Hearsay ... the Journal of the Bar Association of Queensland
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Issue 73 - July 2015
Book Review: ISTANBUL - Memories and the City Print E-mail

IstanbulAuthor: Orhan Pamuk 

Publisher: faber and faber 

Reviewed by Stephen Keim


I have managed to acquire the anomalous space of a travel freak who almost never leaves his place of residence, except to catch the train to work.

It was not surprising then when Jim and Therese, those avid travellers, veterans of ship wreck, parents of children educated in American schools, came up with a book on Istanbul as the perfect present for me.

I was familiar with Istanbul. The early part of Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family had taken place behind the Blue Mosque in that city. Orga had been born in 1908.

Orhan Pamuk, on the other hand, was born in 1952. I am also in the habit of taking a look at places through the eyes of persons whose snapshots are separated by half a century. Indeed, that was exactly how I managed to gain my first glimpses of Mexico .

Pamuk has won many awards for his writing, including the 2006 Nobel prize for literature . Istanbul is described by the Orhan Pamuk website as “a poetical work that is hard to classify, combining the author's early memoirs up to the age of 22, and an essay about the city of Istanbul, illustrated with photographs from his own album, and pictures by western painters and Turkish photographers”.

Both for me, and for my benefactors, Jim and Therese, Istanbul is, first and foremost, a travel book. There lies a certain further appropriateness. Istanbul is a travel book written by a man born one year earlier than I who, apart from three years spent teaching at Columbia University in New York, has spent his whole life in his native Istanbul. Travel without movement: what could be better.

Orhan Pamuk was born into a large rambling house, the Pamuk Apartments, in the well to do suburb of Nisantasi , in a large extended family. He explored each of house and family, along with his older brother and his father and mother.

Pamuk portrays a life of small cosinesses among large amounts of ruin and disputation. His father and mother were in conflict from an early stage with his father wont to chronic infidelities. (Despite this, Pamuk maintains a close relationship with both his mother and father. Istanbul is dedicated to his father who died in 2002. His mother he always describes as beautiful.) Turkey, despite the grand pretensions of the Republic, is in a continuing state of slow decline which had commenced decades before the Ottoman Empire had received its final coup de grace at the hands of the victorious allies after the conclusion of the First World War.

The continued decline was displayed in the loss by fires of many of the wonderfully beautiful but dilapidated buildings still dating from the Empire, many of which had belonged to high officials in the Ottoman government. Many of the fires had been lit by the developers of the ugly concrete buildings which would eventually occupy the newly vacant sites in the wake of the fires.

The tragedy of the disappearing glory of the buildings did not prevent Istanbullus coming out at night to watch the fires sending their flames and sparks skywards in awesome displays.

Mirroring the decline of the society, Pamuk’s father and his uncles managed, by a succession of bad business ventures, to take the fortune that his grandfather had amassed and gradually reduce both it and the family’s ability to maintain its former lifestyle. One result was a number of changes of address of the family during Pamuk’s first 22 years which span the book. The first such move was to Cihangir .

Not surprisingly, Istanbul’s predominant subject is the melancholy that pervades the city and those who live among its streets and districts. So predominant is the melancholy in the lives of Istanbullus that it has its own Turkish name, “huzun”.

And with the melancholy, Pamuk describes a city in black and white, often covered with a characteristic white haze, in contrast to the colourfully painted mansions of an opulent empire described in the books written by western travellers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The black and white of the city matched the scores of romantic films that were made in the streets of Istanbul in the fifties and sixties. One ran into the crews, everywhere, with their heavily made up heroines and romantic male leads and their producers and directors, their prompters, known as souffleurs, and extras and curious onlookers. Pamuk still sees the films on television, appropriately, in black and white. The dominant romantic subject in every film, and in Istanbul, itself, is the Bosphorus and the ships that traverse her from north to south and from side to side. The film crews’ locations would be strategically chosen so that the high melodrama of the movie would occur on a sloping street setting and be framed by the dark waters in the background.

The photographs and reproductions referred to in the website occur on almost every page. Many of them are from the young Orhan’s own camera or those of his family. They, also, are in black and white and the huzun shines through them as it does from the words on the page. The Bosphorus is repeatedly there among both the photos and the narrative.

Istanbul is, however, more than a portrait of the artist (and his city) as a young man (although it is a portrait of the writer as a young artist). For at each stage of his childhood, and in each part of the city, Pamuk has with him the history of the city and the writers and artists who have observed it and portrayed and experienced its melancholy.

So Le Corbusier , a discerning western traveller, famous artist and architect and designer of the city of Chandīgarh in India, portrayed Istanbul in line drawings which incidentally also reproduced the city in black and white.

Since the Bosphorus plays such an important part in Istanbul, it is fitting that it has at least one interpreter from times long gone. And, so we get to see the mighty Bosphorus through the engravings found in Antoine-Ignace Melling’s 1819 Picturesque Voyage through Constantinople and the Banks of the Bosphorus . And, just as Melling’s engravings depicted an Istanbul that no longer existed, Pamuk depicts the sad past story in which princess Hatice Sultan, the Sultan’s sister, engaged Melling to design and build a maze garden and a kiosk, which led to many other commissions, and they had exchanged warm letters in Turkish using Latin letters (predicting the language modernisations of the Republic), before the letters turned less warm in tone and Melling had to turn to less pleasurable ways of earning money in Istanbul.

Pamuk’s description of the huzun or melancholy is very particular. He distinguishes between the mere melancholy of Istanbul and the huzun in which Istanbullus see themselves reflected, something they absorb with pride and share as a community. To feel the huzun is to see the scenes and evoke the memories by which each corner and characteristic of the city becomes the illustration of the concept.

And the huzun, also, has its illustrators and narrators which take it well beyond the mere recollections of the young Pamuk. Among them is Theophile Gautier, who came to Istanbul in 1852.

And, so, Istanbul becomes a story of a traveller’s city, a city seen through the eyes of visiting westerners. But the melancholy also suffused the work of native writers, Ahmet Rasim, the columnist; Tanpinar, the novelist; Yahya Kemal, the poet; and Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar, the memoirist. The works and personalities and lives and experience of the huzun of each of these see life through the pages of Istanbul.

We begin to see the city through the eyes of its residents and feel how they see themselves through western eyes, the huzun carrying also a tinge of cultural inferiority that Australians would well recognise. And, yet the vision of Istanbul provided by its visiting westerners, although marred by its sense of romantic exoticism, is accurate enough to show the reader that the city, with its sense of loss and a faded past is yet much more than its residents, with their sense of cringe, will admit to themselves.

The website said that Istanbul is hard to describe and it is. Having focussed on the historic and the literary, I suddenly feel that I have failed to give due credit to the sense of day to day events and family scenes and a child’s discovery of his place in the world that also fills the pages of Istanbul.

The personal takes hold as the book builds to its climax. Pamuk finds love as he neglects his architecture studies and devotes himself to painting. When one might expect his relationship with his parents to fade, it takes on increasing importance.

In the final pages, the book is at its most intensely personal. But the huzun is never far away.

The citation for the 2006 prize refers to Orhan Pamuk as one who, in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.

Istanbul does that and much more.


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