[Paleopsych] Telegraph: (Pamuk) The pleasure of ruins

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The pleasure of ruins
    (Filed: 13/04/2005)

[Noel Malcolm's review appended. I read Pamuk's novel, Snow, which should 
get him the Nobel Prize. It is a beautiful tale of a Turkish exile 
returning from Germany, ostensbily to cover the story of teenage girls 
committing suicide, but also to find his lost love. There's a conflict 
within the hero between his secular life and his attraction, nevertheless, 
to a rigorous form of Islam.]

    David Flusfeder reviews Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

    Europe has its share of melancholy cities: the citizens of Lisbon take
    each destructive fire as fate's latest grim joke; Warsaw has been
    regularly ripped apart by foreign invaders; and it's hard to be
    cheerful in Trieste or, indeed, Cardiff. But the Istanbullu novelist
    Orhan Pamuk makes a persuasive, if repetitive, case for his city to be
    ranked as the most melancholy of all.

    The Turkish word for melancholy is hüzün; in Pamuk's view, the city is
    soaked with the stuff, and so are its writers: "For the poet, hüzün is
    the smoky window between him and the world." Istanbul is a black and
    white city, Pamuk says, and in this combination of memoir and sad
    urban love letter the pages are illustrated with dozens of rather
    beautiful black and white photographs, whose romantic purpose is to
    allow the foreign reader to experience the same pangs as the city's
    inhabitants. In the ruins of Ottoman greatness, there now stands "a
    pale, poor, second-class imitation of a Western city", where only the
    mosques and the packs of wild dogs survive from the city visited by
    rapt or disgusted Orientalists a century and a half ago.

    Describing cities and city life is one of the things that literature
    does supremely well, but up until the 20th century all the literature
    inspired by Istanbul was written by Westerners, usually French
    visitors in pursuit of the exotic.

    The influence of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Valéry and Gide has been
    disproportionately large, but it was Gérard de Nerval and Théophile
    Gautier who gave Istanbullus their images of the city- "a place where,
    for the past 150 years, no one has been able to feel completely at

    "To be caught up in the beauties of the city and the Bosphorus is to
    be reminded of the difference between one's own wretched life and the
    happy triumphs of the past," writes Pamuk. Of course, the past was
    never as happy as all that, and the present hasn't always been so bad
    either, especially if, like Pamuk, you come from a privileged
    background. With the help of 20th-century Turkish novelists, poets and
    journalists, Pamuk does a good job picking at lines of received

    It's a difficult task, which requires perhaps too many expository
    lessons in culture and history along the way, and isn't helped by
    Pamuk's essayistic technique, which perversely chooses to move from
    the general to the particular. ("Allow me to illustrate this with a
    story about Flaubert's penis," is one of the happier versions of this
    conclusion-to-evidence device.)

    For the novelist Tapinar, the poor neighbourhoods of Istanbul were
    symbolic of Turkey's own impoverishment in the modern world. Pamuk
    tells us this first, rather stealing the thunder of "Turkey's greatest
    20th-century novelist", so, when we read Tapinar's words making the
    same observation, the argument has the diminished power of the

    There is plenty, however, to entertain and interest. The story of
    Flaubert's penis is a good one, with its components of syphilis,
    hair-loss, mother-love, orientalism and literary history. The account
    of the obsessive - and failed - encyclopedist Koçu is fascinating: a
    life devoted to building literary curiosity chests of city anecdote
    and homoerotic mutilation fantasy. But the book comes alive in the
    chapter on first love, when it casts off its didactic purpose to
    become pure memoir.

    The overall effect of Istanbul is like being in the melancholy company
    of a learned, egotistical uncle, who takes you on a slow tour of his
    photo albums in twilight. This uncle has perfect recall for details,
    but his memory is almost entirely visual - Pamuk's highest adjective
    for other writers is "painterly". As we are taken through the sights
    of ruins, as changes in the light are described to us, the other
    senses get hungrier. We become pathetically grateful when we are
    allowed any food, such as when Pamuk mentions the taste of his
    grandmother's sweet tea, which she always drank with a piece of hard
    goat's cheese in her mouth.

    As with any writer's memoir of his early years, the central story here
    is the making of the writer, the significant events, both internal and
    external, the movements of sensibility that have sent him on this
    path. Fans of Pamuk's fiction will be grateful for this book;
    travellers familiar with Istanbul will be stimulated; those unfamiliar
    with either may well be wearied.

    Istanbul: Memories of a City
    Orhan Pamuk
    348pp, Faber & Faber, £16.99
Telegraph | Arts |  A boyhood on the Bosphorus

    A boyhood on the Bosphorus
    (Filed: 09/04/2005)

    Noel Malcolm reviews Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

    "Turkey Welcomes You!" proclaims the website of the Turkish Ministry
    of Culture and Tourism. "It is Istanbul's endless variety that
    fascinates visitors. The museums, churches, palaces, grand mosques,
    bazaars and sights of natural beauty seem innumerable. You can see why
    Istanbul is truly one of the most glorious cities in the world." And
    indeed you can see why: the web page is illustrated with dazzling
    photographs of palaces and beauty-spots, all of them drenched in
    golden sunshine.

    None of which, of course, is untrue; the photos have not been faked.
    But tourist-brochure images seldom convey the atmosphere of a city,
    and can give little idea of the texture of ordinary life. And if that
    is the case with cities that are dominated by their tourist industries
    (Venice or Florence, for example), how much truer it must be of a huge
    metropolis where tourism barely scratches the surface.

