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Book Review

The Sorrows of Young Pamuk
A Review of Istanbul: Memories of a City
Stefanie Stiles

Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories of a City is not an autobiography, nor is it simply just a very literate city guide, or any hybrid of the two, as most reviews would have us believe. Instead, it has the feeling of a biography written about a lost and lovely woman by a still-besotted ex-lover; it is an elegy for the city of Pamuk's youth.

And as beautiful as this memoir undoubtedly is, written out of lace cobwebs, it leaves the reader uneasy. The jarring notes, such as his repeated references to masturbation, his almost-Freudian relationship with his mother, and many other unsettling passages, do not serve to create a rich and interesting memoir, but are completely unnecessary to the unfolding of the narrative.

Sometimes Pamuk seems to be one of those over-zealous artists whose credo is the opposite of "Beauty is Truth" and portrays himself very unsympathetically, as if daring the audience to dislike him. If Istanbul is indeed a marvelous elegy, the reader cannot help but wonder why the eulogist chooses to make his home in the graveyard; Pamuk still lives in Istanbul today, in the very same apartment building where he grew up.

As frequently noted, the centrepiece of the book is the chapter on huzun, a sort of collective melancholy affecting Istanbullus, languishing amid the landscape of a lost empire. He describes this feeling at some length, noting its beauty and poignancy as well as its darker qualities. In fact, the auteur Pamuk fairly luxuriates in huzun, to the extent of devoting a good five pages to atmospheric descriptions of scenes that reflect the stuff. The good man–or perhaps his translator, Maureen Freely–rather abuses the semi-colon over this long passage. For example, the "essence of huzun" is made up "...of the little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passer-by; of the clock towers no one ever notices; of the history books in which children read about the victories of the Ottoman Empire and of the beatings these same children receive at home; of the days when...", etc.

But although this passage is the crystallization of the books's major theme, the huzun is by no means limited to just one chapter. It percolates throughout the entire work, in chapters entitled: "The Destruction of the Pashas' Mansions: A Sad Tour of the Streets", "Four Lonely Melancholic Writers", and my personal favorite: "To be Unhappy is to Hate Oneself and One's City". This last one is especially fitting because of the author's constant personification of the city, which he admits to letting subsume his personality. He writes, "When its melancholy begins to seep into me and from me into it, I begin to think there's nothing I can do: like the city, I belong to the living dead..."

The writing continues in this vein, beautiful and tedious, for the book's entirety–which isn't really all that long because of the many black-and-white photos scattered throughout. These are almost invariably pictures of ruins, slums, and crooked lanes, each and every one just achingly poignant, of course. When not subjected to yalis in disrepair or smoke-spewing old ferries chugging along the Bosphorus, one is treated to portraits of human wreckage, namely the family Pamuk. The cast of characters includes the jovial, philandering father, the bewitching, dissatisfied housewife mother, an older brother whose chief characteristic, it would seem, is aggression because he's constantly thrashing his younger brother, who is wee, sensitive Orhan himself. Personally, I don't blame him. If the pictures are any guide, Orhan Pamuk appears to be a moon-eyed boy, and an affected, precious youth. I especially detest the second picture in Chapter 13 of the school-age Pamuk–it is so irritatingly earnest, sullen and vaguely sad, that any self-respecting bully would be perfectly justified in pushing him into the mud, or giving a good tweak to those tempting protruding ears. The only family photo that does not grate is that of the author's delightfully imperious grandmother, who ruled the roost from her post in bed and who is given her own chapter, although it's not quite as long as the one devoted to "The Smoke Rising from Ships on the Bosphorus".

It's not all diaphanous, though. Istanbul may be in no small part an affectation, but it's still the affectation of genius, and therefore worth reading. Pamuk often accomplishes the difficult task of intelligently discussing Turkish politics, religion, and social issues while maintaining the lyrical quality of his writing. The short, often pithy chapters are strangely addictive, and the sections on Istanbul writers and journalists, both Western and native, are highlights. I felt downright disappointed that I did not have access to the grotesque and quirky Istanbul Encyclopedia of Resat Ekrem Kocu, as described by Pamuk. The chapter of collected newspaper columnist quotes was also a gem (sample: "It has been suggested that to beautify the city, all horse-drawn carriage drivers should wear the same outfit; how chic it would be if this idea were to become a reality.").

All of the best writing occurs when Pamuk plays it straight like this and does not allow himself to wallow in picturesque poverty of the spirit. Perhaps the central problem–the one that transforms an otherwise absorbing series of city-life vignettes in Istanbul into an overwrought character drama starring his own tortured self–is that Pamuk lacks the essential quality of restraint in his writing. He writes that "Huzun does not just paralyse the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them poetic licence to be paralysed." It would seem that he too has given himself a poetic license to revel in huzun, to the ultimate detriment of this otherwise fine book.
© Stefanie Stiles Feb 2007
stefanie.stiles at
Communications Coordinator
Pax Christi International
"People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."--Logan Pearsall Smith

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