imparting a sad sense of realism to her fatally dreamy son. About that lost first love and who Pamuk might become: a painter then an architect then something else he hopes might be true to the “first life” of his imagination; his sense of self divided and restless in a city similarly trapped between continents, neither Western nor Eastern at heart.

“Happy people in Europe and America could lead lives as beautiful and as meaningful as the ones I’d just seen in a Hollywood film,” Pamuk reflects. “As for the rest of the world, myself included, we were condemned to live out our times in places that were shabby, broken-down, featureless, badly painted, dilapidated and cheap; we were doomed to unimportant, second-class existences, never to do anything that anyone in the outside world might think worthy of notice: this was the fate for which I was slowly and painfully preparing myself.”

Yet on a depressed ferry ride among workers and old women Pamuk has an epiphany. “Was this the secret of Istanbul — that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward-looking monuments and its sublime landscape, its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle,” he decides, “for anything we say about a city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves.”

His Istanbul is a cry against the city itself and all that it contains being forgotten — and a curiously stormy revenge against those in the world who would do the forgetting. At the same time the writer guiltily admits to thrashing about in its fallen realms and refusing to fall with it. An impossible task finally, but Pamuk goes at it for all his life and everyone else’s is worth.

Mark Mordue is the author of Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip (Hawthorne Books, 2004).

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