Friday, March 16, 2012

Istanbul, Memories Of a City - Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk's, 'Istanbul - Memories and the City' (Faber and Faber, 333 pages), translated by Maureen Freely, was my first experience of this highly celebrated Turkish writer, the 2006 Nobel Prize winner.  It is as the title says, a collection of his memories of one of the old cultural and financial centres of the world (called Byzantium or Constantinople in the olden days, the capital for the Roman empire (330-395), Byzantine empire (395-1453), the Latin empire for a brief period in between (1204-1261) and the Ottoman empire (1453-1922). Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents - Europe and Asia.

Pamuk belongs to a well to do family in Turkey and remembers his childhood in the Pamuk apartments with an assortment of uncles, aunts, grandmother, his mother and father and his older brother. It is a westernised society already as reflected in their choices of clothes, attitude to religion, career choices and so on. His family life does not appear to have been very happy with long absences from his father who apparently had a mistress elsewhere in the city, his mother who probably suspected it, their constant fights, his big brother bullying him and their sibling fights. He comes across as a lonely child who sought solace in winning people's approval with good behavior, growing up with rich teenagers, the one with the jokes, an obsession with sex, his first love and other such growing up pains. Then he goes through the city of his birth through the writings of other writers, four of whom that  he picks at first, Yahya Kemal, Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar, Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar and  Resat Ekrem Kocu, four melancholic writers that he explores and extols (but for some reason does not quote to show how they were melancholic - perhaps so we should read them). He explores the rich, the poor, the houses, the Bosphorous, the accidents on the Bosphorous, even the smoke rising out of the ships on the Bosphourus strait, his experience with religion, his desire to drop architecture and become a painter and then deciding to become a writer (fine advise form his father I felt and one that gave me lots of encouragement too, to pursue writing, the lone bright spot in this book for me).

Mostly the book deals with the melancholy or the huzun that has caught the soul of the city and does not leave it page after page. In fact the word melancholy appears so often that it is depressing. Perhaps it is that way for the writer - but I cannot imagine that a whole city is caught up in that huzun of their past, their defeats forever. I'd like to think there was some hope, there is some hope and some life that looks forward in Turkey. It also appears to have been written for someone who knows Istanbul well, as if written for his close circle of friends, or perhaps for himself, and the reader who is not aware of Istanbul has to scurry to do his research on many of the terms, geographical locations that are used. Perhaps that is the hidden symmetry of the book he was referring to.

But overall the book is all about melancholy - of the city of of his life - and that is the kind of a book that I am not really fond of. Honest perhaps, largely, but to exclude all hope? It is an old city, has much history, has seen many cultures apart from Turkish, Greek, Syrian, Italian, has many languages, has mosques, churches. wonderful architecture and much more. But Pamuk's Istanbul is like a young boy's mysterious infatuation with an older lover who has not given him enough attention. He is deeply disappointed with it and at the same time wants its approval. The book itself seems to me his sad ballad to catch her attentions, once praising her, once talking of himself. For some reason, all the melancholy, the vision through all the other writers, the blanketing of gloom on the entire population, did not work for me. His own childhood and his life was interesting to that extent, the lovely pictures of Istanbul in the early part of the century of which there are many (another highlight for me) and some odds and ends caught my attention. Otherwise, this is an Istanbul I would like to explore by myself and look for hope and life, and not through Pamuk's melancholy eyes. The book has rave reviews from the best publications in the world and perhaps there is something far more deeper that I am missing, but at my level of understanding, the book is not entertaining. Instead it leaves a big stain like a sad love story, which I am not convinced about. Which I am not sure is really the entire truth. 

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