Although Orhan Pamuk began publishing novels in his native Turkey when he was twenty-six, the first three of them have not yet been translated into English. His fourth, which appeared in England in 1990 under the title The White Castle, established his reputation among Western readers as a brilliant postmodern novelist who juggles time and place, perspectives, identities, and narrative techniques so deftly that his readers are left breathless but oddly satisfied.
Istanbul: Memories and the City is classified as a memoir, but it is as complex as any of Pamuk’s novels. In a sense, it is many books in one. Some of the sections are intimate recollections reminiscent of Marcel Proust, while others are reflections inspired by Pamuk’s observations, much like some of the walking poems of eighteenth century England. There are also character sketches, some of them about family members such as his grandmother, others describing the lives of writers and painters whom Pamuk never met. At times Istanbul resembles a travel book, at other times, a history of the Ottoman Empire and the days that followed it, and at still other times, a collection of essays in art or literary criticism. These various strands have been woven into a single unified narrative, which is enhanced by more than two hundred photographs and illustrations which range as widely in subject matter as does the text. The result is a truly marvelous book, which is at once a portrait of the author, of his city, and of his society, present and past.
Other authors might have divided such a book into sections, devoting one segment to personal history, another to geographical and historical observations, and a third to portrayals of the city by various writers and painters. Pamuk chose a far more original approach. The thirty-seven chapters into which his book is divided are not grouped according to subject matter. Instead, he moves back and forth between his memories, his observations, his reading, and his speculations. Thus after beginning with three chapters about himself and the rooms in which he grew up, Pamuk moves to descriptions of the streets, reflections on the dominant colors of Istanbul, comments on the unique atmosphere in the areas adjacent to the Bosphorus, and an account of the life and works of Antoine-Ignace Melling, who published a book of Bosphorus landscapes almost a hundred and fifty years before Pamuk was born.
In chapters scattered throughout the book, Pamuk refers to the impression his city made on a number of other Western visitors. A half century after Melling painted Istanbul, the French poet Gérard de Nerval described his walk through a section of the city that Pamuk well knows, though as he points out, it is now greatly changed. In Istanbul, the author notes, Nerval did not sense the gloom that Pamuk believes came to characterize the city after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, in the Istanbul of 1843 Nerval had a brief respite from the depression that would drive him to madness and finally to suicide.
When the French writer Gustave Flaubert made his visit to Istanbul seven years later, he was less captivated with the city than Nerval had been, but then, as Pamuk notes, Flaubert was not at his best, having picked up syphilis in Beirut; moreover, he had spent all of his enthusiasm on Egypt and was already planning the books he would write as soon as he returned home. Two years after Flaubert left, Théophile Gautier, another French writer and a friend of Nerval, spent seventy days in Istanbul. In his newspaper columns and and in his book Constantinople (1853), Gautier captured what he saw as only an artist-turned-art critic could do. Pamuk credits Gautier with recognizing the essence of the city: its melancholic beauty.
As Pamuk admits, it is perhaps odd that the most thoughtful of his fellow Turks are so interested in what the West thinks about them. In fact, Pamuk devotes an entire chapter, “Under Western Eyes,” to this very issue. On one hand, he explains, what Western observers say matters a great deal to a people whose goal is to become more Westernized; on the other hand, the increase in nationalism has made Turks understandably sensitive to criticism they feel is unfair, particularly when it is based on Western visitors’ exotic expectations and on their consistent misinterpretations of what they see. Ironically, Pamuk adds, the very features...
(The entire section is 1810 words.)