“Istanbul” – Reflections

Orhan Pamuk writes magnificently. I really enjoyed
the ten chapters assigned for this week’s
readings. It takes us from his childhood, with its
simple joys and impressions to the world
outside of the Pamuk Apartments, beyond Istanbul’s
streets, beyond its waterlines, towards a
new world of transforming realities, geopolitics, a
nd questions of identity.
The first chapter introduces us to his childhood i
nsecurities, especially his vivid
imaginations of the whereabouts of the “other orhan
.” It is fascinating to try to experience his
joys of being presented to the view of the outside
world, and still partake in his description of a
city that, more and more, was distancing itself fro
m the hopes of a “capital of the world,” as
Flaubert would have predicted. Pamuk shares with us
not only his exact age, but his emotions
and entrusts us with the accounts of his “second li
fe” where an awaken writer is not that far
from that once curious child.
The second chapter expands our portrait of his fam
ily life, with black-and-white “ghosts”
that inhabit the top portions of silent pianos and
introduces the environment to personal
journeys that are very much connected to the life o
f his city: as with the Ottoman Empire, his
family was crumbling from the inside, although stil
l able to maintain its “architectural integrity”
on the outside.
I especially enjoyed his long voyages of imaginati
on and whimsical tone as the author
navigates the rooms of the family property with cre
ative realities and daydreaming. Moreover, I
learned that we both shared the same strangeness to
Goya’s
Saturn Devouring His Son
and the
terror that the described Mickey-being-eaten scene
can evoke. Good, I’m in good company.
This same autobiographical chapter of infancy seem
s melancholic and bittersweet. On
can notice his father’s absences and quality time,
as well; his caring mother’s affection and the
overall rejection of warmth that the author resents
and mindfully flees from.
Chapter four introduces to the outside world. The
pictures in this section of the book
are somber and sad. It portrays the fading of a onc
e-grandiose city whose melancholy, in the
words of Pamuk, “was all around us.” (29) This sent
iment was pretty much shared by the writer
himself, whose words claim an impending doom and sa
dness that traveled a little deeper than
his young man’s understanding of the realities that
led to the construction of the oldness
around. Pamuk is franc, open, and vulnerable in des
cribing his physical fragility, as it went hand-
in-hand with the frailty of the city.
In chapter five, all the black-and-whiteness of hi
s home rooms and the overall feel of the
city find resonance in Pamuk’s writings: “I feel a
deep sense of fellowship, almost as if the night
has cloaked our lives…” (35) When watching a film p
roduced by the Turkish industry he
confides in us that his own past comes to mind. Ist
anbul’s mosques, shops, children’s clothing,
decaying fountains, etc. paint a portrait that is n
ot only sad, but bittersweet as a deep sense of
place and belonging can be felt from Pamuk’s words.
Istanbul’s most territorial body of water is a nat
ional pride and tell the stories of a once-
rich society. The architectural might of the waters
ide mansions named yalis are as vanishing as
the Pasha’s mansions’. Their sight causes a sense i
nferiority and impotence, even in the words
of someone whose family belongs to the
nouveau riche
of the new republic. However, so
important is the Bosphorus to the author that a par
allel to Monet’s
Water Lilies
is drawn. (55) It
is a beautiful memory of a place where some of the
best memories with his mother took place,
during his childhood. The idyllic nature of the pre
sence of the Bosphorus in the author’s and
city’s life rapidly succumbs to his accounts to the
unfortunate realities of what he calls “our

magnificent heritage.” (in irony, as the sight of f
eces and cigarette butts, among other things,
taint an otherwise personal treasure)
The same Bosphorus brings the city and its dweller
s together in the meticulous,
miniature, carefully disproportional, “gothic” artw
ork of Melling. We feel the author’s
heartbreak as he acknowledges the recordings of a l
andscape that “no longer exists.” (63)
Although Pamuk sees that some of what is depicted s
till exists as the painter saw it –
watermelon sellers, three-legged tables, and sesame
roll sellers, for example – much more has
changed than not – fountains, cobblestones, tombsto
nes, etc.
Then chapter nineteen takes us to the heat of Ista
nbul and its people even further. It
shows us what is beyond the streets, beyond crumbli
ng structures, beyond the facades. It
introduced us to an era born in May 29, 1453: when
Constantinople fell (for the Greeks) and
Istanbul was conquered (for the Turks). The chapter
’s pictures show the devastation of the
lynching of minorities, raping, and inability to co
exist. I was sad to see that most of the
atrocities and fears felt by the local minorities a
ctually took place in a period contemporary to
the author’s account of their occurrence than at th
e aftermath of the historical date, itself. The
pictures don’t lie or hold back from us and, for th
e first time, I think I felt a bit of the
melancholy that lives with the author since the fir
st chapters of the book.
Chapter twenty-five talk about westernization of t
he author’s city. In his own words, it is
an account of the “love-hate relationship with the
western gaze.” (235) For the most par,
western literary eyes wanted to see the exotic of t
he land and not always saw the bigger
picture in Istanbul culture and society; what was o
ften approached was the “harem”, the “slave
markets”, the “hamal”, etc. and more rarely any wes
tern-resistant initiative. So much so that,
as Pamuk explains, officials westernized the sense
of fashion in the land. It is a sad
acknowledgement but a reality: in Pamuk’s words, “t
he West set the standard for all
humankind.” (238)
The notion that Istanbul is, simply put, “dated,”
carries a burden of isolation as in a
westernized framework for a stagnant socio-cultural
reality. As Pamuk explains so beautifully,
Istanbul was transformed into a “monotonous monolin
gual town in black and white.” (238).
That is really sad to me: to know that, unless some
one, somewhere, recorded the lively variety
of what Istanbul used to signify, future generation
s will unlikely know what we left behind.
After reading this last assigned chapter, Walter B
enjamin’s concept that, for outsiders,
what draws them to Istanbul is the exotic but for n
atives, memories, truly resonates in me as I
begin to feel that same compassion (not pity) that
Pamuk asked of us at the end of the first
chapter. Then, I cherish even further this author’s
ability to entrust us with his “second life.”

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