Saturday, April 3, 2010

Book Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

I started reading this book way back in Spring 2007. I was in the airport between flights (I want to say on my way back to school from Albuquerque). I just started taking Turkish and I was making plans to study in Istanbul that fall. So when I saw Pamuk's book in the "Travel" section of the Hudson News, I figured it was worth a snag, right?

Wrong. Pamuk's style (lots of longing, lots of sighing, very little description of what things look like) isn't really conducive to travel writing. Paul Theroux he's not. I got maybe halfway through the book the first go-around before giving up. And it wasn't until I was at my folks' house this February, looking through my old books, when I decided to pick this one up again.

Istanbul is much more of a memoir than a travel book. It takes Pamuk from childhood through college and talks about his family, life in 1950's Istanbul, and mostly how Istanbul is viewed by various famous folk. Everyone from Yahya Kemal down to Gustave Flaubert. He makes fun of Pierre Loti, too, which I've been waiting for someone to do for a while now. Istanbul only talks about Istanbul tangentially. In a way, it sort of sketches a silhouette of Istanbul by shading in all of the areas around it, if that makes sense. By describing the commonalities that all of these Frenchmen, Germans, Ottomans, and Turks had in their descriptions of the city, Pamuk describes the city itself.

The thing he hammers home is this concept of huzun. Huzun is this really baroque form of melancholy. The concept is: Ye Olde Sufis who were religious enough would try to come as close to Allah as they could. But the real religious ones would be full of melancholy because there is no way to get close enough to Allah. As hard as you try, you are only human. However, the ones who were not religious enough would not even be able to feel this form of melancholy, they were never able to get close enough to feel not-close-enough. They could only feel huzun. Huzun is the feeling of not even being able to feel the emotions you want. Pamuk writes about how this feeling permeates Istanbul, since it is life in the shadow of a glorious empire. He's a lot more eloquent about it than me. And it helps that he gets to use a bunch of Ara Guler's pictures.

He does this while talking about his childhood and adolescence as well, which is fairly interesting. If you've read a lot of Pamuk's books (which I have) you can identify all of these tropes that begin from his life: Alaadin's shop, the dopplegangers, the secret apartments...all of these things are very real and very happened. I find it kind of neat that all of his novels (though probably not Snow as much as the others) are in many ways autobiographical. I can imagine that people will disagree with me there, though.

So the book's not about Istanbul. Its about Pamuk. So it's really not worth reading unless you've read a whole bunch of Pamuk books (which I fortunately have). But it is worth reading, though. If you can handle all the melancholy, that is.


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