ISTANBUL/Orhan Pamuk: Reflections

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Some memoirs wind you back through the crowded streets of the hero’s childhood.   

Some wend you through the neural pathways of the author’s craving, omnivorous mind.   

Istanbul, by the Nobel Prize winning Orhan Pamuk, does both.  Sebaldian in scope, suffused with gorgeous black-and-white photographs of historic Istanbul, this is an exploration of a city, a man, and a particularly rich, involving melancholic state known as hüzün.  “The hüzün of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry," writes Pamuk, "it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.”  

Istanbul sprawls like the city sprawls.  Its sentences can sometimes consume entire pages as they evoke landscapes and childhood rooms, gossip and history, painters and writers.  Pamuk takes readers on a journey—his journey—as a boy in love with his mother, as a teen in love with his city, and as a young man who ultimately chooses writing over painting.  Pamuk is tenderly and brilliantly tortured.  He is obsessed with ruins and all the loss, and beauty, that ruins imply:    
But what I am trying to describe now is not the melancholy of Istanbul but the hüzün in which we see ourselves reflected, the hüzün we absorb with pride and share as a community.  To feel this hüzün is to see the scenes, evoke the memories, in which the city itself becomes the very illustration, the very essence, of hüzün.  I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early, of the fathers under the streetlamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags.  Of the old Bosphorous ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter, where sleepy sailors scrub the decks, pail in hand and one eye on the black-and-white television in the distance.... 


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