Monday, June 27, 2005

Portrait of a writer and his city

My review of Pamuk's Istanbul; it appeared in today's Business Standard and the link is here but the para breaks on the website are meaningless as always. So here's the full review:


In the first chapter of this part-autobiography, part-tribute to his beloved city, Orhan Pamuk speaks of writers like Conrad and Naipaul, who "managed to migrate between languages, cultures countries, continents, even civilisations. Their imaginations were fed by exile...mine, however, requires that I stay in the same city,on the same same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate".

It isn’t inappropriate for the author to mention his own name in the same breath as Conrad and Naipaul. In recent years, especially following the international publication of My Name is Red and Snow, Pamuk has moved from being Turkey’s best-known man of letters to being considered one of the world’s great fiction writers, and a future Nobel candidate. This makes it difficult to think of Istanbul as just a paean to a city: it can’t be treated purely as a travelogue, or even as a personal remembrance by a lesser-known writer. The appeal of this book depends equally on the insights it provides into Pamuk;s life and how he became the writer he is today. From that point of view, a certain amount of familiarity with his fiction is recommended before reading this.

Pamuk begins his memoir on an intimate scale, with descriptions of his early life in the five-storey apartment block his large family occupied in the 1950s. He speaks of family squabbles, sibling rivalry, secret fantasy worlds and of childhood quirks that persisted into adulthood ("I have in all honesty believed that two people with similar names must have similar characters, that an unfamiliar word must be semantically similar to a word spelt like it..."). Then the world outside the apartment weaves its way into the narrative and the book’s structure turns schizophrenic. A discussion of the painter Melling’s depictions of the Bosphorus river is immediately followed by an unrelated chapter that gives us little Orhan in his house, making up games to deal with boredom (his account of adjusting a mirror triptych so that he could see the reflections of thousands of Orhans, many of them unfamiliar-looking, evokes the splintered, kaleidoscopic narrative of My Name is Red). Another chapter on the lives and work of four of Turkey’s great writers (including the poet Yahya Kemal) is followed incongruously by a personal account of Pamuk’s grandmother.

At other times a more careful link is established, as when the author recalls the various signs he saw on the city’s streets as a child, and then, to understand the "civilising mission" that these signs embodied, turns to a discussion of Istanbul’s newspaper columnists and city correspondents. This structure, or lack of it, marks an intriguing experiment but at times it almost feels like Pamuk is trying too hard for a freewheeling effect as he places the city’s life against his own.

According to Pamuk, the chief characteristic of Istanbul is the quality of huzun, the Turkish word for melancholy -- "not the melancholy of a solitary individual but the black mood shared by millions of people together". Much of this stems from Istanbul’s position as a city that stands at the crossroads of East and West (it is situated in both Europe and Asia), and as a once-great capital now reduced to ruins, bedevilled by reminders of its own lost glory. (Pamuk believes a key difference between his city and, say, Delhi or Sao Paulo, is that "in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past and civilisation are everywhere visible".) At any rate, this very particular form of melancholy is a theme that runs through the book, much like the Bosphorus winding through the city.

The author also writes movingly of Istanbul’s love-hate relationship with the western gaze: of "the ambivalence that besets literary Istanbullus on reading Western observations" about their city. He counts the tankers, liners and fishing boats that go up and down the river, and brings the clarity of a nightmare to an image of a looming Soviet warship rising out of the mist. In bringing the many shades of the city to life, he is aided by a wealth of black-and-white photographs (many of them by the famous Ara Guler) that are spread across the pages of this book; the pictures don’t quite illuminate the text in the intense, immediate way that, for instance, the ones in W G Sebald’s works do, but Istanbul would have been a lesser book without them, especially for a reader who is unfamiliar with the city.

