Exploring the cobwebs and exposing some dirt


ISTANBUL: Memories of a City, by Orhan Pamuk. Faber & Faber, 2006, 348 pp., £8 (paper).

Turkey it seems has always inspired fear. The memory of advancing Turkish units camped outside the gates of Vienna haunted the European mind for centuries. “Where the Turk treads, no grass grows,” ran one saying of the time.

Even in fictionalized versions of journeys to the East, most notably Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and Graham Green’s “Stamboul Train,” Istanbul casts its long shadow of associations over the tale, quickening the sense of intrigue.

Victorian travelers were much taken with the country, discovering all the seedy exotica and faded opulence they craved for in a decadent culture, but the Turks themselves were often portrayed as a depraved and intransigent race. Even a modern traveler like Jan Morris, writing about Istanbul for Rolling Stone, found that “Morbid fancies assailed me, and wherever I looked I seemed to see threatening images.”

Perhaps, like most of us, she too had seen the film “Midnight Express,” with its portrayal of Istanbul as a city of the informer, a place of solemn bazaars, lowering skies and forbidding minarets set like palisades on the roofs of mosques.

With our impressions of the city so grossly formed by outsiders, it is timely to come across a portrait of the city, both autobiography and memoir, by one of its own, the novelist Orhan Pamuk. One of the foremost literary figures in Europe, Pamuk is often mistaken for a mystery writer, due perhaps to the complexity of his plots and narrative.

A controversial figure, his outspoken comments on the genocide of Armenians and the treatment of Kurds have ruffled many a conservative feather in a country that tries very hard to avoid contention. A case brought against Pamuk for “insulting Turkishness” was dismissed by the courts earlier this year after it provoked an international campaign in support of his defense of freedom of expression.

In “Istanbul,” Pamuk puts himself in the line of fire again with such statements as “My first trip to a mosque helped confirm my prejudices about religion in general and Islam in particular.”

Elsewhere, on the topic of sanctions imposed on minorities, he asserts they represent “measures that some might describe as the final stage of the city’s ‘conquest’ and others as ethnic cleansing.” There is no doubt as to which of the two interpretations he ascribes to.

Switching from painting to writing about the city as a young man, Pamuk asserts that “The living, breathing city — its streets, its atmosphere, its smells, the rich variety of its everyday life — is something that only literature can convey.” The author has spent virtually his entire life in the apartment block in which he grew up, a building that is even named after the family, the Pamuk Apartments. It has not been an introspective life though, as his vigorous explorations of the city’s past and present confirm.

Having a good memory is no more a prerequisite for a writer than say, seeing the world, but the extraordinary degree of retention displayed by Pamuk provides a wealth of arcane material. Almost half a century on, the author recalls signs on tram cars decommissioned decades ago, wall announcements scrambled by graffiti, long forgotten messages printed on anchovy tins. A tireless analyst for whom nothing is too insignificant, the author spends a great deal of time sifting and sorting his way through the dusty shelves of bookstores, the archives of libraries and newspaper companies in search of the striking oddities of history.

There is much made in “Istanbul” of the word “huzun,” which roughly translates as “melancholy.” The upside of the collective sensation of inhabiting a city that has been in irreversible decline for over 150 years is the conviction that melancholy distilled from ruination confers depth of character and maturity. Huzun is, thereby, held in great esteem. There are photos on almost every page of “Istanbul,” which match the writer’s descriptions of a city from which melancholy can never be completely eviscerated. Many of these monochrome images of dilapidated tenements, sooty kiosks and dark automobiles, were taken in the 1950s and ’60s by the master photographer Ara Guler, another son of the city.

Those who savor the decay of great, iconic cities like Istanbul are invariably outsiders who do not have to live there. Residents are usually happy to move with the times, to see improvements in their plumbing, have faulty electrical wiring reinstalled, worm-eaten timber replaced with concrete.

Pamuk’s fascination with the slow dissolve of his city is, perhaps, attributable to the fact that as an artist, he too is a type of outsider. As a result, what this book peerlessly conveys is the experience of living in a rapidly Westernizing city among the ruins of Ottoman civilization.

When Pamuk comes to deliver his Nobel acceptance speech, it will no doubt be of Istanbul that he speaks, a sorrowful, expressive Muse he has never broken faith with.