Sunday, July 15, 2012
ORHAN PAMUK'S ISTANBUL
I haven't been writing much about what I'm currently reading. So here's a quick response to Orhan Pamuk's ISTANBUL: Memories and the City. A memoir more about Istanbul than Pamuk, it was a good introduction to his work for me. I've been meaning to read one of his famous novels, even before he won the Nobel, either SNOW or MY NAME IS RED, but hadn't gotten to it yet.
There's so much still unread in my own language that reading translations seems like more of a commitment these days. But this book was given to me by an artist who has a storefront studio around the corner from my apartment, a big man with a big personality whose art I love especially because it is figurative, realistic in an early 20th century rough way and as passionate as he is in person.
Whenever I pass by his place that he shares with a framing business I've used since moving to this place, run by a beautiful blond woman with a twin I was always mistaking her for, he is often sitting at a table on the sidewalk out front holding court with other friends who he always invites me to join, or alone and expecting me to join him which I usually do. He grew up or lived as a young man in Istanbul, his accent a deep and definitely Eastern one, in respect to where he now is, in Jersey, but I couldn't tell you if it was more Eastern Europe or Mid Eastern, not because I'm not aware of accents but because his is so theatrically big it seems like his and his alone.
Anyway, one day not too long ago he handed me the paperback edition of Orhan Pamuk's ISTANBUL and asked if I'd read it, then told me to take it but bring it back as it was inscribed to him from a friend. It took me longer than usual to read, because in part it is so detailed about Istanbul in the early and mid 20th century that it felt like reading one of the big Russian novels and trying to remember the unfamiliar names. And also partly because it is repetitive.
There are some personal revelations, though nothing prurient or as revealing as most "American" memoirs. It's more about how the city plays in Pamuk's childhood ambition to be a painter and how that eventually turned into his becoming a writer. It got not just flack but threats in is native Turkey for his brief comments that could be taken as political (Kurdish rights, for instance) but also because he makes it clear he and his family had very little to do with Islam except in some passing references and occasional family rituals.
That is probably why Western critics found it so accessibly engaging. Pamuk writes as one who has lived almost all his life in Istanbul and yet has felt at times and comes across as one who is almost an interloper, a foreigner of sorts, the intellect maybe, because of his family's taste and education and his own interest in European writing and especially the European writers who wrote about Istanbul.
At times enlightening and lyrical and revelatory and engaging, ISTANBUL can also at times be, as I said, repetitive, labyrinthine, over detailed and dry. But for my taste, it worked for what I wanted and more. I now know Pamuk's voice and writing better than I did from the few excerpts I'd read in THE NEW YORKER and elsewhere, and I have the sense that I'll really love one of his novels which I intend to get into before the year's over.