Personally, I was more interested in the portions that dealt with Orhan’s life and his muses (there’s a beautiful chapter on his first love), and the frisson-creating little moments that echo scenes from his novels. But those portions can’t be sieved out from the whole, since, as the author admits, his own soul is part of the city’s. This book is so full of detailed information about Istanbul that it’s easy to overlook how much it reveals about Pamuk himself. In many ways, it’s more candid than a conventional autobiography might have been.

Istanbul isn’t always an easy read though. Some passages -- how to say this about a favourite author without flinching -- just aren’t as engaging as they should be. Pamuk isn’t really capable of being uninteresting but he comes close here occasionally, especially in a couple of descriptions that amount to little more than endless processions of semi-colons ("...of the mosques whose lead plates and steel gutters are forever being stolen; of the city cemeteries that seem like gateways to another world, and their cypress trees; of the little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passer-by; of the clock towers no one ever notices...")

Whatever its shortcomings, however, Istanbul is an affectionate and informative work that has something in it both for Pamuk enthusiasts and for those who seek an understanding of a great historical centre (even though the book is unlikely to satisfy either group completely). And for a work that obsesses so much about melancholia and a forgotten past, it ends on a heartwarmingly forward-looking note: "I don’t want to be an artist," the young Orhan Pamuk tells his mother. "I’m going to be a writer."


  1. What's the because for the change in font? The previous one was pretty easy on the eye, especially compared to the lurid lime green background you have. If you were getting bored or something, you sure could have done us all a favour by getting rid of that!

  2. No idea how it happened. Certainly wasn't deliberate.

  3. Okay, have changed it to Times New Roman now; don't know if that helps.

  4. Now can I borrow it?

    *embarrassed look again*

  5. It's better, but Times New Roman is so boring, boring, boring! (Said in the manner of an erstwhile co-worker common to you and Rumman, flapping hands et al)

  6. I had some problems with blogger this week too -- things seemed to randomly change after they went through their update. I ended up changing my whole template around, since I couldn't get it to go back to the way it was.

    And I agree with you about Istanbul. There's tons of interesting stuff in there about the city, and many chapters that bring the city alive.

    But as a whole the writing is a little looser than one would expect.

  7. hey thats a superb book review.. i usually read the ones u post here.. never from the paper! anyway.
    I have just started reading My Name is Red.. he is a very vivid writer.. Another definite must.. i guess

  8. Jwock,

    Not to sound contrarian, but I must honestly admit I lost "Snow" halfway through. Am going to go back to it, loyally, after "the Historian" but what little I read seemed dreadfully dreary - is that intentional? (in which case, its a masterpiece). Reading it was a bit like watching (or remembering watching) pre-cable Doordarshan on a B&W TV.

    However, I have borrowed My Name is Red, which I also intend to read after "Snow" to give Pamuk another chance. But the book (Snow) didn't really hold me. Could be my fault: I haven't read Kafka. Shall bravely venture forth.


  9. Neela: please, please give it another try. Of course, one's moods do affect the reading experience, and Snow probably isn't one of those books you can just randomly enjoy, irrespective of your state of mind at the time of reading. But do give it another shot.
    And being familiar with Kafka isn't really a pre-requisite; that was just a little thing that struck me about it. I thought the book had a very striking sense of (black) humour that not many reviewers had spoken about - everyone seemed too preoccupied with the seriousness of the issues (moderate vs extreme Islam, etc) dealt with in the story.

  10. Jwock,

    Yes, I shall go back and try. I think I expect books and music (and art to a lesser extent) to connect instantaneously - a thorough lack of patience as you can see.

    Shall go back, read Pamuk, watch Seven Samurai (where I fell asleep halfway) and attempt to like Bach (who is much more fun to play than to listen to, I think), keeping this in mind.


  11. Hi Jabberwock,

    I agree with you on Istanbul. I was a bit disappointed by this book - it's too much of a scrapbook, albeit a superb one. I somehow missed a strong and constant urge in it. Too meandering & whiffs of vanity. Pamuk remains my No.1 writer still