After my visit to Istanbul last autumn, I was very happy that a friend lent me this book by Orhan Pamuk. I had very much enjoyed The Museum of Innocence but not so much My Name Is Red, both also by Pamuk, so I was doubly curious about Istanbul, Memories and the City, translated by Maureen Freely.
I found it a little strange. It combines elements of an author’s memoir (some events in his childhood and youth are recorded and family tensions are sketched), an alternative tourist commercial (“This is my dilapidated city that doesn’t know what it is any more. It’s super authentic and you’ll understand it if you’re sensitive and cultured enough”) and introspection.
Perhaps the format confused me a little: the book is a series of chapters providing one way of looking at the city, which might be “The Joy and Monotony of School”, “Resat Ekrem Koçu’s Collection of Facts and Curiosities: The Istanbul Encyclopedia” or “The Rich”.
The often used Turkish word “hüzün” (melancholy) is explained but, unless I missed something, the word “meyhane” (a restaurant or bar where alcohol is consumed) is not. Also, and this is my fault, not the author’s, I had to check Wikipedia to remind myself of the tensions in Turkey in the seventies and eighties, which are an important element of the book’s background.
And yet, tucked away in there is some thoughtful self analysis, like in the opening chapter, “Another Orhan”, where Pamuk presents his ghostly “twin”, the doppelgänger he says has lived with him all his life.There are also repeated references to the impressions Istanbul left on Western artists, authors and poets, notably French ones. Orhan Pamuk describes what they report but he doesn’t really comment. Likewise when he introduces us to Turkish men of letters.
I also enjoyed Pamuk’s description of the joy he experienced in the creative act of drawing and painting, before he turned to writing (and I “award” him extra points for liking Raoul Dufy), the wry comment on one aspect of Old Istanbul that has survived: the packs of wild dogs, glimpses of the terrible and beautiful thing that was the destruction by fire of countless fine wooden houses and the author’s romance as a young man with the Black Rose.
Overall, my feeling is that Orhan Pamuk made a better job of communicating a feel for Istanbul and indeed for a man’s life story in what is to me the “tidier” form of the novel, in The Museum of Innocence. As he is known primarily as a novelist, that surely makes sense?