    The prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul 53 years
    ago; with the exception of a brief stint in New York he has never
    lived away from the city, and today he still lives on the top floor of
    the building that was his childhood home. He is a passionately loyal
    Istanbullu (the suffix "-lu" or "-li" is like the "-er" in
    "Londoner"), and is never happier than when poring over old
    photographs of the city or reading the faded cuttings of local
    newspapers. In his new book - part childhood memoir, part extended
    essay on Istanbul life - he describes, with a marvellously painterly
    eye for detail, what it is that he loves so much about this city. This
    is not the sort of detail, however, that the Ministry of Culture and
    Tourism would have in mind.

    "I am speaking", he writes, "of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to
    deserted stations in the middle of winter; of the tens of thousands of
    identical apartment-house entrances, their façades discoloured by
    dirt, rust, soot and dust; of the broken seesaws in empty parks; of
    ships' horns booming through the fog; of the dervish lodges that have
    crumbled; of the seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and
    mussels, unflinching under the pelting rain; of the little children in
    the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every
    passer-by; of the fruits and vegetables, garbage and plastic bags and
    wastepaper, empty sacks, boxes and chests strewn across abandoned
    street markets on a winter evening..." That is just an extract from a
    listing that meanders across six pages. Each detail on its own is
    humdrum and unexceptional, but the cumulative effect is one of lyrical
    intensity, the performance of a set of virtuoso variations on the
    themes of cold, decay, neglect, disappearance and abandonment. All
    these details are, he explains, things that give rise to hüzün - an
    untranslatable word for a collective feeling of melancholy and

    Hasty or hostile readers (including, no doubt, the men from the
    Ministry) might prefer a less untranslatable term for Pamuk's frame of
    mind: nostalgie de la boue, a perverse wallowing in dirt. And if all
    he had produced had been a hymn of praise to decrepitude, they might
    have a point. But this book does much, much more than that. It sets
    his fascination with the tumbledown world of backstreet Istanbul in
    two contexts: that of his own discovery of the city as a child, and
    that of the cultural history of postOttoman Turkey.

    There was nothing decrepit about Orhan Pamuk's own childhood home - at
    least, not in physical terms. His grandfather had made a fortune in
    business, and although this was gradually frittered away by Orhan's
    father and uncles, there was plenty of it to fritter. Orhan was
    brought up in the "Pamuk Apartments", a five-storey block built and
    owned by the family: all the other inhabitants were uncles and
    cousins, plus an assortment of maids, cooks and caretakers.

    From this world of wellfurnished rooms - glass-fronted bookcases,
    grand pianos laden with silver-framed photographs, and so on - little
    Orhan would venture forth with his mother to the sweet shop, the bread
    roll-seller, or the toy shop; sometimes a boatman would row them up
    the Bosphorus, or sometimes they would ride on the tram. Everything
    fascinated the boy, whose visual sense was stimulated as much by
    crumbling stone and decaying wooden buildings as by the coloured
    lightbulbs on the minarets or the chocolates in silver foil.

    In his teens, while attending an expensive private school, he thought
    of becoming a painter, and spent long hours walking these streets,
    studying the play of light and shade and the effect of those sudden
    glimpses of the Bosphorus through the gaps between the buildings. His
    schoolfriends, meanwhile (mostly the sons of the nouveaux riches),
    spent their time driving their fathers' Mercedes to cafés where they
    could drink Scotch whisky and listen to American music. Their aping of
    a foreign world drew him, by contrast, to cherish more strongly those
    aspects of Istanbul that they were most keen to reject.

    A similar dynamic, though a subtler one, was at work in his relations
    with his own family. Unlike the coarser nouveaux riches, they valued
    culture and education; but having lost touch with their own Ottoman
    past, they could think of no content for that culture except a
    hand-me-down West European one. In this, Pamuk thinks, they were
    typical of a generation which, even though it benefited in many ways
    from Atatürk's Westernising campaign, was nevertheless culturally and
    spiritually stultified by it.

    Some people might react to such a situation by longing for a
    neo-Ottoman cultural revival; but that is not a real option, given the
    degree to which all modern Turks are now separated from their past.
    (They cannot even read anything from before the 1920s, since the old
    Arabic script is unintelligible to them.) Others might turn instead to
    some form of Islam; this is a real option for many, especially for
    those who have only recently moved to the big city from village life.
    For millions of middle-class Turks, however, this solution has no
    appeal whatsoever.

    Orhan Pamuk has taken a different path. He accepts the loss of Empire,
    the decay of grandeur, and the failure, in petty ways, even to imitate
    competently the Western practices that have become such unquestioned
    models. For him, this is the authentic Istanbul, and because it is
    authentic, it deserves to be loved and celebrated. The same is true of
    his family, which he loves for all its faults - the faults being, as
    this book delicately insinuates, the same, ultimately, as those of the
    city itself.

    This evocative book succeeds at both its tasks. It is one of the most
    touching childhood memoirs I have read in a very long time; and it
    makes me yearn - more than any glossy tourist brochure could possibly
    do - to be once again in Istanbul.

      Noel Malcolm's books include 'Bosnia: A Short History' and 'Kosovo:
    A Short History' (Pan)Golden days on the Golden Horn Orhan Pamuk,
    left, is a passionately loyal Istanbullu and a painterly chronicler of
    the life of the city

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