Upon leaving Turkey in December 2003 a friend gave me a copy of Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, as a farewell gift. As I waited in the Ankara airport at 5am for the ticket counter to open for the day, I worked my way through the book. It is a murder mystery set in the late Ottoman period. Each chapter in the story is told from the perspective of a different character and as a result the reader sees the intrigue of the murder and the drama of the Sultan's court in vivid detail.
Or so I have heard. I never actually finished that book for a variety of reasons (I'm generally not a big fan of fiction/mysteries, I hadn't slept the night before, etc.), but I now have a greater urge to come back to it. After reading Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City, it is much easier to see where the author's motivations for literature come from, and why he chooses the characters and themes that he does. Istanbul is a wonderful memoir of both the author's early life and the city that he has called home. Critics of Pamuk often say that his style is too depressing and melancholy to be enjoyable, but in Istanbul, Pamuk explains where this feeling, hüzün in Turkish, comes from. In many ways, Pamuk's own childhood experiences and emotions parallel the hüzün he senses in Istanbul, the once great capital of the Byzantine and then Ottoman empires.
For those who have spent any extended period in Istanbul, this memoir of the city and of its greatest contemporary author is a must-read. Pamuk describes the mood and aura of the city perfectly: a once magnificent capital of the world, chalked full of a history that its residents can never shake, engulfed in a past that weighs down their present but also defines their unique future. His accounts of wandering the back streets of Beyoğlu, Üsküdar, Nişantaşı and Taksim will bring back wonderful memories to those who have done the same. His descriptions of the sights of the city, along with the many old photographs included in the pages, offer a sense of Istanbul that many sense and taste, but few can describe and make real.
For those of you out there who have not been to Istanbul, however, Pamuk's narrative provides a brilliant tale of childhood imagination that we can all relate to. Pamuk shows through stories and his own memories how his world view developed alongside the city that he alternatively resented, loved, fought with and embraced. His stories of fighting with his brother, of knowing but not knowing about his father's mistresses, of skipping school so he could explore the city, of watching yet another yali (an old wooden Ottoman summer house on the Bosphorus) burn into the night, of living on the edge of a changing 1960's bourgeois elite, of finding himself amidst it all - these stories provide the reader with a true accounting of a life and a city.
Having neglected My Name Is Red (and Pamuk's other novel, Snow) for the past three years, Istanbul has provided me with an insight into the inspiration behind Pamuk's work in such a way that I am anxious to crack open his two works of fiction. Istanbul: Memories and the City is highly recommended.