No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner – the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques – inflict heartache on all who live among them. These are nothing like the remains of great empires to be seen in western cities, preserved like museums of history and proudly displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amid the ruins. Many western writers and travelers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, which dirt, dust, and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one.
Istanbul is a meditation by Orhan Pamuk of his beloved city as the epicenter of a former empire in decline. In its various incarnations of Constantinople under the Romans, Byzantium under the Greeks, and finally Istanbul under the Ottoman Turks, the metropolis dividing east and west had always been the embodiment of power, importance, and creativity. That is, until the Ottoman empire collapsed and crumbled following the end of World War I. Atatürk reformed Turkey, introducing policies that transformed the Anatolian peninsula from a Muslim caliphate to a modern secular state, but Istanbul never recovered the opulence that had defined it during the previous 200 years.
Throughout the book I couldn’t stop thinking of Detroit. Once the engine (pun intended) of American innovation, and now an urban wasteland, has the motor city already become the first aesthetic casualty of the decline of the American empire? Or is it just on the losing side of the poker game of globalization? Either way, we can be sure that Istanbul is far from the only city in repose; and Pamuk far from the only artist who has set out to document the aesthetic of decay.
In fact, Pamuk devotes an entire chapter to John Ruskin‘s definition of picturesque as “an architectural landscape that has, over time, become beautiful in a way never foreseen by its creators.”
That single quote defines much of Pamuk’s own aesthetic throughout the book, and also explains the tremendous popularity (20,000 members) of the “urban decay” group on Flickr.
Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture was published is 1880, proving that artists’ enchantment with decay is no new development. But the mainstream obsession and community that have developed around documenting urban decay is new, and has come about thanks to the new paradigm of social taxonomy. (More on the beauty of urban decay here, here, and here.)
Istanbul: Memories and the City can be described both as a memoir of Istanbul and as a memoir of Pamuk’s development as a writer. But it can also be described as a picture book with reflective flowing captions. Almost every page has a black and white photo obliquely illustrating Pamuk’s prose. While choosing the photographs from Ara Güler’s collection, Pamuk says he was “seized by a frenzy to capture and preserve this dreamscape or to write about it.”
Istanbul: Memories and the City is also a work of nostalgia and melancholy. But aren’t all writers and artists nostalgic and melancholic? If today’s youth dancing and grinding in the various clubs around Taksim Square – looking forward to the future, not back at the past – were to write a book describing their city, would they paint it in the same gloomy haze of melancholy? I’m doubtful. Pamuk himself realizes this: “For the poet, hüzün is the smoky window between him and the world. The screen he projects over life is painful because life is painful.” Then: “Hüzün does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them the poetic license to be paralyzed.”
Much of the first half of the book draws out the differences between melancholy (from Greek Melankholia, black bile, the cause of depression resulting from too much solitude) and hüzün (from Arabic), a shared melancholy, a “mood conveying worldly failure, listlessness, and spiritual suffering.”
I’m not usually one for listening to old men ramble on about how everything was better in the past. (It sometimes seems the only thing old men are capable of doing.) But Pamuk’s rambling is so poetic, and he is able to provide an insider’s view of both his own city, which he clearly loves very much, and an insightful critique of how outsiders have tried to portray it over the past few centuries.
I decided to read Istanbul: Memories and the City as part of the Global Voices World Book Challenge. I think the Global Voices community would find interest in Pamuk’s reflections on the uneasy relationship between Istanbul’s exotic historic narrative, shaped completely by visiting Westerners, and the struggle of the current generation of Turkish writers to shape their own narrative while simultaneously seeking Western approval and resenting Western hegemony.
Istanbullus themselves wrote very little about their city until the beginning of the twentieth century. The living, breathing city – its streets its atmosphere, its smells, the rich variety of its everyday life – is something that only literature can convey, and for centuries the only literature our city inspired was penned by Westerners.
Why this fixation with the thoughts of western travelers, what they did on visits to the city, what they wrote to their mothers? It’s partly that many times I’ve identified with a number of them (Nerval, Flaubert, de Amicis) and – just as I once had to to identify myself with Utrillo in order to paint Istanbul – it was by falling under their influence and contesting with them by turns that I forged my own identity. It’s also because so few of Istanbul’s own writers have paid their city any attention whatsoever …
… being unable to depend on tradition alone as my text I am grateful to the outsider who can offer me a complementary version – whether a piece of writing, a painting, or a film. So whenever I sense the absence of western eyes, I become my own Westerner.
Pamuk just might be the first great Turkish novelist whose work has had a large impact on the rest of the world, and that in its own is worth celebrating. But, already, I wonder what today’s young generation of Turkish writers have in store for us over the next five years, ten years, twenty years as Turkey wrestles with issues both old and new, like the competing calls for Islamic nationalism on the one hand, and greater calls for EU westernization on the other.