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City of tarnished glories

The view from a rainy tram window at dusk; a slim man, glamorous in suit and sunglasses, disembarking from an aeroplane branded with the Turkish flag; porters bowed low crossing the Golden Horn; a woman and two small boys before a mirror, the younger turning back to face her; washing strung before a cityscape of domes and minarets; men clearing snow from a ferry roof, grey smoke filling the air around them; more snow, on tram tracks and across parked cars; a child camouflaged in the shadows of crumbling waterside mansions. The black-and-white photographs that run through Orhan Pamuk’s meditation on his hometown of Istanbul echo the words surrounding them: beautiful but melancholic, labyrinthine and occasionally disorienting. The mosaic of personal history and public life evokes the work of G. W. Sebald, another great modern novelist who used photographs to expose the past’s double nature: its strangeness and its intimacy.

In its scope Pamuk’s book also resembles the sprawling Istanbul Encyclopedia he loved as a boy. But where the author of that 12-volume tome struggled to make the city’s disorder and variety conform to foreign ‘scientific’ categories, Pamuk freely delights in his subject’s Protean nature and the particular obsessions of his own biography, giving chapters to street signs, his grandmother, religion, famous fires, newspaper columnists, Flaubert, painting, and fights with his older brother.

There is a symmetry to these many parts, however. The balancing point is a concern with the past. For Pamuk, Istanbul’s present is but a wreck of its past, ‘an ageing and impoverished city buried under the ashes of a ruined empire’. The dilapidated mansions, crumbling fountains, and demolished gardens of modern Istanbul exist in painful contrast to the Ottoman wonders recorded in artists’ prints and travellers’ tales. The gloomy legacy of Istanbul’s vanished glory is found not only in its streetscapes but also in its spirit—its hüzün, or melancholy, a concept which is the ruminative centre of Istanbul: Memories of a City. Introducing the term, Pamuk launches into one of the descriptive tours de force that characterise his memoir, listing in page after page its essential images:

…I am speaking of the old booksellers who lurch from one financial crisis to the next and then wait shivering all day for a customer to appear; of the barbers who complain that men don’t shave as much after an economic crisis; of the children who play ball between the cars on cobblestone streets; of the covered women who stand at remote bus stops clutching plastic shopping bags and speaking to no one as they wait for the bus that never arrives; of the empty boathouses of the old Bosphorus villas; of the teahouses packed to the rafters with unemployed men; of the patient pimps striding up and down the city’s greatest square on summer evenings in search of one last drunken tourist…

Pamuk teases out the ambiguities of hüzün throughout the book: it is negating but also affirming; it is felt in solitariness but is the affliction of an entire city; its source is loss but it is a badge of pride; it is unique to Istanbul but its roots are European.

In the current debate over Turkey’s application to join the European Union, Pamuk’s reference to the reformist sultans of the late 18th and early 19th centuries reminds us that ‘Westernisation’ is not a new concept. Indeed, despite his stated support of EU membership, it is the ‘modernising’ revolution launched by Atatürk that Pamuk sees as responsible for his city’s downfall, for ‘the replacement of the Ottoman Empire with the little, imitative Republic of Turkey’. Surprisingly, the convoluted love-hate relationship Turkey has with Europe—its model and its foil—is one that has resonances for Australia. We too inherit a culture that has seen itself as distant from the centres of civilisation and one which long deferred to the judgments of outsiders’ eyes. With a few adjustments, Pamuk’s dizzying description of his reinvented republic is familiar to post-1788 arrivals to this continent:

To discover that the place in which we have grown up—the centre of our lives, the starting point for everything we have ever done—did not in fact exist a hundred years before our birth, is to feel like a ghost looking back on his life, to shudder in the face of time.

Pamuk’s particular contribution to this old conversation is his open allegiance to that ‘twilit place’ between traditional identities. To be both insider and outsider is the birthright of Istanbullus, he says, but also, his memoir makes clear, of the writer. The coming to vocation subtly underlines Istanbul, where narrative is discovered as a way of transmuting childhood isolation and adolescent anguish into a second life. However, the artist’s foothold betwixt the inner and outer worlds, his attention to shadow and ambiguity, is not always a safe place, and Pamuk himself has recently drawn the ire of the keepers of official identity.

A long-time critic of Turkey’s human rights abuses (the memoir has many references to the rich multicultural city destroyed by last century’s ‘Turkification’), Pamuk was to appear in court last month on ‘charges of denigrating Turkish national identity’ for publicly discussing the state’s murder of Armenians and Kurds. There is a terrible irony in that charge being laid against a writer who has drawn such a tender portrait of his city. Yet, as with Ireland’s banning of Ulysses, Istanbul will live as a masterpiece long after Pamuk’s political detractors have shuffled into history. 

Istanbul: Memories of a City, Orhan Pamuk. Faber and Faber, 2005. isbn 0 571 21832 6, rrp $45

Sarah Kanowski, a freelance writer and broadcaster, was the inaugural winner of the Margaret Dooley Young Writers’ Award.



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