Monday, July 02, 2007


There are parts in almost every book we read which makes our heart leap with joy. Those moments of brilliance. Sentences that stay with us long after the book is read and tucked away in some corner of the cupboard. It could be the sheer beauty of the prose or the simplicity of some profound statement or even when we can associate some experience, some feelings, to our lives, our selves. Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul only comprised of such parts and nothing else.

It's a memoir of the city the author was born in, grew up and has made his home for over fifty years. It's about the only place on earth he knows. It's about the reflection of the city on his life and it's a love affair that's hard to replicate at any level.

Here we come to the heart of the matter; I've never left Istanbul - never left the houses, streets, neighborhoods of my childhood......Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul - these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imagination was fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness; mine however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul's fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.

Pamuk explores what he calls the 'Turkification' of Istanbul in particular and his country in general, caught as it was, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, between the East and the West in every sense of the word. He talks about his joint family, his parents and his relation with them, replete with little anecdotes of the streets and bylanes of the city. He talks of the melancholy that engulfs the entire city in its drive to westernise and get rid of the bitter memories of the fallen empire much like a 'spurned lover throws away his lost beloved's clothes...'
Pamuk has a very keen eye for detail as he goes on to describe the 'sad joys of black and while Istanbul'. In one such inspired sentence he tells us how the 'crumbling fountains that havent worked for centuries, ...the little grocery stores darkened by age, the ferries going up and down the Bosphorus...' all add to the enigma that is his city.

It's impossible for me to describe in words how I felt about the book. The fact that it is a very personal and touching memoir about growing up a city such as Istanbul which itself was on the doorsteps of history, the effect it has had on its inhabitants who have come to share the melancholy of the city and carry its burden of history and the detail in which Pamuk describes the paintings and literature that have been inspired by the city and been created for it, make it a delightful read.

To see the city in black and white is to see it through the tarnish of history: the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world....

Pamuk's love for Bosphorus, the sea which divides the Asian and European parts of Istanbul, is very vividly brought out. The walks that he undertook alone or with his mother, during sunny afternoons or dark nights tell us about how deeply it has affected his growing up.

To see the cypress trees...the empty and neglected yalis, the old weathered ships...the poetry of the Bosphorus ships..., to discard historical grievances and enjoy it as fully as a child, to long to know more about this world, to understand it - this is the awkward surrender to uncertainty that a fifty year old writer has come to know as pleasure.....
Life cant be all that bad....whatever happens, I can always take a walk along the Bosphorus.

Very central to the novel is the idea of huzun or melancholy in Turkish. Pamuk in a entire chapter goes on to explain the meaning of the word linking it to the Koran and Sufi culture and how the Istanbullus wear this huzun with pride, how it is a 'state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating'. It would be foolish for me to try and explain the meaning of this word. For that you would have to read the book.

Taking us through a tour of the city's landscapes, music, literature, prominent personalities and history in general, Pamuk beautifully shuttles between presenting before us a glimpse of his life and that of the city for the past hundred years and a little more. It is as much a personal diary, as it is a memoir of a great city. I started out thinking I would give you an idea of what the book is about but have realised that I am in no position to do that and have failed miserably. Instead, I leave you with a few extracts from the book which to me are the best examples of prose writing that I have ever come across in my limited readings.

Huzun does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.

Caught as the city is between traditional culture and Western culture, inhabited as it is by an ultra rich minority and an impoverished majority, overrun as it is by wave after wave of immigrants, divided as it has always been along the lines of its many ethnic groups, Istanbul is a place where, for the past hundred and fifty years, no one has been able to feel completely at home.

For the past hundred and fifty years, we have lived in timorous anticipation of catastrophes that will bring us fresh defeats and new ruins. It's still important to do something to fight off the dread and the melancholy, and that is why the ideal contemplation of the Bosphorus can seem like a duty.

While talking about the end of the Ottoman empire and the Westernization of Turkey, this is what he says.
It was an end of the grand polygot, multicultural Istanbul of the imperial age the city stagnated, emptied itself out, and became a monotonous, monolingual town in black and white.

...what is important for a painter is not a thing's reality but its shape, and what is important for a novelist is not the course of events but their ordering, and what is important for a memoirist is not the factual accuracy but its symmetry.

Here, among the old stones and the old wooden houses, history made peace with its ruins, ruins nourished life, and gave new life to history...

...true happiness and meaning resided in places we would never find and perhaps did not wish to find, but - whether we were pursuing the answers or merely pleasure and emotional depth - the pursuit mattered no less than the attainment, the asking as important as the views we saw through the windows of the car, the house, the ferry. With time, life - like music, art and stories would rise and fall, eventually to end, but even years later, those lives are with us still in the city views that flow before our eyes, like memories plucked from dreams.

It's a wonderful, wonderful memoir, the best I have ever come across. It's a book that will make you smile and cry at the same time with its sheer beauty. It's a book that makes you happy to be alive, makes u feel blessed to have come across it and read it.


cathatfished said...

i can see why u like pamuk.. and you read this book while u were leaving bokaro, thats serendipity :)
if thats the righ word :P something like that anyway :P

Atish said...

thanks so much .. 1 looks much much better than 0 :D

cathatfished said...

yeah but i was Bullied into this!! :D

Anonymous said...

My favorite line after reading the first 150 pages would unequivocally be " Life can't be all that bad, I'd think from time to time.Whatever happens, I can always take a walk along the Bosphorus".

Need to read the Huzun chapter again to get a better feel though :)