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.

8 comments:

verbivore said...

I have yet to read Pamuk but have been wanting to - where do you recommend starting?

Amateur Reader said...

I, too, had great trouble with The New Life, but I don't know if I could say why.

I was in Istanbul for a couple of weeks a few years ago. It is an amazing city, in some ways a little hard to believe. It's the most layered city I've ever encountered (never been to Rome) - here's the ruin of an ancient Greek palace, there's something Roman, this is Byzantine, that is Ottoman. Turn the corner and you're in modern Paris.

Plus the food, the food.

Colleen said...

Verbivore: I began with Snow, which is his most recently published novel. I adored it and did not expect to. That said, I found My Name is Red to be just as compelling but for very different reasons. I think either one would be a great place to begin with Pamuk.

Amateur Reader: Rome is an exceedingly layered city, which was my favourite thing about it; this makes me even more interested in visiting Istanbul.

My husband concurs with you on the food.

An Anonymous Child said...

I've read two books by Pamuk and am hoping to make "Istanbul" my third. I'm a little apprehensive, mostly because though I thought "Snow" was brilliant, I found "The Black Book" too confusing and disorganized to enjoy, even as I appreciated Pamuk's writing (I'm so glad I chose to read "Snow" afterwards instead of giving up on Pamuk altogether). "Istanbul" just sounds fascinating, though and not only because of the incredibly history of the city. Someday, someday...

(May I add Jerusalem to the list of incredibly layered cities, with modern buildings to medieval strongholds to the old city...? Quite like Rome in that sense.)

Colleen said...

An Anonymous Child: I'm sorry you didn't enjoy The Black Book. I've heard that one translation is much better than the other but I read the supposedly not good one and still enjoyed it. It must just be a matter of taste. In any case, I'll be interested to hear what you think of Istanbul!

Celine said...

Colleen, are there also different translation of 'My Name is Red'?

I loved it ( mostly for its fantastic descriptions of daily life) but couldn't help wondering if it had lost some coherence in the translation?

Colleen said...

Celine: I'm not sure if there are variant translations of My Name is Red. I'm sure most books lose a lot in translation - except, I hear, for Dostoevsky, who gains.

dolcebellezza said...

I absolutely loved Pamuk's book Snow, so this one seems very compelling to me, too. Thanks for telling me about it!