Istanbul: Memories Of A City
Reviewed by Efadul Huq
“Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness; mine, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul's fate is my fate: I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am”. Captivated? Then this is a book you should grab right now!
I must say that the name of this book is deceptive! It suggests as though it is an autobiography or the historical memoirs of a city. But to the reader it poses a puzzle, because Pamuk has knitted this book with only two threads one representing his multihued life and the other representing the fast-changing vast chronicle of Istanbul. So well has he knitted the two that it becomes impossible to distinguish them, drowning any reader in its ambiguous nature.
Istanbul, as Pamuk portrays, is a city with a western skin but an eastern heart. He proceeds chronologically, at times sounding like flashes of memory. From his childhood to university days, Pamuk recounts all that had happened against the backdrop of Istanbul.
The chapters focus on specific events of Istanbul and Pamuk's own life. But throughout, he is very concerned about how the outsiders as well as the locals perceive Istanbul and how the readers will perceive his writing.
We start with the author's first memories: the tall house entirely occupied by a fascinating extended family; his father and brother; his long suffering mother; and his grandmother, the true matriarchal anchor of the family. We end, in the 70's, with a row between Orhan and his mother. In between, he narrates the story of his life, interspersed with chapters that talk about history and tradition. We learn about great Turkish thinkers, writers, poets and philosophers. We see Istanbul through the eyes of successive generations of western visitors, Flaubert and Ruskin amongst them. We learn of a new nation trying to establish an identity in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. We witness Pamuk going through family disasters, through his teenage love of painting and through the trauma of his first love, a story that superbly illustrates the real limits of life that faced talented - or wealthy - Istanbullis in the post-war years.
For Pamuk the most defining notion of Istanbul is Hüzün, a kind of Turkish melancholia, one that is distinctive to this place, a collective condition rather than the individualistic notion of, say, French tristesse. Hüzün dominates this book but not in a sad or overpowering way. It just makes Istanbul seem like a phoenix rising from its ashes. Pamuk takes you into the dark alleys, side lanes, gutters, dilapidated houses and the most ordinary places of Istanbul where beauty hides. There is no long description about Hagia Sophia. Instead Pamuk takes time to talk about the passers-by on the roads!
To cream it up, the book is richly illustrated 206 black and white photographs! The pictures are often splendid: fabulous structures, scenes much like those he describes, and a fair number of family snapshots that nicely complement the text. No wonder Pamuk won the Literature Nobel Prize 2006 for this extraordinary painting of his country a country that reigns over Pamuk's soul!
Istanbul: Memories of a City is a McDonald's treat for book lovers, indulge yourself!
The book is available at Bookworm and Friends Book Corner, Nilkhet. email@example.com
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