Book Review: “Istanbul: Memories and the City” by Orhan Pamuk

This book is a real cabinet of curiosities. It resembles in part the İstanbul Ansiklopedisi by Reşat Ekrem Koçu, an unfinished work which so influenced Pamuk that he has devoted an entire chapter to it. Our author has lived in Istanbul all is life and is intimately acquainted with its streets, its people and its moods. The book goes back and forth between personal memoir and a memoir of the city  Pamuk describes Hüzüna collective melancholy that pervades Istanbul, “a cultural concept conveying worldly failure, listlessness and spiritual suffering.”  Istanbul is one of those cities, I feel everyone should visit in their lifetime along with Jerusalem and Rome. The 50 year old Pamuk reflects on his own childhood, capturing a sense of the Istanbul of memory and tradition and juxtaposing it with the Istanbul as seen by outsiders, especially the literary lights that visited Istanbul over the years, Pamuk creates a rich texture for his story of the memories and the city. Pamuk is disappointed that so few of his fellow Turkish writers were inspired to write about the city.

"Istanbul" by Orhan Pamuk

“Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk

Before he was a writer, Pamuk, as a teenager was a painter heavily influenced by Utrillo. We encounter comments and thoughts from writers as diverse as Levi-Strauss, Ruskin, Flaubert, Gide and Gerard de Nerval. But there are also the insights of local writers like the novelist Tanpinar (who, according to Pamuk wrote the best novel of Istanbul “Peace“).  The book is filled with black and white illustrations but these are without captions, some information about the photos is included in a short afterword. Pamuk’s views of the city are also in black and white in keeping with the melancholy, bittersweet air of the memoir. Istanbul is a city torn between East and West. Straddling the Bosphorus, one part in Europe one part in Asia. Pamuk, too, from a westernised family is torn between East and West, a tension that comes through in his novels like “Snow.” His interest in painting ended when his “Black Rose” (the name he gives to his first love) leaves for Switzerland.

I loved this book, I think it is best sipped slowly like Turkish coffee.

My rating 5 out of 5


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