“In Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner – the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques – inflict heartache on all who live among them … these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture.” (101)
This book – part memoir and part ode to the city of Istanbul – written by Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk, has been on my to-read list for several years. I was first exposed to Pamuk in 2005 when I was enchanted by his melancholic and brooding love-story/mystery, The Black Book, and I’ve been wanting to read more of him through the years. Istanbul is a non-fictional account of the author’s relationship with the city he has lived in his entire life and reveals the motivations and inspirations for his many-layered fictional works.
This work blends stories of Pamuk’s childhood and young adulthood with reflections on the city’s past glory and modern struggles, its blend of grandiose and dreary architecture, its culture divided by a conflicted eastern and western identity, and the nuances impacted by its historical Islamic religion and republican-enforced secularism. The picture painted with the words penned by Pamuk depicts a deeply divided and intriguing city both loved and despised by its inhabitants.
Alongside Pamuk’s personal and researched narratives about the city of Istanbul are nearly a hundred erie and breath-taking black and white photos and several paintings and etchings depicting both the famous sites, backroad alleys, and the strait of the Bosphorus that make up and divide the city’s geographical architecture. The photos are presented sans footnote and their presence add to Pamuk’s melancholic, affectionate reflections on the city.
Pamuk invests a lot of time reflecting upon several European artists that have made their name while painting and writing about their experiences in the city during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since these artists can only present a foreign perception of the city, Pamuk bemoans a lack of quality Turkish artists capable of presenting a truthful depiction of Istanbul. His love for this city explored in his youthful walks through back street alleyways assuredly inspired his youthful period as a painter and his later career as a novelist. However, his choice to pursue art was viewed by his family as a fool’s adventure since so few Turks succeed in what is viewed as a European pursuit of artistic expression. Thankfully Pamuk did not relent to his family’s disapproval, as his recognition by the Nobel committee helped expose the Turkish author to this reader.
Aside from Pamuk’s meditations on Turkish and European art, he invests considerable devotion to the influence of wealth, the decline of wealth, and poverty upon the city’s peoples. Pamuk does not hide the fact that he was raised by a once-wealthy family that slowly lost its influence as the lack of economic prosperity derailed their entrepreneurial pursuits. As the economy is tied to the secular policies of the government, Pamuk further evaluates the influence of religion, or lack of religion upon the different classes of Turkish peoples:
“Except for those moments when we were made to remember Her mysterious bond with the poor, God did not trouble us unduly. You could almost say it was a relief to they depended on someone else to save them, that there was another power that could help bear their burdens. But the comfort of this thought was sometimes dissolved by the fear that one day the poor might use their special relationship with God against us.” (177)
As Pamuk further explores the impact of the secular movement towards western comforts and lifestyles, he acknowledges the ironic negative impacts of such comforts. It becomes clear that the forced secularism has created a cultural vacancy of identity:
“In our household doubts more troubling than these were suffered in silence. The spiritual void I have seen in so many of Istanbul’s rich, westernized, secularist families is evident in these silences. Everyone talks openly about mathematics, success at school, soccer, and having fun, but they grapple with the most basic questions of existence – love, compassion, religion, the meaning of life, jealousy, hatred – in trembling confusion and painful solitude.” (185)
These moments of meditation depict a conflicted people at a loss for identity. What is striking is the awareness that this city, the once great capital of the Ottoman Empire, is now at a loss for relevance. The fallen empire was once an alternate force that thrived on the edge of both the western and eastern powers. I found the passages that described such sad realizations as telling signposts for the potential irrelevance of a fallen American power and caused me to wonder what the future holds as the world continues to grow and change despite the historical significance of regions once celebrated.
Pamuk’s melancholic love for his city shines with an admirable inspiration. Not having ever visited the city (I would like to someday) I feel that I now have an informed perspective of the city that these foreign eyes will never truly experience by visiting the sites and walking its streets:
“I will remember how troubled I was the first time I looked at this view from the same angle and notice how different the view looks now. It’s not my memory that’s false; the view looked troubled then because I myself was troubled. I poured my soul into the city’s streets and there it still resides. If we’ve lived in a city long enough to have given our truest and deepest feelings to its prospects, there comes a time when – just as a song recalls a lost love – particular streets, images, and images will do the same. It may be because I first saw so many neighborhoods and back streets, so many hilltop views, during these walks I took after I lost my almond-scented love, that Istanbul seems such a melancholy place to me.” (346)