Istanbul – Orhan Pamuk

To watch my father scanning the newspaper and trying, with half a smile, to catch the tail of a joke rippling across the crowded room, and at that very same moment to see a picture of him at five years old – my age – with hair as long as a girl’s, it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had framed and frozen these memories so that we could weave them into the present.

More like a letter to a relative or a mentor not seen in a good long time, except the person is Istanbul, where Pamuk was born and has lived all his life, a letter that pieces together the past and the monumental influence it has had on not just one person, but everyone who lives in it.

I’ve not read any of Pamuk’s work before, he seems an infinitely sad and dark man, who takes pleasure in reading about murders within the city, but who eloquently and painstakingly paints a fascinating and rich picture of his childhood and the city he has spent his life, so closely are they intertwined that you are left wondering if Pamuk is in fact the incarnation of Istanbul in flesh and blood, languishing in abject decline and looking at it’s past glories while tentatively trying to modernise and be accepted by it’s peers.

He is fairly open about his mothers and fathers troubled relationship and the impact it has on him, which, in fact, seems slight compared to that of the city that infuses him and it’s inhabitants with a wistful but immovable melancholy, that Pamuk explains as Huzun. He invokes Istanbul’s small but seemingly influential writers into his discussion, and how through his ongoing interactions with their works, there is a juxtaposition between how Istanbullu’s see their city and how outsiders see it, with the former almost craving acceptance, yet disagreeing with what is written by the latter.

Despite the drive for a new Turkish identity following the fall of the Ottoman empire, which Pamuk’s middle class family, and all of their class strive to embrace without understanding what it actually is, Pamuk comes to realise it’s the poor, neglected areas of Istanbul that hold the soul to the city, and the ever present Bosphorus, the one constant in the city, that provides an ever changing view, and yet allows Pamuk and others to anchor themselves and find small solace.

It took me the whole book to like Pamuk, and in fact, it’s only since finishing the book that my fondness for him seems to have grown.  I couldn’t work out if Istanbul was a memoir or a detailed love affair of his home city.  Slowly he made me wonder why I cared, why I had to classify what the book was, it was both, how Istanbul had played an overarching yet intimate part of his life, how he identified first and foremost with it more than anything else. The last chapter, indeed the last line seemed to click a button in me that allowed me to revisit the whole book and appreciate it in a whole different way, I couldn’t tell you why. I struggled to like Pamuk, he seemed a sad, lonely and introspective individual who had only fleeting happiness, a writer with the broken childhood that proves a fertile hunting ground for inspiration. But, he painted a truthful picture of himself, and of a city that is one of the last places in Europe (just) that I want to visit. At first I thought he had put me off, but I feel now that perhaps he has created a desire that may prove impossible to resist.

‘A declaration of love.’ is what the Sunday Times said about this book, and I don’t think I can better that, even though I have spent this post trying to..

Whenever I find myself talking of the beauty and the poetry of the Bosphorus and Istanbul’s dark streets, a voice inside me warns against exaggeration, a tendency perhaps motivated by a wish not to acknowledge the lack of beauty in my own life. If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too.


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