August 23, 2006KR Blog

Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

When I was 20, I lived in Ireland for a year. Having never travelled internationally, naturally I decided to spend Christmas in Turkey. Warm, non-Christian: what more could you ask for? After nearly missing my flight to Istanbul, I arrived late at night to be hustled into a taxi and dropped off in the plaza in front of the Hagia Sophia. In a small alley nearby was my hostel. It was dark and the hostel was hidden away and the taxi cabs kept honking because I looked (and was) lost. It was also snowing, which I hadn’t expected. I was yet to stumble through the ruins of Ephesus, a hammam in Selcuk, hot springs in Pamukkale, and food poisoning in Bodrum. I remember most those few confused minutes I spent staring up at the spot lit Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque towering over an otherwise dark city intermittently illuminated by flecks of snow catching the light.

This is an overly long way of saying that I was destined to fall in love with the writing of Orhan Pamuk.

If you haven’t read Snow, you must. But what’s occupied my attention of late is Pamuk’s memoir of the city of his birth, the city he still calls home, as much as anyone can, Istanbul: Memories and the City. The subject of the memoir is the eternally melancholic cast of a city that, for all the modernizations of Ataturk, still perceives itself as the eternal capital of the declining and falling Ottoman empire. Pamuk weaves his childhood and the fading fortunes of his family into that history along with a fascination for Western accounts of his city, for never-to-be-finished encyclopedias of the city written by prominent writers, and for lists. Every so often Pamuk unleashes on his reader (to great effect) a list of things or places, along with pictures of the city, pictures of his childhood, and that fiercely intelligent sense that one’s sense of a home or a city or anation is always balanced precariously–like a tight rope walker over the Bosphorous–between necessarily nostalgic blindspots. Love of place happens not in spite of but because of the often disastrous unfolding of time.
Here’s a link to video of an interview with Pamuk. In an earlier interview, in February 2005, Pamuk was branded a traitor for denigrating Turkey by admitting to the Armenian Genocide of 1915. International outcry prevented further prosecution, though to preserve relations with Turkey, the United States still has not officially acknowledged the genocide. Elif Shafak faces a similar fate for featuring a character in the novel who confesses to being a descendent of Armenian survivors raised to deny the genocide. Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan explores the after-effect of the Armenian genocide directly in the intentionally awkward Ararat and, less directly in the odd, lush, and thoughtful Calendar. Also, try Peter Balakian’s memoir Black Dog of Fate.