Sunday, July 15, 2012


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.


tom said...

I enjoyed Istanbul (the book and the city) I first visited Istanbul for 3 days in 1974 and then again for 2 days over New Years weekend. Like so much of the world it has changed and not changed. One of the problems in Turkey is the conflict between the pro-Islamists and the secular. In Western Turkey many people consider themselves Europeans. And culturally they are. For me his books are slow to read, but excellent. I have read Snow and a couple of others. Two more are still on the to be read shelf.

But back to Istanbul Memories and the City. I agree that parts of it are repetitive as much of it are essays.

My daughter and I spent most of our visit with a friend in Izmir. On a trip to a mall we went to a bookstore and the only American poet translated into Turkish was a slim volume of Bukowski. Their was also a lot of poetry in English.

I'd go back if I could.

Lally said...

Tom, I appreciate your comment. I've heard nothing but good things about Turkey from friends who have visited there. I haven't, put off by MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, the movie with the late Brad Davis, who was a friend and a really nice guy but suffered some serious attacks from Turks in the USA getting revenge for his taking part in that flick.

tom said...

I understand about the attacks - they have a strong nationalist streak in the country. We were there when Israel was attacking Gaza and the anger was not that Israel was defending itself, but that it seemed to the Turks that it was overkill. Turkey and Israel had good relations until then. Israeli tourism was important and Izmir, where we stayed, was one of the areas that many Israeli's came. They have problems with nationalism, the Armenian question, conservative Islamists, Kurdish rebels and radical Islamists. Western Turkey is much more conservative, while Eastern Turkey is much more European. Many secular Turks live in the East. The Eastern cities have attracted a lot of European and other Western businesses. Still the volatility is there and Pamuk certainly has run afoul of the more conservative elements. And of course we are seeing that kind of divide becoming more common in this country.

Hopefully this will post - I lost the last one to some kind of blogger error.