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
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