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Orhan Pamuks’s Istanbul: Memories of a City

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Orhan Pamuks’s Istanbul: Memories of a City pseudo-memoir weaves an intimate and often meandering portrait of Istanbul and its inhabitant’s collective experience of hüzün. The narrator creates dual, often conflicting thematic trends, unfolding Istanbul both internally and externally in terms of past and present, East and West and black and white. Exploring the vicissitudes of Orhan’s childhood to adulthood, the reader garners a greater understanding of life in Istanbul and the conflicts confronting its inhabitants at the start of a new Westernized era.

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Overall, with the help of Orhan’s dichotomous comparisons, the reader can diaphanously observe and examine the paradoxical nature of Istanbul and the deep, collective melancholy arising with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The past and present comparison exists as the centerpiece guiding Orhan’s narrative. On one hand, the past, thoroughly glorified, represents the lost Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, the present, marked by the process of Westernization and Ataturk revolution, describes Istanbul as “a pale, poor, second-class imitation of a Western city” (Pamuk 78).

Our understanding of this dichotomy is augmented through Pamuk’s use of various literary techniques. “Blackened” vernacular and a selection of black and white photographs inserted within the text portray his affinity for ancient ruins, humbling minarets and his misgivings towards newly constructed Western infrastructure. I found Orhan’s twofold portrait of Istanbul accessible and intelligible. To insist on one proponent of Istanbul’s dichotomy over the next would hamper and oversimplify our understanding of both Pamuk’s and Istanbul’s internal conflict.

Touching not only upon the past and present, Istanbul is perceived through the new and crumbling, a place of first love and heartbreak and as an exotic creation of the foreigner and melancholic experience of a citizen. By creating a twofold dialogue, I was able to insert myself into Orhan’s shoes and feel the combating emotions of living as both a stranger and an insider to the city. While growing up in Hong Kong, I both coveted the Western comforts enjoyed by my cousins living overseas, and resisted their appeal.

Even as a child, I understood incoming Western commodities as a fundamental reason contributing to cultural disintegration. As Orhan articulates, “these writers were vexed by contradiction they felt between these two injunctions—to be Western, and yet, at the same time, to be authentic” (Pamuk 101). Culture disseminated through television broadcasting, in combination with newly imported companies such as Subway, H&M and Kirspy Kreme, all threaten to unbalance Hong Kong’s remaining cultural integrity.

In combination with the dichotomous nature of Istanbul, the concept of hüzün both feared and romanticized also plays an integral role in Pamuk’s text. Differing from the newly arrived Western perceptions or Burton’s individual experience of melancholy, hüzün is explained as a shared mood of millions. Hüzün in the ruins, phantom minarets and decrepit wooden houses hints of a newfound Turkish nationalism awakened by the spiritual loss of the Ottoman Empire. Privileging poets like Kemal, and historians such as Flaubert and Nerval, Orhan provides depth to our understanding of Istanbul’s unique and communal experience of hüzün.

Although Orhan delivers an extensive explanation on this topic, I often found this twofold illustration of hüzün as a sentiment “to which the city bows its head—and at the same time claims with pride,” confusing (Pamuk 291). On one hand, the author idealizes this underlying spirit, claiming “hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window” (Pamuk 179). Pamuk corroborates this line of thought declaring, “It is the failure to experience hüzün that leads him to feel it” (Pamuk 279).

In moments of distress and misery, the Istanbul native describes his preference for long mindless walks through the “semi-darkness of the back streets,” to that of idyllic postcard views (Pamuk 329). In these solitary walks, Pamuk seeks out hüzün, explaining its absence as the underlying root of suffering. Furthermore, the raconteur parallels hüzün as a form of beauty against the backdrop of gloomy Istanbul. Beauty to Orhan is the fallen structures of an imperial building. Beauty resides in the half-abandoned Ottoman house.

Beauty is the story of the hüzün behind the “blackened walls” (Pamuk 89). Overall, various aspects of his text contribute to a romanticized perception of hüzün. Diverging away from Orhan’s glorified portrayal of this sentiment, the author alludes to Istanbul’s new reality as a poor “provincial city” plagued by hüzün. Firstly, describing the squalid architecture, Pamuk proclaims, “everything around me, the naked bulb above my head, the grimy walls, the counter at which I was sitting, the cafeteria’s sickly colours—spoke of such neglect, such ugliness” (Pamuk 279).

