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Istanbul Dreams

Orhan Pamuk's brilliant memoir, 'Istanbul,' binds the author to a city of ghosts

By Michael S. Gant

PUNDITS delivered plenty of reasons for the rejection of the European Union constitution by French and Dutch voters: unemployment rates, globalization, fear of Polish plumbers. But perhaps the primary cause of Euro-anxiety was nervousness about Turkish membership in the union.

Long the pinch point between Asia and Europe, Christianity and Islam, Turkey occupies a uniquely tense geographical and historical position. It is where, in 1453, the Western empire of the Romans, having regrouped in Constantinople, fell to (or was conquered by, depending on your vantage point) the East and rose as Istanbul, the capital city of the Ottoman dynasty, which "stands in Europe, and hath Asia in view," as a French envoy wrote in the 1500s.

The worries cut both ways. Increasingly, Turks are expressing reservations about the pending merge with Europe. Although it is not a work of politics, Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City (Knopf; $26.95) offers in supple, entrancing prose some significant insights into the Turkish mentality and its alternating embrace of and resentment toward the West.

Pamuk, the author of the well-received novels Snow, My Name Is Red and The Black Book, was born in Istanbul in 1952 and has lived there, in thrall, his whole life. Born into a wealthy family on the skids—his father squandered the fortune amassed by his grandfather—Pamuk conflates his own upbringing with the life of a city spiraling slowly into decline. Ever since the early 19th century, the Ottoman capital had been a fading memory of Muslim magnificence; eventually, the secularizing movement of Ataturk shifted the government to Ankara, leaving behind a population inhabiting the skeletal remains of the so-called "Mistress of the World."

For Pamuk, the condition of longing for a distant glory has bathed Istanbul in a permanent marinade of melancholy, or hüzün. The Turkish word implies, Pamuk writes, a collective "black mood shared by millions of people together."

Hüzün is not the pain or regret of an individual, but the collective sadness of a civilization that felt "unfit or unprepared to inherit" the monuments of emperors and sultans: "These ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power and culture."

In the mid-1800s, foreign writers and poets like Gautier, Flaubert and Nerval came under Istanbul's spell, discovering a Romantic tinge to the dingier aspects of the city—"finding melancholic beauty amid dirt and disorder." Turkish intellectuals, in turn, were "dazzled by the brilliance of Western (and particularly French) art and literature." This admiration, paradoxically, locked them in a bind: they wanted to write like Westerners, but they realized that this urge made them into imitators rather than originators.

In a brilliant (although ultimately frustrating, because so little of what he mentions has been translated) chapter, Pamuk traces the contradictory emotions of "Four Lonely Melancholic Writers" of the city: the "great fat poet Yahya Kemal," the magpie encyclopedist Resat Koçu, the novelist Ahmet Tanpinar and the memoirist Abdülhak Hisar. Their strategic response to the influence of modernist literature was to turn inward and focus on "the decline and fall of the great empire into which they were born."

The hüzün Pamuk dissects exerts an attraction for the lonely, the nostalgic, the dreamers—it is a "smoky window" that softens the view between the seer and the world. It is also a corrosive mind-set that leaves people "broken and condemned to defeat." It isn't hard to see that one response to this beckoning void is the testiness of many Turks regarding what they perceive as European meddling in their politics, culture and traditions.

The EU aside, Pamuk's Istanbul is as much a story of how a writer found his voice as it is a treatise on the Turkish psyche. In the end, the city and the man become a single entity—the chronicler replicates what he chronicles. A mark of the book's power is that from now forward Pamuk will be identified with Istanbul just as Lawrence Durrell is with Alexandria and James Joyce with Dublin.


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From the June 22-28, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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