Wednesday 29 July 2009
A mesmerizing state of ruin
Early in his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, Orhan Pamuk describes some back alleys in the poorer part of town as being in a "mesmerizing state of ruin" (p. 37). As Pamuk's exploration of his native city and his place in it progresses, first as a self-absorbed child, then as a fraught adolescent, and finally as a successful author considering this past, it becomes clear that Pamuk sees the whole city this way.
Indeed, for him (or his narrator - as always, Pamuk plays tantalizingly with the limits of the projected self, even in what purports to be an autobiography of sorts), its beauty is necessarily bound up in this decay, in part because there seems to be no other choice for Istanbul in its post-Ottomon empire life. This beautiful and slow destruction makes Istanbul something both more and less than the more affluent European cities that many Istanbullus would aspire to turn their city into; in any case, Pamuk makes it seem entirely unique.
Of course, even as Pamuk sets up the terms on which we're apparently supposed to comprehend the city of his birth and life, he constantly undermines and ironizes those terms, especially when they move in the direction of exoticization, which they frequently do and which travel writers have tended to rely quite heavily upon in describing this city.
Istanbul, then, besides being a memoir is also Pamuk's attempt at literarily, sociologically, and historically analysing what it means to be an Istanbullu, but more specifically, what it means to be Orhan Pamuk of and in Istanbul.
This may seem horribly self-involved and with any other writer, I may well have felt so but I find Pamuk's peculiar narrative psychology (evidenced both here and in the novels of his which I've read) in combination with his brilliant writing to be generally irresistible (except for The New Life, which I just can't get through for some reason).
I find him so compelling, in fact, that even though I know I couldn't possibly experience the Istanbul he describes, both because of the changes time wreaks on cities and because I'd always be looking at it as a tourist, this book still made me want quite eagerly to go to Istanbul, which hadn't been very high on my list before. That, or I want to seduce Orhan Pamuk. Maybe both.