Istanbul – Memories of a City

Orhan Pamuk's essayistic volume "Istanbul" depicts a small slice of the history of the metropolis on the Bosporus – a fascinating book, says Zafer Şenocak, in which the Literature Nobel prizewinner lets places and objects speak for themselves

Nobel Literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk holds his prize lecture at the Royal Swedish Academy in Stockholm (photo: AP)
Turkey's best-selling writer Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Literature Prize, becoming the first Turk to win the coveted award

​​There is always a certain book in an author's oeuvre that can be regarded as a seminal work. Orhan Pamuk's "Istanbul, Memories of a City," is such a book.

The original Turkish version has a more fitting subtitle: "Memories and the City." "Istanbul" is not only about memories of a city, but also the author's memories of his childhood and youth. It is thus equally about an aspiring writer who really wanted to be a painter and who, at the urging of his mother who was concerned about the future of the young man, began studying architecture, only to drop out in order to pursue writing.

Istanbul – an aging, poetic beauty

"Istanbul" is an autobiography, in which the city is not only a place remembered, but is itself a writer of memories, an aging, poetic beauty, full of melancholy, but without a trace of maudlin sentiment.

What emerges is a unique tension between the author's relatively carefree childhood and youth, embedded in a middle-class family, his reading, everyday experiences, strolls, and the aged city with its dilapidated panoramas.

This decline also befalls the author's family when the wealth accumulated by the grandfather is compromised within one generation. Pamuk's writing has often been compared with Thomas Mann's.

His first novel "Cevdet Bey and His Sons" has been read as a Turkish version of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Many motifs from this family saga reappear in "Istanbul": in particular, the decline of a family that accompanies the ground-breaking process of modernization.

Between continents

As in his novels Pamuk also succeeds in this essayistic book in letting places and objects speak for themselves. The ships passing through the Bosporus on their way between the continents of Asia and Europe, the wooden houses with their weathered facades, the omnipresent water are all given a distinctive voice that goes beyond all clichés about Istanbul.

​​Such vivid and forceful writing could only come from someone paying homage – a homage not driven by the intent to impassion, but written with the precision of a psychologist whose destiny is intimately connected with that of his patient.

The book is chronologically structured, interspersed with several chapters dealing with famous visitors to Istanbul of yesteryear, such as Flaubert and Nerval. Those who come from outside often have an alienating gaze, but the native still remembers.

For Orhan Pamuk the relationship between the Orient and Occident is foremost a history of the gaze. The book ends with the observations of the 22-year-old aspiring writer.

Buried by Modernization

This relatively short chapter in his life accompanies and intensifies the history of Istanbul, whose five century-long Ottoman period has inspired several of the author's novels. This is a history that has been buried, swept aside by Turkey's rather abrupt turn toward modernization in the twentieth century.

Anyone who writes a book of memoirs is also an archaeologist. This is especially true of Pamuk, for he not only recalls the first two decades of his life, but also faces his memories of the city, and lets himself get drawn into a profound and never-ending dialogue with the city.

It is easy to imagine that with this book he wished to give something back to his native city, the city that has generously provided him with inspiration and ideas because he has looked more closely than many of his contemporaries and authors before him.

Istanbul is a city whose inhabitants have turned away from the land on which they live. They want to live in the West. Such a city lives on its secrets. No museum collects and exhibits its legacy.

No muse for art

The old books on the dusty bookshelves at the second-hand bookshops are growing moldy. As a result of Atatürk's writing reform in the 1920s the Turkish people no longer read and write Arabic characters, but instead Roman letters. Thus the inhabitants of the city can no longer read the extensive material stored in its archives.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a building craze that ruthlessly demolished the historical district of the city. Middle-class Turkish families may put a piano in their living room, but they are less than enthusiastic if one of their sons or daughters wishes to embark on a musical career.

Now one of them who dared to take up the poor man's art of writing has made a name for himself in the West, more so than anyone before him, by focusing on his own city, which lies far from the centers of the West, a peripheral city, but for Orhan Pamuk the center of the world.

The phenomenon of Orhan Pamuk cannot be explained without the city of Istanbul, just as Orhan Pamuk explains this city not only to foreigners, but also to those inhabitants who do not feel at home in any of the many deep layers of this once very cosmopolitan and multicultural metropolis.

He explains by telling what it was like growing up in a "modern" middle-class family that had abandoned tradition, in which the Muslim religion at best appeared as a belief held by servants, more superstition than belief.

"Hüzün" – the predominant mood in Istanbul

The lines of continuity with the Ottoman tradition have been cut. Byzantium is a chimera. The Christian neighbors who still remain will soon leave the city. The rest will be left among themselves, and even less tolerance will be shown for those who transgress the restrictive norms of a demythologized world designed for technological progress.

It is an atmosphere guaranteed to thwart and frustrate artistic life. Doesn't literature have the utopian character of the Phoenix? Doesn't it also offer opportunities to distill from "Hüzün," the mass melancholy captured by Pamuk to describe the predominant mood in Istanbul, the distinctive language of a poet who dares to remain alone.

The city still exists, as if in a dream world, its inhabitants no longer capable of perceiving it in their dreamless lives, and its waits to be discovered. This is the hour for Orhan Pamuk, the daydreamer, who decides to lock himself in his room with a view in order to write a few wonderful books, among them "Istanbul," well worth reading and not only for travelers to Istanbul.

Zafer Şenocak

© 2006

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

Orhan Pamuk: "Istanbul. Memories of a City," Publisher: Faber & Faber, London, 348 Pages

Orhan Pamuk
The distinguished Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. Here, you can find a collection of articles on Orhan Pamuk that appeared on

Portrait of Orhan Pamuk by Lewis Gropp