Tag Archives: Amazon Review

Amazon Review: Blending the Personal with the Historical in Pamuk’s Istanbul

16 Apr

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

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Amazon Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

16 Apr

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid tells the story of a Pakistani citizen named Changez, his move from an undergraduate degree at Princeton to an NYC-based valuation firm called Underwood Samson & Company, and his relationship with the WASP-ish Erica, pre- and post-9/11.  Changez narrates the entire novel—at times in first person, but often in second person as well, as Hamid frames the story as a conversation between Changez (now returned to Pakistan) and an un-named American man in the Old Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore.  Changez invites the American man to try a cup of tea, which turns into a full meal and then dessert.  What begins as a seemingly harmless conversation slowly darkens as the novel progresses.

Just as Changez’s politeness masks something perhaps more sinister, the novel’s apparent stream-lined simplicity masks its depth and richness.  The novel resounds with the theme of isolation v.s. openness and appearances v.s. reality.  Obsessed with her memories of Chris, a childhood friend-turned-lover who has passed away, Erica retreats further and further into herself, preferring to live in her own fantasies rather than in the real world.  Her inward movement mirrors America’s growing mistrust of “foreigners” and increasing isolationism post-9/11.   Changez, on the other hand, moves from an isolated focus on solely “getting the job done” and appraising companies to realizing that the reports he and his company makes affect the companies’ employees—real people trying to make a living.  He begins as well to view himself as a perpetual outsider, and to connect these companies to larger flows of capital—capital that is disproportionately held by people of Erica’s complexion rather than his own.

Another theme in the novel, connected to that of isolation and openness, is that of control.  Hamid’s novel is very much a novel of “talking back” (à la Edward Said)—of insisting that one’s voice be heard in a world that so frequently ignores or talks over it.  The only voice we truly hear in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Changez’s.  Changez holds his two layers of audience (the unnamed American and the reader holding the book) essentially captive.  While he includes dialogue between himself and other characters, one is always aware that this dialogue is filtered through Changez’s limited first-person report of the conversation.  As such, Hamid also conflates the reader with the uncomfortable American, who, twitchy and suspicious, views everyone around him as a potential threat.

Interestingly, however, the novel does not entirely reassure us that the figures of whom the American is suspicious aren’t, in fact, a threat to him.  The novel ends ambiguously.  Because we only receive the information Changez gives us, we will never know what actually happens on the dark road in front of the American’s hotel.  In other words, the novel itself is dangerously uni-vocal, warning us through its very structure against only listening to one side of any story.

Hamid’s novel thus utilizes a technique—oral storytelling—often explored in post-colonial novels, and with, I think, the intent of “talking back” against the dominant, hegemonic voices, and it explores post-colonial themes of fractured identity, diaspora, and flows of global capital.  But it does this so subtly, one might barely register the way it very faintly echoes sprawling epics like Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  Hamid’s novel is like its narrator—intelligent, well-mannered, deeper than it may appear, focused, controlled, and sinister.  While giving a 3D portrayal of a (mostly) sympathetic man and telling what appears at first to be primarily a love story, it also raises questions that it doesn’t fully answer—not just about the text itself, but also about how to live ethically, fully, and also safely as an American, as a Pakistani, and as a global citizen post-9/11.