Secondly, threatening to condemn him to the “living dead” on back streets overrun by “filth and defeat,” Pamuk engages in various coping mechanisms to escape the paralyzing effects of hüzün. Artistic outlets, such as painting and writing, in addition to sexual pleasures and childish superstitions are among the lot. Painting and writing allows for escape into the “second world,” away from the “dusty, shadowy world of everyday life” ( Pamuk 222). Pamuk compares life without painting to having “no escape from the real world,” and being imprisoned by the cold gloom of the “lost city. Moreover, Orhan admits to sexual pleasuring as another form of escape. As the narrator illustrates, “the only way I knew to escape from the world’s duplicity and my own hypocrisy was to masturbate”(Pamuk 289). The reality that hüzün must be negotiated and escaped alludes to a negative experience. Taken as a whole, Orhan complicates his memoir by entertaining both positive and negative versions of hüzün, creating both confusion and depth to his dialogue. While attempting to dissect his muddled opinion and simultaneously garner my own, I often feel stranded.

Perhaps this sense of puzzlement is intentional to mirror Pamuk’s messy web of internal conflict. Or perhaps, I was not quite attuned to his intentions. In terms of hüzün I would, however, align myself with the author’s romanticized view. Hüzün invites action, creativity and productivity. In trying to escape its imprisonment, Orhan both develops artistic skills and discovers his vocation as a writer. Furthermore, the hüzün derived from historical remnants holds promises of past stories and demonstrates allegiance to a long lost Turkish identity.

In this way, I agree with his perception of beauty as the stories told by these remnants and observed through the cloud of hüzün. Like Vintage clothing, antiques, and old photographs speaking to Orhan’s romanticized perception of hüzün, there is nothing quite as special as cast-off mementos holding stories of the past. Additionally, by painting a dull, misunderstood and defeated reality for Istanbul, I feel the author does a disservice to his city and its people. The city,” the narrator delineates, “was poorer, shabbier and more isolated than it had ever been its two thousand year history” (Pamuk 6). His description of Istanbul’s inhabitants “wearing pale, drab shadowy clothes,” complements this negative image of Istanbul (Pamuk 62). Embarrassed by the faltering state of Istanbul, the storyteller reveals, “it comforts me to know that for the night at least we are safe from Western eyes, that the shameful poverty of our city is cloaked from foreign view” (Pamuk 32).

I found his gloomy illustration of Istanbul confusing, disenchanting and potentially unfounded. His apparent love of the city is reinforced by the fact that he is a current citizen of Istanbul, residing in his childhood home. However, in his bouts depression and gloomy dialogue, any enchanting characteristics of Istanbul are quickly overshadowed. Overall, I was quite surprised by his dim portrayal of the city and was often weary of ingesting his dark observations as universal truths.

In my opinion, the most appealing component of Pamuk’s narrative is his perceptive nature and honesty. Orhan gains authority as a narrator through his candid disclosure of inner secrets, complemented with astoundingly fastidious recollection of past childhood events, smells, and emotions. From the very first chapter, it is clear that Orhan takes himself and his writing seriously, emphatically declaring, “this is my fate, and there’s no sense of arguing with it.

This book is about fate” (Pamuk 6). Orhan objectifies his own experience, separates it from himself, and thereby allows for honest discourse. “I am prone to exaggeration,” Orhan writes, “….. what is important for a memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account but its symmetry” (Pamuk 265). He pins down certain truths and fills in the blank where needed. Furthermore, Pamuk does not hesitate in revealing scathingly intimate details concerning his appetite for violence and sexual pleasures.

Describing a small traffic accident, Orhan remarks disdainfully towards the protective parental gestures, claiming he would miss “half the action” (Pamuk 22). Always fixated on the pleasures of life, Orhan established a foundation of honesty that was both alarming and alluring. Whether discussing the “The joy and Monotony of School” or “The Conquest or Decline? ” Pamuk’s first person narrative successfully intersects both historical accounts and cultural interludes with intimate personal details, creating a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Although the dichotomous nature of Pamuk’s writing is oftentimes confusing, it effectively constructs an all-encompassing portrait of Istanbul and his experience with the city. In my opinion, his idealized portrayal of hüzün and his honest storytelling approach were the most accessible and appealing components of his text. Overall, Pamuk’s memoir tied together neatly with a diversity of sources, thematic trends and storytelling techniques effectively uncovers the havens of Istanbul obscured by the fog of hüzün.

Cite this Orhan Pamuks’s Istanbul: Memories of a City

Orhan Pamuks’s Istanbul: Memories of a City. (2016, Oct 25). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/orhan-pamukss-istanbul-memories-of-a-city/

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