Istanbul: Memories of a
By Orhan Pamuk
Faber, 348pp, $45
You need more than a map to understand a city. You need a soul, a voice.
Of course, Lou Reed's New York is a very different place to Woody Allen's. The Baghdad of fairytales does not have the same exotic lilt to an American soldier. The London of Charles Dickens and his line of influence through contemporary writers such as Martin Amis and Zadie Smith is not the London of a terrorist. But their visions all tell us a story, of one kind or another. And in this way a city accumulates into something path-ridden and alive that we can "read".
For the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk that crucial city is Istanbul. I've visited the place myself, and been taken with its minarets, mosques and fish markets, its sprawling yet oddly gnarled agglomeration of West and East, the traffic and apartment blocks, the call of muezzin to prayer. For all that, I'm not especially inclined to dive into a book of such ethereal, encyclopedic ambition as Istanbul: Memories of a City. At times, I must confess, this book was simply too much. It drowned me in its depths.
But Pamuk had me by the soul well before. Almost a year ago I read his novel Snow, the story of a failed poet and would-be journalist who travels to the "wild east" of Turkey to investigate a series of female suicides in an Islamic border town.
By the time I had finished it I wanted to weep, and was possessed by the urgent sense that Pamuk - who writes with all the sweep of the great 19th-century Russian authors - was one of the most important novelists working today.
His non-fiction work Istanbul is just as magnificent, though clearly aimed at a narrower audience. Essentially, it is a history of the city twined with a memoir of family and growing up that ends with a stunning chapter on first love - and failing to understand its force until that force has come and gone.
"If we've lived in a city long enough to have given our truest and deepest feelings to its prospects," Pamuk writes, "there comes a time when - just as a song recalls lost love - particular streets, images and vistas will do the same." In this sense, Istanbul is a young man's book, and a boy's book too, encircled by grief and age. It is, in short, the story of how and why Pamuk became a writer.
It's hard to quote Pamuk economically and get inside the wave-like, gathering style that can suddenly grip you for pages at a time. Certainly he is not a "perfect" writer. He can be repetitious and overdependent on riffing flows of detail that build into a poetic mass or suggest undisciplined obsession. He nonetheless succeeds in making what should be a weakness or an overbearing stylistic tic into something strangely right for him, circling things over and over until, at last, he lifts up or plunges down into the spiralling intensities and insights you keep holding on for.
Istanbul is about loss; about growing up in the shadows of the Ottoman Empire, where a once great city is now poor and ashamed; about growing up in a family whose wealth is dwindling, squandered by a kind but philandering father (to whom the book is lovingly dedicated).
It is also about a detached mother who imparts a sad sense of reality to her dreamy son. And it is about lost love and who Pamuk might become: a painter, then an architect, then something else he hopes might be true to the "first life" of his imagination; his sense of self divided in a city trapped between the continents, neither Western nor Eastern.
"Happy people in Europe and America could lead lives as beautiful and as meaningful as the ones I'd just seen in a Hollywood film," Pamuk reflects. "As for the rest of the world, myself included, we were condemned to live out our times in places that were shabby, broken-down, featureless, badly painted, dilapidated and cheap; we were doomed to unimportant, second-class existences, never to do anything that anyone in the outside world might think worthy of notice: this was the fate for which I was slowly and painfully preparing myself."
Yet on a depressed ferry ride across the Bosphorus, among workers and old women, Pamuk has an epiphany: "Was this the secret of Istanbul - that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward-looking monuments and its sublime landscape, its poor hid the city's soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about a city's essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves."
Istanbul is a cry against the city itself and all that it contains being forgotten - and a curiously stormy revenge against those in the world who would do the forgetting. At the same time, the writer guiltily admits to thrashing about in its fallen realms and refusing to fall with it. An impossible task finally, but Pamuk goes at it for all his, and everyone else's, life is worth.
- Mark Mordue
* First published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books pages on August 13th, 2005.