Istanbul Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk


Everyone who has been to Istanbul has been fascinated by the city. I am yet to visit the city. So I was keen to read about it from its most famous author – who has been born and brought up in the city. He has spent more or less all his life here.

Orhan Pamuk is a noble laureate. I was wondering if Istanbul Memories and the City would be an easy book to read or not. I must tell you that it is a very easy book to read – uses very simple language and metaphors. If you understand a bit of, Arabic words as I do, you would relate to his memoirs much better. Even if you do not – he has gone to great lengths to explain certain words – around which the book revolves.

The city of Istanbul and the author’s growing up years are two protagonists of this book. You get introduced to the city in the beginning. Then, the author keeps changing the lens and keeps showing you the same city through different lenses. By the middle of the book, you feel quite acquainted with the city and its streets, especially its most important street Bosphorus.

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Yes, Bosphorus is not a typical street, but with giant houses on both its side. With the constant traffic of ferries and ships, it acts as a busy street in the city. Interspersed in the narration is the history of the city from the time it was a Byzantine empire to the Ottoman Empire, to when it was called Constantinople.  Istanbullus or people of Instanbul like to believe – it was the center of the earth.

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Pamuk, again and again, takes you through the neighborhoods of Istanbul where the remains of these times stand. Some of them in a dilapidated state and some in a burnt downstate. He refers to many foreign visitors who came to the city at different points in time and wrote about it. He walks in their footsteps to see what has remained of those places since then. He walks in the footsteps of the native authors. He tries to see the difference between what the westerners saw and what the natives saw.

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As his personal journey, the author introduces you to his family and family houses. Through the story of his family, especially the relationships amongst family members, he gives you a glimpse of the elite society in Istanbul after it became a republic. He talks about religion and how it does not exist and yet it exists in the subconscious.

He speaks about the girl he fell in love with, whom he used to paint. How she was sent to another country to be kept away from him and how this led him to a melancholic personality. In the first chapter, he introduces the reader to his alter ego but fails to build upon that or use that in the rest of the book. That I think could have been a good way to give diametric perspectives of the city.

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Most important aspect of the book is its mood – melancholic. The author introduces the Turkish word for it – Huzun. He goes on to great lengths to explain the word in as many possible ways as he can. For he is going to use it for the rest of the book. After reading the book you wonder if the city is actually so melancholic. Or, it was the author’s mood that reflected in his explorations of the city.

At places where he describes the old mansions and rich estates being burnt down and new high rise buildings being built – you do feel the melancholy. A sense of loss of a bygone era and potentially a loss of culture that is now being overtaken by the western inclinations. When he describes the life in Istanbul, I think the mood comes from inside him and the city may have happily moved over.

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The language of the book Istanbul Memories and the City is simple. And narration more or less follows a linear pattern. Towards the end, the repetitions got too much, I was bored a bit and wanted the book to be over. There are too many parentheses in the book. I kind of find them distracting while reading. Here half of them only opened or closed leaving the reader to figure out the other half.  I saw so many typos and editorial errors that I wonder if the art of editing is lost forever. If a noble laureate cannot get a decent editor to edit his book, what can I hope for?

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Usually, books that introduce one to a place make me want to pack up my bags and go there. But somehow this book Istanbul Memories and the City did not. I felt like leaving Istanbul to itself.

You can read it once.

Istanbul Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

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