Saturday, October 23, 2010

Istanbul - Orhan Pamuk

I can't make up my mind about this book. Do I like it? Do I not like it? Do I think it is the genuine article or do I think it has affectations that let it down?

I guess what I think of this book is sort of like an amalgamation of answers to all the questions above. To me this particular cover (my copy has the same) evokes a lovely image; not just of the book but Istanbul itself. The monument, the car and the raven in the foreground: all covered by a soft mantle of snow. And you remember this cover throughout; whether he is describing the city or the beautiful Bosphorus in its many moods; glinting, shimmering, dark or moody. Istanbul and Istanbullus are besotted with this body of water.

This book is a personal journey of a man and the city with which he firmly believes his destiny is tied up. Pamuk's Istanbul is complex, varied and has a dignity that speaks to the reader. His Istanbul is not just a city of yesterday or today or of the future, it is a black and white kaleidoscope of all three. The book opens with a chapter about the boy Orhan, his family, his boyhood and what Istanbul meant to him at that impressionable age. As the book progresses, Pamuk grows with it and tries to give the reader a sense of the city as seen through his eyes. He paints before you, a city that is still living in the bygone Ottoman era and the place of importance it enjoyed while trying to come to terms with the new Republic and become westernized. In this vast world where does Istanbul really stand? How do its citizens view it? Do they live in the past too? Do they take comfort in what Pamuk describes as its acceptance of defeat and are comfortable to live in memory of the great empire it once was?

Pamuk's Istanbul is eloquent and almost poetic at times. Drawing deeply from literature and history he attempts to show you the city exactly as he sees it. Magnificent as it is at times, the pace lags in many chapters and I found accounts of Pamuk's puberty and several other similar instances unnecessary.

According to Pamuk, his city's main characteristic is its hüzün (melancholy) and that is the book's biggest weak point; Pamuk tries to connect entirely too much in his own life and in others' to the city's melancholy and vice-versa. Every chapter contains some mention of hüzün and it irritated me so much that I cannot bear to read this word in any other book for a long while. He seems to take a sort of comfort in the poverty and despair and faint sense of ruin that surrounds the city's poor neighbourhoods. It makes the reader wonder just how troubled his childhood was; how much the city influenced it and more importantly: how much does he think the city influenced it.

Maybe I am being unduly harsh because my own expectations of the book were not fulfilled. There are some lovely chapters; his retelling of his first love brought tears my to eyes and many others gave me a glimpse of the wonderful writer that Pamuk is.

So taking all this into consideration, could the book have been better? Yes. Unequivocally.

This melancholy thing though, I have no idea what to make of it. I have felt it; in Chennai I have felt it. But is it the primary characteristic and driving force of Istanbul? Perhaps one has to go to Istanbul and see for oneself.


SoulMuser said...

LOL, I couldn't help but laugh at your rant against huzun. I haven't read any of Pamuk - thought he may go way over my head. I love memoirs though - hmm, should give this a try then.

Istanbul - well ,sigh one of my places to go. Ain't cheap though and there lies the bug!

Veens said...

Oh Well, I can tell you that I have tried but failed to read one book by Pamuk and I never gave him another chance LOL!
I applaud that you got through this one, I don't think I had the patience then and will have it for sometime to come.

P-Kay said...

Good review Vaishnavi. Really its a blend of history and fiction on Istambul like his other creations. In my opinion the Huzun is the soul of Istambul.

I like his writings very much..especially his humor with indirect criticism. My favorite books are MY NAME IS RED & SNOW.


Vaishnavi said...

@Soul - I have been wanting to visit Istanbul for a long time. I picked this one specifically because I love memoirs but this book did not sit well with me.

@Veens - Hi and welcome here! Yes, it took a lot of effort to plod through this one. I will be giving Pamuk a wide berth for a while now.

@PK - Hi and welcome here! I agree that huzun is the soul of Istanbul but I did not agree with how Pamuk dealt only with that predominantly. Surely there is more to a city?