Translated by Maureen Freely

I set out intending to read the massive My Name is Red by Nobel Prize for literature winner Orhan Pamuk, but gave up on it 145 pages in. I know it has been raved over, and in my defence I gave it longer than most books that I’m not enjoying. However, I knew I couldn’t dedicate a month of reading to Turkish writers and not read any Pamuk.

On my shelves I found another of his books, Istanbul: Memories of a City, first published in 2003, and published in English in 2005 by Faber & Faber. I have no idea where this book came from. It’s clearly been bought secondhand, as it’s evidently been read before, and not by me. My daughter’s RDA riding centre raises extra money by selling off donated books for 50p each, and it’s possible I picked it up there at some point. Anyway, I’m glad I did.

I wasn’t particularly expecting to enjoy the book, given I’d found My Name is Red pretty tedious (sorry!). I’m a sucker for life writing and memoir though, and already in its first pages this book raised some interesting questions about identity and memory (Pamuk is a psychoanalyst’s delight!), as well as about the history and status of the city of Istanbul. Pamuk is very open to Western influence and culture, but remains strongly attached to Istanbul, the city of his birth, the city to which he has always returned, and which, for him, is also “a city of ruins and end-of-empire melancholy“.

Pamuk repeatedly uses the term hüzün to refer to this specifically Turkish form of collective melancholy, which, for Pamuk, in many ways came to define the culture of Istanbul after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, he dedicates an entire chapter to this concept.

The hüzün of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry; it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state, but a state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating.”

I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early; … of the covered women who stand at remote bus stops clutching plastic shopping bags and speaking to no one as they wait for the bus that never arrives; of the empty boathouses of the old Bosphorus villas; … of the broken seesaws in empty parks; …. of the cold reading rooms of libraries; of the street photographers; …”

The narrative is a something of a hodgepodge, partly a mosaic social history and in part a childhood memoir, but always interesting. When reflecting on his early childhood Pamuk notes that:

I feel compelled to add ‘or so I’ve been told’‘. In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense.”

Interspersed with his reflections and recollections are Sebaldian photographs of historic Istanbul and those taken from family albums.

There are bits of linguistic and historical miscellany and entertaining digressions on virtually every page:

I now present a random sampling of some of the most amusing advice, warnings, pearls of wisdom and invective I’ve culled from the hundreds of thousands of pages written by columnists of various persuasions over the past 130 years:

‘It has been suggested that to beautify the city, all horse-drawn carriage drivers should wear the same outfit; how chic it would be if this idea were to become a reaity.’ (1897)”.

The book was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize in 2005 (now the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction) and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in life writing, literary non-fiction and European cultural history. I’ll wrap things up with a quote from Pamuk, which highlights his single-mindedness when writing (and his ability to compartmentalise!):

I thought I would write Memories of a City in six months, but it took me one year to complete. And I was working twelve hours a day, just reading and working. My life, because of so many things, was in crisis; I don’t want to go into those details: divorce, father dying, professional problems, problems with this, problems with that, everything was bad. I thought if I were to be weak I would have a depression. But every day I would wake up and have a cold shower and sit down and remember and write, always paying attention to the beauty of the book. Honestly, I may have hurt my mother, my family. My father was dead, but my mother is still alive. But I can’t care about that; I must care about the beauty of the book.”

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you for the review. Several of my Turkish students have been encouraging (I probably should put that word in quotation marks) to read Pamuk. Your review is more likely the one that will push me in that direction. Thank you.

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  2. Thanks for your comment. I think I need to try again with Pamuk’s fiction, but this work of non-fiction was thoughtful and vivid and I would certainly recommend it.

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    1. I think you’d like it, and you read quite bit of non-fiction don’t you… I’ve must admit I’ve been a bit put off his fiction, but the writing in this book on Istanbul was really beautiful as well as interesting.

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