My City of Ruins

View of Istanbul
View of Istanbul (Photograph Of Istanbul By Ed Drews)
Reviewed by Alberto Manguel
Sunday, June 26, 2005

ISTANBUL: Memories and the City

By Orhan Pamuk. Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Knopf. 384 pp. $26.95

All happy cities resemble one another, to paraphrase what Tolstoy famously observed of families, but each melancholy city is melancholy in its own way. The saudade of Lisbon, the tristeza of Burgos, the mufa of Buenos Aires, the mestizia of Turin, the Traurigkei t of Vienna, the ennui of Alexandria, the ghostliness of Prague, the glumness of Glasgow, the dispiritedness of Boston share only on the surface a common sense of melancholy. According to Orhan Pamuk, the melancholy of Istanbul is huzun , a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life, "a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating." For the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish one feels at not being close enough to God; for Saint John of the Cross, this anguish causes the sufferer to plummet so far down that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. Huzun is therefore a sought-after state, and it is the absence, not the presence, of huzun that causes the sufferer distress. "It is the failure to experience huzun ," Pamuk says, "that leads him to feel it." According to Pamuk, moreover, huzun is not a singular preoccupation but a communal emotion, not the melancholy of an individual but the black mood shared by millions. "What I am trying to explain," he writes in this delightful, profound, marvelously original book, "is the huzun of an entire city: of Istanbul."

Pamuk begins his inquiry with an image, a kitschy portrait of a child brought back from Europe that was hung in the house of his aunt. "Look! That's you!" the aunt would say to the 5-year-old boy, pointing at the picture. For Pamuk, the painted child (who resembled him slightly and wore the same cap he sometimes wore) became his double, another Orhan leading a parallel life in another house in the same city, another self whom he would meet in his dreams with shrieks of horror or with whom he'd bravely lock eyes, each boy trying to stare the other down "in eerie merciless silence."

As with himself and the picture of his "other," Pamuk suggests, Istanbul is haunted by another Istanbul, a shadowy presence in the shadows. He sees the city in black and white, mirrored in the ancient engravings and old photographs that illustrate the book -- a city in which ruined buildings conjure up the ghosts of their former selves and stately monuments insinuate their future collapse. Through the descriptions of other writers -- several Turkish masters, various traveling foreigners -- Pamuk parades yet more double-images of the Istanbul he knows. As seen by the poet Yahya Kemal or the historian and encyclopedist Resat Ekrem Kocu, by Gerard de Nerval or Gustave Flaubert, Pamuk's Istanbul keeps unfolding like a series of Rorschach tests, multiplying its ink-stained ghosts and tempting the reader with potentially infinite interpretations.

Pamuk tells the story of the city through the eyes of memory, warning the reader at every step that "these are the words of a fifty-year-old writer who is trying to shape the chaotic thoughts of a long-ago adolescent." His accounts of his parents' difficult relationship, his eccentric grandmother, his embattled friendship with his brother, his sexual awakening and his first self-guided explorations as an artist lead inexorably to the book's final, decisive words: "I'm going to be a writer." And yet even that foregone conclusion is lent a slightly duplicitous tone, a dreamlike, remembered quality. There is a past tense in Turkish -- it does not exist in English -- that allows the writer to distinguish between hearsay and what he has seen with his own eyes. "When we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense," Pamuk explains. This is the tense in which his book seems to be written, in a voice on the edge of reality, halfway between what he knows has happened and what he believes imaginatively to be true. This voice, this tone, this tense, is perfectly suited to describing melancholy.

Istanbul as shared melancholy, Istanbul as double, Istanbul as black-and-white images of crumbling buildings and phantom minarets, Istanbul as a city of maze-like streets seen from high windows and balconies, Istanbul as an invention of foreigners, Istanbul as a place of first loves and last rites: In the end, all these attempts at definition become Istanbul as self-portrait, Istanbul as Pamuk himself. "Here we come to the heart of the matter," he says early in the book. "I've never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood." Such a city becomes the inhabitant's in more senses than one. "To Be Unhappy Is to Hate Oneself and One's City" is the title Pamuk gives the 34th chapter. The reader must therefore deduce that he is not an unhappy man, because Istanbul is a book by a man in love.

A city one has lived in long enough shapes itself into one's own image, acquires the traits of one's personality, the features of one's soul. It becomes what Jorge Luis Borges once called "a map of my humiliations and failures" or, as in the case of Pamuk's Istanbul, a map of a man's huzun , both of his intimate miseries and betrayals and of his secret victories. ยท

Alberto Manguel is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, "A Reading Diary."

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