Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul: Memories and the City” is a brilliant mixture of autobiography and memoir of the city. Told in the first person point of view, he blends his own past into Istanbul’s past to give his text a more personalized history of an “end-of-empire melancholy” that both surrounds his life and his city. He discusses Istanbul’s fate as his own fate and proves this through the linking and intertwining of constant doubles that he introduces, including: past with present, city with individual, other Turkish writers with himself, imagination with reality, and the positive and negative sides of melancholy (defined as Huzun). How he accomplishes this is best described through his childhood game which he admits to using in his novels; he explains this game as, “I would push the two wings of the mirror inward or outward until the two side mirrors were reflecting each other and I could see thousands of Orhans shimmering in the deep, cold, glass-colored infinity” (78). In a way, his novels contain multiple sides of himself that are represented through real or imagined doubles. In this case, the doubles are represented through Istanbul as an intriguing means to captivate the deep history of a fallen empire struggling between a modern and traditional identity.
The structure of Pamuk’s novel varies throughout the chapters. The reader is taken back and forth through time, and back and forth between his past and Istanbul’s history. One of the chapters titled “Don’t Walk Down the Street with Your Mouth Open,” is structured much like Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. We are given a random assortment of passages taken from various newspapers over the past 130 years. Pamuk experiments with different ways of presenting history in order to provide his readers with several angles to Istanbul’s identity and past. One constant element continued throughout the text is his use of photographs. In describing his house as a museum filled with old photographs, Pamuk explains, “it seemed plain to me that my grandmother had framed and frozen these memories so we could weave them into the present” (14). The framed memories of his “museum house” mirror the black and white photos that weave throughout his book. The reader is able to see images of his family, the city through time, and old paintings of Istanbul, which is paired with Pamuk’s written stories, descriptions and analyses. He is very clever in using so many structural elements to draw the reader into not only understanding Istanbul but also feeling a part of the process and the melancholy associated with the city.
Having traveled to Istanbul on several occasions, I find Pamuk’s novel surprisingly accurate. I say surprisingly only because it’s so difficult to paint a picture with words of a city so deeply ingrained in its past and yet struggling to move forward. It’s difficult for people to envision why a city holds so close to its past and how that past reflects on individual lives. Istanbul is modern and globalized culture in many aspects and yet its visible past keeps the city in a state of being in between—not quite traditional and not quite western. Pamuk is very prideful of his city, but also very truthful and not afraid on shedding light onto both the best and worst sides of Istanbul and his own life. It is a confession, a celebration, a labored struggle, an opening of self-consciousness and an effort for change. I would suggest this book to anyone interested in learning about Istanbul. Once you begin the journey through Pamuk’s Istanbul, you wont be able to put the book down.
Amazon Review: http://www.amazon.com/review/RQD4DI42R03BI