Istanbul: Memories and the City

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Istanbul: Memories and the City

The Author and his City

Cities are not interesting if within them they do not have texts, that will present them and will teach us how to look at them.1

This statement by Orhan Pamuk regarding cities is best reflected in “Istanbul: Memories and the City”, which is in every sense an autobiographical-memoir prose, where the city is almost recreated through history, literature, significant figures of the past through photographs and the neighborhood life, as well as through many other things important for everyday life. It is significant to mention that Istanbul, according to its geographical position, is located in a special location. The location itself makes Istanbul a “border city”, as it is a gateway that connects the continents of Europe and Asia. Moreover, the city’s rulership has changed  throughout history and thus contains a variety of cultural landmarks. In its entirety, Istanbul is a multicultural city, which at one time was considered the center of the world.

There is certainly no lack of research and work done on cities and their existence, but very few are city biographies that have literary features. This novel is exactly that, an exceptional memoir, in which the author’s memories of a large number of events and phenomena are presented. They indirectly present a documentary-historiographical reading in which the city is not only shown as a bridge that connects or separates two different continents and two sides of the world (the east and the west), but also different cultural traditions, understandings, habits and views that are intertwined in it and help shape its identity with the city being in the center of attention. As Pamuk states in the novel:

‘’Is this the secret of Istanbul—that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward-looking monuments, and its sublime landscapes, its poor hide the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no center other than ourselves.’’ (Pamuk, 383)

It is clear that Pamuk’s works, especially his novels, have made a significant contribution to the development of postmodernist Turkish literature. Turkish literary theorists, who view him as an avant-garde novelist and postmodernist, also mention that Pamuk is one of the writers who tend to come to terms with the East-West problem, emphasizing that he conveys this problem in his works through an aesthetic level and along with the culturally philosophical implications it exposes an important and multifaceted structure in the context of this topic. He uses a specific and unconventional narrative technique so that each of his works has a different style of expression. One of the characteristics, which is noticeable from the very beginning of his work, is writing in a postmodernist style where reality and fiction are intertwined. The famous Turkish literary theorist Jale Parla, speaking about Pamuk’s style, notes; “The colder and more distant his approach to subjects, the warmer and more exciting his emphasis on forms. This must be one of the explanations that supports the piety of a world writer and confirms that it is actually a world writer. Pamuk is a writer whose goal is to redeem personal guilt and social crime with his novels.” (Parla, 8)

If we look it through the lens of postmodern aesthetics, which introduce a different point of view into literary trends, events and facts are exposed more according to their own meaning, and even then according to their historical continuity, while the aesthetics in Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul: Memories and the City” is not the aesthetics of romanticism expressed with the definition of the beautiful, where natural beauty mixes with mysticism, it is an aesthetic that feeds on the ugly and chaos and is drawn from the dark and hopeless places of the city.

The narrative organization in Istanbul epitomizes Pamuk’s metaphorical journey. The narrative expands from the inside out: it begins before Pamuk’s birth and slowly moves from his parents’ apartment, and later to the entire building in which “each apartment seemed like a different country, a separate universe.” During his childhood, Pamuk’s world gradually expands to the neighborhoods around his home and finally advances to the surrounding areas, each of which at the beginning of his life seems like a “distant land”. The narrative ends with a section in which Pamuk’s mother asks him to go out into the streets in her efforts to convince him to get his degree in architecture instead of resting at home with his dreams of being a painter. Pamuk’s world, which expands beyond Istanbul, marks the first steps of his understanding of the social and economic difference between his native neighborhood and the outlying settlements that surround it. Not coincidentally, most of novel focuses on Pamuk’s memories of childhood and early youth. The theme of mobility in the narratiion reflects a negotiation of the boundary between this metaphorical, reactive childhood and mature adolescence.

[1] Interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist  with Orhan Pamuk for the architecture and design magazine – Domus, Rosano, Italy, December, 2006.

AuthorSanberk Yusuf
2022-07-12T12:41:43+00:00 July 11th, 2022|Categories: Essays, Literature, Blesok no. 144|Comments Off on Istanbul: Memories and the City