Archive for the ‘Turkish’ Category

Finally! I was beginning to think I would never reach the end of this book. I’ve been reading it steadily, on-and-off, for almost a year. That’s a new record for somebody who usually ploughs merrily through books in a day or two, if not less.

However, the book: It’s a memoir of childhood and the development of Pamuk’s imagination as an Istanbullu artist. The first chapter brings up, among other things, the little Orhan’s fear that there was another Orhan, a twin of sorts, in another part of Istanbul, living in another house. The last chapter ends with the 19-year-old Orhan’s decision to be not an architect but a writer. In between these two ideas is a meandering narrative that talks sometimes about Pamuk’s family and his life as a child and a student, sometimes about the city as a place of events, sometimes about how artists and writers from Europe and from Turkey saw the city, and sometimes about the city as if it were a picture.

This is an extraordinarily visual piece of writing, though the images Pamuk uses are smokey and grey, much like the black-and-white reproductions of photographs, etchings, and paintings that are interspersed in the text. Incidentally, I’m not sure if Faber and Faber has a larger format version of this book (I have the paperback), because I’m sure that would be a better read–less squinting at tiny-sized pictures. And definitely more visible detail, to go with what Pamuk says in his text. He is given to long lists of images of Istanbul–descriptions of buildings, of crowds, of people on the street, of windows, of alleys, of old mansions, of ruins, of the Bosphorus, long sentences full of these. They all have a certain texture that can only be called “atmospheric.” Melancholy, shadowy, slowly moving, they drift onto and off the pages.

The trouble is, they have also a certain soporific quality. This might be because the book isn’t quite as anecdotal as you might expect from a memoir, so it sometimes turns into montage without story or clear argument. Much of this montage is used by Pamuk to illustrate what he sees as the essence of Istanbul–“huzun,” a Turkish word for “melancholy.” This, Pamuk explains, refers to a feeling of deep spiritual loss that is simultaneously a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” For the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish felt because the soul is not sufficiently close to the divine; and Saint John of the Cross has it that this anguish causes the sufferer to fall so far that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. The absence of huzun is the cause of misery. Pamuk’s interest in huzun is that it is not individual but collective — it is a feeling shared by all Istanbul. It is a feeling that the people of Istanbul have when living amongst the detritus of a dead civilization, the Ottoman Empire, an identification with something that is no longer alive and is decaying, an identification that is ultimately their essence.

I think Pamuk’s prose when he describes his huzun-drenched city is intensely beautiful and sad, like a (here I go again with the cliched metaphors) record playing in a building down the street, barely audible but haunting. But it could, sometimes, have done with a ruthless editor, somebody who would cut it where necessary, make it seem more concrete and more the memory of a living people. There, I said it–sacrilege saying that about a Nobel laureate, or maybe not. Maybe the shadows are Pamuk’s point, his refusal to go into historical fact-listing. But I don’t care entirely for them.

I did enjoy Pamuk’s writing of his family. His brother, his rival; his beautiful mother, whose love he desperately tries to gain; his dapper father, more of a dreamer than he comes across at first. Though I bet they were all insulted to read what he has to say about them. It’s a frank narration, not precisely barbed, but certainly not white-washed either; and it’s even possible that Pamuk’s memories are more weighted with alienation than his life was. Either way, these sections of the book do have a point–they tell us what Pamuk’s relationship with his family was like and part of the reason he starts to identify as strongly with the city as he does. The process of his coming to understand his family is also one of him coming to understand what the world outside has to offer. I was mildly disappointed that there weren’t that many people coming out of the crowd on the street into the book, few specific characters of his childhood, but then realised that Pamuk is presenting a very truthful version of how a relatively wealthy, Westernized, apartment-dwelling Istanbullu child would relate to the city as he grows up–he would read about it and look at it and walk through it without necessarily having the confidence or the skill to engage with it as an equal. And I do appreciate the truthfulness, though sometimes I wished his childhood had been a little more peopled.

But his narrative is peopled with writers and artists whose work contributed to the burgeoning of his imagination of the city and himself in it. Pamuk writes critical essays of a sort, discussing what they wrote/painted and when, what they focused on and what they left out, how he came to access their work, and what it made him think of his city. Not so tidily presented, of course, but highly readable. And at each juncture you understand a little more about the writer’s imagination and his inspiration.

All of these threads, it seems, get tied up in a chapter toward the end of the book, which is simply the story of Pamuk’s first love (he calls her the black rose). My interest was flagging again when I got to that chapter, and then, I couldn’t put the book down. It’s dizzyingly lovely, terribly sad, and so delicately written. I haven’t read any of Pamuk’s novels other than My Name is Red, but his tale of the black rose and how he loved her and lost her makes me understand how he came to be a novelist, a storyteller. There is a flurry of happening and he has to become a storyteller so that he can make sense of it. You can understand from the book that he never needed to be one before–he could be a painter and viewer of scenes. It’s a chapter that pulls the rest of the book together so effortlessly, making the memoir finer than it would have been otherwise.

Oddly, after reading Istanbul, I have no increase in my desire to travel there. This isn’t a travelogue, it’s a memoir by someone who has always lived there. It tells of things that are long gone, of views of the city that are no longer possible. Going there wouldn’t open the gate of Pamuk Apartments to me. There are some things that the tourist will never see, some depths of understanding that leaving would not allow. What Istanbul does do–and Pamuk hints at the same about his city and its changes–is make me regret that I left Bombay, regret that it is so difficult to live there, regret the fact that it has sprawled out in a way so unrecognizable. I realized long ago that I love “old” Bombay. Like Pamuk, I want to go home, but like his, it’s a home I never actually lived in, a shadow of a life that dwindles every day.


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