Istanbul: Memories and the City
By Orhan Pamuk
Translated, from the Turkish, by Maureen Freely
Knopf, 384 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Though Istanbul is often the subject of literary exploration, it has been more commonly analyzed by Western travelers in pursuit of an exotic land than by native writers in pursuit of themselves. In this regard, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's ''Istanbul: Memories and the City" stands out. Tracing the city's annals through the uncharted paths of his childhood, Pamuk furnishes the reader with an intensely personal account, yet an increasingly wearisome essayist technique.
As the book draws on different narrative strands and episodes from the author's life, Pamuk's description of Istanbul becomes insightful, eclectic, whimsical, and didactic. He follows an emotionally winding path, dipping in and out of the personal into the sociocultural. Often he sounds resentful of, if not angry at, Istanbul for failing to fulfill a promise that remains unclear to the reader. It seems the two features that most profoundly characterize Istanbul, chaos and in-betweenness, upset Pamuk, who expects the city to take a side between East or West once and for all. ''Caught as the city is between traditional and western culture . . . Istanbul is a place where, for the past 150 years, no one has been able to feel completely at home."
''Istanbul" takes up numerous exchanges with a series of Western writers, ranging from Gerard de Nerval to the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky. Pamuk uses this literature not only to provide an intellectual foundation but also, paradoxically, to attain a distancing effect whereby the narrating self can be split off from the narrated self. It is within this rift that Pamuk attempts to distance himself from the city of his childhood. ''I take comfort in reminding myself that there is something foreign in my way of looking at the city, owing to all the time I've spent reading the accounts of western travelers."
Despite his choice to align himself with Westerners, Pamuk underlines a fundamental difference between the foreigner's expectant gaze and the native's twisted one. ''Western observers love to identify the things that make Istanbul exotic, nonwestern, whereas the westernizers among us register all the same things as obstacles to be erased from the face of the city as fast as possible." This stark disparity is further fortified by the author's claim that Western readership might often fail to grasp how Istanbulites are unable to throw off their melancholy. Not only does he associate the city with melancholy, its main theme, but he sees its residents as being overwhelmed by it.
In probing this theme further, Pamuk emphasizes the loss of cosmopolitanism in Istanbul -- a gradual process accompanying the city's transformation from the capital of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire to the fallen city of the modern Turkish nation-state. Change generates loss; loss triggers melancholy. This sense of loss is one of the book's most powerful, albeit knotty, threads. Contemporary Istanbul is presented as the carcass of a once-glorious urban edifice. Ottoman Istanbul's historical grandiosity is now replaced by a city ''so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture." Although this argument is compelling, as Baruch Spinoza once indicated, ''one and the same thing can at the same time be good [and] bad." Melancholy can work both ways. Pamuk comes from a wealthy, privileged family, and his melancholy is shaped by his intellectual distance from, if not disdain of, the masses and his social position in a society where class distinction is forceful. All four Turkish authors he has chosen as his mentors and urban guides resonate with this selective perception: the memoirist Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar, the poet Yahya Kemal, the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, and the journalist and historian Resat Ekrem Kocu. They are presented as melancholic writers who lived and died alone, never marrying.
While the author's emotional involvement with these writers runs deep, it is equally true that his account of Istanbul remains a gender-biased narrative never nourished by life on the streets. This is a masculinized, rationalized account of Istanbul that excludes the voices and stories that fall beyond this scope, including countercultures, women, folk Islam, and superstitions, all of which are crucial to Istanbul and have generated a restless urban dynamism.
As the chapters unfold, Pamuk more and more draws a line between himself and other Istanbulites. There echoes a demarcation between ''them" and ''me." While the people of Istanbul are shown as ''bound together, smoothing their way to communicate, doing business, living together," the narrator is seen as out of harmony with them. ''So in the end I'll escape the terrorizing crowds, the endless chaos, and the noonday sun that brings every ugly thing in the city into relief," he writes. The feeling of being different is a constant throughout the book: ''The idea rises up inside me that I'm worthless and belong nowhere, that I must distance myself from these people and go hide in a corner." At times this gap helps the reader to empathize better with the protagonist and to feel the solitude of the author. This sentimental distancing covered in a light veil of elitism moves the book in a difficult, if not impossible direction: to feel for a city without feeling for its residents.
Pamuk is not a flaneur. His Istanbul is not one that is discovered and described through its dark sides or seamy streets but always from a distance, behind a glass -- the glass of the camera. Gazing through a window, Pamuk is not writing ''Istanbul," he is painting it, or perhaps he is concocting a photograph album.
It is not that well known today that the art of photography has had an interesting past in Turkey. Sultan Abdulhamid maintained a fearsome distance from the masses, using photography as a means to see beyond his range of sight. He used this European invention to watch his own city and country, and then to show them to foreigners. To this end, in 1893, he sent albums of photographs to the British, German, French, and American governmental elite.
Abdulhamid's photographic gaze had one fundamental lapse: humans. When they were included, ordinary Istanbulites were portrayed in studio settings but never on streets. His was a ghost city without people.
It is this visual tradition that ''Istanbul" closely follows -- a way of seeing from a distance.
Elif Shafak is a scientist and author of ''The Saint of Incipient Insanities."