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Book Review: Istanbul

By (October 19, 2017) No Comment

Istanbul: Memories and the City

by Orhan Pamuk

translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Knopf, 2017

Orhan Pamuk’s 2003 book Istanbul Hatiralar ve Sehir, translated into English in 2005 as Istanbul: Memories and the City, was an intensely personal and gorgeously-written memoir even in its original incarnations, and in this publishing season Knopf has improved on that winning production by producing a deluxe edition that includes both a new introduction by the author and, delightfully, hundreds of gorgeous black-and-white photos of the city that is completely central to the author, a centrality so vital that every time in the book that it’s threatened or wavers, Pamuk describes it as though the planet’s gravity were briefly winking out:

I sensed that what had plunged me into this wretched state was Istanbul itself. Not just the Bosphorus, the ships, the all-too-familiar nights, lights, and crowds; of that I was sure. There was something else that bound its people to together, smoothing their way to communicate, do business, live together, and I was simply out of harmony with it.

That harmony largely rules Istanbul, but it’s a complicated and quietly, almost wrestlingly, passionate one, something born of love but tempered on virtually every page by a deep, abiding melancholy. Pamuk frankly acknowledges this (the book’s epigraph: “The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy”), and although he populates his pages with lively portraits of friends, fellow citizens, and especially his family, it doesn’t require reading more than a hundred pages to arrive at the inescapable feeling that Istanbul is a compendium of ghost stories.

Pamuk writes that the book is the ultimate product of conversations he’s had for years with famous photographer Ara Güler, going back and forth between commendation and commemoration:

Looking at Ara Güler’s photographs of the city, its streets and its views, I notice that the basic emotions they evoke – such as melancholy, weariness, insignificance, humility – are often also present in the expressions of the people in the foreground. Ara Güler still tells me sometimes: “You only like my photographs because they remind you of your childhood.” I respond that I like his photographs because they are beautiful. We end up discussing the relationship between beauty and memory.

This new edition of the book significantly evens the balance between beauty and memory; Pamuk’s wonderfully evoked reminiscences still dazzle with this author’s peculiar combination of humility and pretension, but now the pictures running throughout the book form a kind of silent counter-narrative, showing ordinary people going about their ordinary days, showing the famous city in the distracted undress tourists seldom see. We see people bustling about their lives; we see their innumerable little shops; we see their narrow streets and cantilevered upstairs apartments; and we see, disorientingly, dozens of pictures of those famous streets and monuments covered in stiff, driving snow.

With time,” Pamuk writes, “life – like music, art, and stories – would rise and fall, eventually to end, but even years later those lives are with us still, in the city views that flow before our eyes, like memories plucked from dreams.” Istanbul has always glittered like a memory plucked from a dream, and now it has a big, tasteful illustrated edition whose endless artwork is a perfect addition to Pamuk’s prose.