Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (Boldtype, December 2005)

Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul”Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (December 2005)

Internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s loving and vivid memoir about the Istanbul of his childhood, perched precariously at the crossroads of a storied East and an affluent West.

For his latest and most intimate book, Orhan Pamuk pens a chronicle of his early days in the great Turkish metropolis of Istanbul. Breaking through orientalist notions, he conjures up a stark portrait of a city traumatized by the shotgun modernization that everyone believed would usher in prosperity.

Pamuk intersperses the soul-searching tale of his once-wealthy, noble family with an appealing trove of photographs that set the stage for his rhapsodic remembrances. Istanbul combines family snapshots with over a hundred images by the city’s leading photographers — personal and public images that refract each chapter through the prism of daily urban life.

With sharp imagery, these stories oscillate from the factual to the poetic. According to Pamuk, the Turkish concept of hüzün (melancholy) is the key to understanding Istanbul; the term denotes an Islamic ideal that fuses deep spiritual loss with a hopeful perspective on life.

Ever candid, Pamuk writes about the horrors that victimized the city’s Greeks, Armenians, and Jews in favor of millions of poor Balkan refugees. His frank lament on the city’s Turkification has irked Turkish nationalists — when Pamuk told a Swiss newspaper in February that Turkey killed 30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians last century, he was charged with denigrating the national character. Pamuk’s statement shattered the longstanding taboo against discussing the 1915 Armenian Genocide and Turkey’s undeclared war on its Kurdish minority, and the scandal landed the author in court this month. This remarkable saga proves what Pamuk writes again and again in Istanbul — that his city, and, by extension, his nation, continues to shy away from honestly answering the ultimate question: who am I?

Istanbul suggests that only by answering that question could the city recast itself on the world stage and shed its beloved hüzün that weighs so heavily on its soul.
– Hrag Vartanian