Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (Book Review #8 of 2016)

Istanbul (Vintage International)
This is my first Orhan Pamuk book; I am better with nonfiction than fiction. The book is ostensibly about the history of Istanbul, of which I am pretty familiar. But the actual experience of the book is the author's autobiography, as Pamuk writes "Istanbul's fate is my fate." This book mainly consists of childhood memories and experiences, intimate in such a way that I am not sure who it would appeal to other than an obsessed fan. Some topics are perhaps taboo in Turkey (though probably not so much in Istanbul). While translated from Turkish, it seems clear that Pamuk is writing the book for the Western reader, explaining history that would already be known by a Turk, and elements of Turkish for those who are not familiar.

Besides a brief stay in the city a few years ago, my literary experience of Istanbul comes mainly from Told in the Coffeehouse, a collection of old fables and short stories from the recorded or translated by Westerners in the late 1800s, and the memoirs of Cyrus Hamlin, an American who lived there from 1830-1870 who founded Robert College, where Pamuk went to school. I have also read through Cambridge's History of Turkey volumes I and II which includes some Istanbul history in the couple centuries after Constaninople was conquered. I would highly recommend the first two works to anyone interested in the tales of the city that Pamuk's stories are reminiscent of.

"I've never left the Istanbul of my childhood." Pamuk, of course, fled Istanbul in 2007, after being prosecuted for "crimes against Turkishness" due to comments he made around the time this book was published. He is aware that many childhood memories are ones that are told rather than actually remembered, and he explains the Turkish -miş past tense for events that "apparently" or "reportedly" happened. Glimpses of the old city live on only in his memory or in the old black and white Turkish films Pamuk longs for, the reality has since been destroyed by modern development.

This longing for the past makes up part of the feeling of "hüzün" that Pamuk believes permeates the city and all who connect wıth it. Hüzün means, roughly, melancholy; Pamuk dives into the entymology of the word, its Arabic roots and its historical meanings with examples cited. The poet Gautier captured the melancholy of the city in his book Constantinople in 1856. (Pamuk doesn't mention Cyrus Hamlin, unfortunately, but his memoir also records the trials and tribulations of living in the city in roughly the same period. The divisions, the cholera, the Sultan, etc.) Pamuk tells the history of Istanbul through its writers and poets as well as Western observers. One interesting tangent is when he reads a random collection of newspaper clippings from the city over the decades. He focuses on how it feels, what music best expresses it, and what was lost. Hüzün is necessary "it is the failure to experience hüzün, that leads (one) to feel it" and it is forever in Istanbul's shadows.

Pamuk also focuses on his misconceptions of the city, realizing it's important to see how foreigners experienced the city. "My city is not really mine." Many comment on the city's dogs, but he notes that dogs were banned when the jannisaries were. The conquest of Constantinople and its memory differs across Istanbul's historic population of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, now much fewer in number. He ponders the 1956 pogroms of Greeks in Istanbul, something I'm sure raised an eyebrow when this was published.

The author appears to have come from a middle class Kemalist family with affluent relatives. He writes of attending lavish parties with people who used to be connected to the Sultan. The parties were upbeat but the people were depressed. His personal recollections deal with puberty and how he was more than a teenager when he realized he wasn't alone in his struggle with feelings. The details of all of this are a bit much. He recalls romances and difficulties with his parents, whose relationship was fraught as his father betrayed his mother. His family's preferences caused him to look down on religion, and it was only later in life that he learned to respect the preference of the religious as well.

In the end, he spends years studying to be an architect, but never truly happy. The book closes with his decision to become a writer.

Again, I wish that other long-forgotten (but freely available on the Internet) memoirs of Istanbul had been cited; I'd love to make Pamuk aware of these. I recently herad an interview with Kaya Genç, author of An Istanbul Anthology that contains much of the classic writing on Istanbul that Pamuk highlights-- Genç seems to borrow heavily from Pamuk in the interview. Genç notes that everyone has a love/hate relationshp with Istanbul. Pamuk basically explains why. I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5.

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