Istanbul: Memories and the City

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Istanbul: Memories and the City

Pamuk’s narration of his memories from Istanbul resembles a puzzle of which the parts are personal and collective memories that intersect and often times violate the reader’s expectations. From the very title and the beginning of the novel, the personalization of the city is noticeable, as if the city itself can tell its own memories and those of its inhabitants. It is interesting to observe how Pamuk in the first chapter of the book relates his younger self and his double in terms of his view of his hometown, considering the latter as his “destiny”. In fact, his professional fate is inevitably linked to his experience in the city, during the collapse of the empire, whose melancholy definitely has a significant impact on his identity, as well as on him as a writer. By presenting the ‘other’ Orhan and his special relationship with Istanbul, Pamuk creates a device through which he not only makes the genre characteristic of the book rather ambiguous (is it a book of memories or a novel?), but also opens the door for interpretation of his process of anamnesis as a symbolic rereading of national history based on Pamuk’s detailed descriptions of specific places in Istanbul. Namely, Pamuk’s first memories are of the building where his family and most of his close relatives lived in different apartments. This familiar space, connoted with the republican middle-upper classes, begins by representing, on one hand, the contradictions experienced by an entire nation divided between the memories of the greatness of the Ottoman Empire and the need to shape a secular nation, which justifies the characterization of the living room like a kind of a museum. On the other hand, Pamuk’s examination of the countless photographs found in his grandmother’s apartment indicates the importance that the writer places on preserving memories, which is emphasized in his book and further illustrated with numerous old photographs and paintings that introduce the reader to a city that no longer exists.

One of the most interesting aspects in Pamuk’s description of Istanbul is the importance he gives to melancholy, a feeling that is considered a bond that unites all the inhabitants of Istanbul regardless of their social, cultural or economic status, and this helps the writer to refer to the complex Turkish identity. According to Pamuk, Istanbul is a city of melancholy, an aspect that is not directly considered negative. The book’s epigraph, which is quoted by Ahmet Rasim, one of Pamuk’s favorite columnists and writers from Istanbul, is also relevant to this aspect because as he says, “the beauty of a landscape is in its own melancholy.” This melancholy is multifaceted and its implementation in this work should be analyzed in detail. In principle, it could be attributed to the politically implemented actions by the Republic, as many signs of the Ottoman presence were deliberately removed from the city. Among many other examples, the fourth chapter represents a section where the destruction of a pasha’s houses is discussed. Melancholy is, in fact, a pretext that allows Pamuk to refer to the abuses and manipulations of memory in Turkey’s not-so-distant past:

Still, the melancholy of this dying culture was all around us. Great as the desire to westernize and modernize may have been, the more desperate wish was probably to be rid of all the bitter memories of the fallen empire, rather as a spurned lover throws away his lost beloved’s clothes, possessions, and photographs. But as nothing, western or local, came to 6ll the void, the great drive to westernize amounted mostly to the erasure of the past; the eJect on culture was reductive and stunting, leading families like mine, otherwise. (Pamuk, 27)

Pamuk’s sense of melancholy is shaped and consequently reinforced by the unusual way in which he perceives the soul of the city, i.e. black and white, something that emphasizes the symbolic value he gives to the city, because as he states:

To see the city in black and white is to see it through the tarnish of history: the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world. Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease. It is resignation that nourishes Istanbul’s inward-looking soul. To see the city in black and white, to see the haze that sits over it and breathe in the melancholy its inhabitants have embraced as their common fate… “(Pamuk, 38)

In addition to this, Pamuk devotes an entire chapter to hüzün, a shared sense of melancholy that he believes the city of Istanbul “carries as its fate” (Pamuk, 80). The feeling describes the soul of the city and allows the writer to discuss the fall of the empire and the marks that loss left on the cityscape and on the feelings of its inhabitants, thus helping to explain the ambiguous sense of identity. They are divided between the vestiges of a glorious past and the republican urge to forget or erase it. With his descriptions, Pamuk seems to make the ruins of Istanbul breathe and speak (the title of the book already suggests this possibility), thus testifying to how the authorities addressed the national past in the twentieth century.

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