Istanbul: between East and West

Nostalgia for bygone times and a sense of postmodern unease merge in OrhanPamuk's memoir of the city's hybrid influences

Istanbul: Memories of a City is a layered and richly threaded tapestry of a memoir that recalls the postmodern and dream-ridden inquiries of such writers as Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges. Imbued with the influences of 19th-century European writers and painters, as well as contemporary Istanbullus (particularly Yahya Kemal, a poet, the historian Resat Ekrem Kocu, the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar and memorist AS Hisar), Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul is a sometimes wistful, sometimes visceral, dialogue between the East and West, or what the author prefers to describe as "the tensions between the past and the present" on these Istanbullus' efforts to define a personal and cultural identity.

The western gaze has memorialised such seemingly unlikely subjects as the packs of dogs in Istanbul's streets (Alphonse de Lamartine, Gerard de Nerval, Mark Twain) and the Bosphorus, which was repeatedly evoked by the painters such as Antoine Ignace Melling in the Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (1819).

Yet the book's increasingly mysterious refrain of Pamuk's (and the city's) huzun, or melancholy, is Istanbul's subject; it mourns for what is permanently lost as much as it comes to terms with fallen empire and missed historical possibilities. "I am aware that part of what makes Melling's paintings so beautiful is the sad knowledge that what they depict no longer exists. Perhaps I look at these paintings because they make me so sad," Pamuk writes.

Pamuk's descriptions of the city's gradual decline into poverty and ruin are especially evocative as he describes the cumulative melancholy of an Istanbul left directionless after the Ottomans' defeats at the hands of the Russians and the West. It is during his many wanderings through its streets, first as a young student bored with school and then as a young adult who finds solace in the "destitute and not yet westernised quarters (which sadly fire and concrete would soon obliterate)" that the city comes alive.

The array of black-and-white photographs in the book only makes the lyricism of his observations more vivid. Through images of once grand yalis (the summer mansions of the Ottoman pashas) that lie along the banks of the Bosphorus, pictures of snow-laden streets and cars that all look like models from the 1950s, and snapshots of family and Pamuk himself at different ages, the city's dichotomies and history, its past glories and present resignation, become the author's.

Pamuk's multifaceted understanding of the West's influences on modern day Turkey and the country's eastern history and geography give the memoir a postmodern unease amidst its open nostalgia for those "happy triumphs of the past" that made Istanbul the once gorgeous capital of the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, current postcolonial discourses on empire and its assumptions are complicated by Pamuk's resistance to any easy dichotomy.

It was western writers such as Gerard de Nerval and Theophile Gautie, for example, who first described the city's poorer districts and found there the beauty or - to use Pamuk's word - the melancholy, in the harmony of those impoverished surroundings. And it was then Ahmet Tanpinar, among other Istanbullus, who read and studied those travel notes and came to share their love for those areas that paradoxically preserved in their eastern particularity in neglect.

Rather than feeling defensive towards these western memorialisations of the city in literature and art, Pamuk, and those melancholic writers before him, found that they helped to focus their own aesthetics. If anything is problematic, or dangerous, in the potential for totalising the complexities of a country, and culture, it lies in oversimplifications of those complexities, whether that discourse belongs to western presumptions of superiority or eastern fundamentalism.

In an interview with his translator, Maureen Freely, Pamuk says Kemal Ataturk's drive to westernise Turkey gave rise to Turkish nationalism. "There were a lot of religious sects in Turkey [before Ataturk's republic], some radical, some fundamentalist and some very liberal. They were fighting and competing. Reform was evolving in these heretical places. But Kemal Ataturk closed them, saying they were corrupt, a hybridity of Ottoman or Turkish Islam was destroyed. Instead there was a void that turned into this 'unified' single-colour fundamentalism."

In discussing the historian Resat Ekrem Kocu's lifelong attempt, and failure, to encapsulate all of Turkish culture in 12 huge volumes of what was called Istanbul Encyclopaedia (now out of print), Pamuk suggests the problem and poignancy of trying to express "an Istanbul caught between modernity and Ottoman culture". The very disorder of its reality, "the anarchic strangeness" of its hybrid influences, "so much stranger than Western cities", Pamuk argues, remains between worlds, and as such its melancholy back streets, its huzun, are not simply an expression of defeat, but one of consolation.

* 'Istanbul: Memories of a City' by Orhan Pamuk, published by Faber & Faber and translated by Maureen Freely, is available in central Athens bookstores or via http://www.amazon.co.uk/

ATHENS NEWS , 18/08/2006


© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved