Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul (2003)

The child Orhan Pamuk looks into the mirror on the wall and sees another Orhan, another boy just like him, somewhere in Istanbul. It is the opening scene in Istanbul, Pamuk’s memories. The scene refers to Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage, the moment in a child’s life that it becomes aware of its own subjectivity, representing a permanent structure in life. As such, it is the writer that awakes in the little boy Orhan Pamuk, as such it is the starting point of the order of the Imagination.

The Quest for Turkey in our time is not just a quest of Turks or Istanbullus, but as much a quest of the West. When Turkey seeks itself, it finds itself for a part in the West. When Europe seeks itself, inevitably a part of Turkey presents itself and its quest as we define our own borders. The influx of immigrants is not just a motion from the outside into Europe, it’s also a force set in motion within us. When Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in 2006 this was a recognition for Pamuk’s masterly literary works, but it was also acknowledging the West’s search to redefine itself. And not without coincidence, can we find a part of the answer to this search in Istanbul, or as it used to be known, in Constantinopel, the old center of the Roman Empire that reinvented Christianity and which held a magic appeal for hundreds of years to western authors.

In Istanbul, Pamuk’s words describe Istanbul, and he confesses in his own words: when I describe Istanbul, I describe myself, and when I describe myself, I describe Istanbul. Pamuk recognizes this himself explicitly and to the full extend, toward the end of his memories of Istanbul, a city literally divided by the Bosphorus, with one half laying in Asia, and one half in Europe. This literal spleen is by Pamuk described as the melancholy, or huzun in Turkish, that both dominates the city as himself. It is obvious that Pamuk cannot separate himself when he thinks of the city where he lived all his life.

It is rare that an author is so transparent as Pamuk shows himself in Istanbul. It is especially interesting for two reasons. First, because the visual composition of the book includes black and white photographs by Ara Guler from 1950 to the present day. And secondly, because loving Pamuk’s writing, you will find many of the important impressions that form Pamuk’s inspiration in life and the body of his works. Pamuk has always and only lived in Istanbul and this story is the travel he undertook to learn to embrace the city as his. And although, Pamuk tries to portray himself as a westernized Turk who has first and foremost discovered his Turkishness, it is hard to deny for a western reader at least, and how misleading this impression could be, that perhaps he never has stopped seeing the west as a beacon for this most eastern of all European cities.

Having traveled and visited Istanbul myself last year, having read other works by Pamuk, loving his style so close to Dostoevsky’s, the book is surely more rewarding than on it own. Istanbul is a city that is defined by a greatness that is lost, where time has not kept up, where the great nation is in a decrepit and dilapidated state. Of course, the great nation was rich in poverty and inner weakness, but these are not the colors of our memories, and so they are not the subject of Pamuk’s, nor those of the Western travelers he recites. But when a writer deviates from reality and rises to the heights of fiction like Pamuk does, when a writer is able to create an order that does not exist from the existential chaos like Pamuk does, the impressions bring us closer to truth than more accurate descriptions might possibly do.

Pamuk’s true skill is the ordering of the impressions. It is not until the last ten pages that you learn the book’s true intention, which is to understand that Pamuk’s family was split, like the city is split, as he is himself in consequence, and that all despite the loss of the ideal are bound to their fates, in Pamuk’s case, he is bound to his melancholy for the city in which is born, has lived and will die. It is in works like Istanbul that writers transcend the petty lives we all endure.

Orhan Pamuk @wikipedia
Orhan Pamuk

Yahya Kemal
Resat Ekrem Kocu
Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, Five Cities
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
Andre Gide, La marche Turque (1914)
Joseph Brodsky, Flight From Byzantium (1985), in: The New Yorker
Theophile Gautier, Constantinople
Gerard de Nerval, Voyage en Orient

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