The Past as Destiny, The Place as Self: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

July 28, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

Lacar Musgrove Lacar Musgrove is the associate non-fiction editor of Bayou Magazine, published by the University of New Orleans, where she is pursuing an M.F.A. She has a B.A. in English from Boston University.

coverOrhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City is a strange and fascinating self-portrait.

The first time I read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul was on a train from Istanbul to Bucharest at the beginning of a two month journey through southern Europe. I’d been living in Istanbul for a year and a half and was interested in the book not as a memoir but as a book about Istanbul. It’s a strange way of writing a memoir, as entire chapters are dedicated not to Pamuk’s life but to Western and Turkish writers and artists who have depicted Istanbul though painting and writing. Pamuk writes of viewing himself and his city through Western eyes, sometimes borrowed, sometimes, he suspects, his own, recognizing his education and intellectual life as westernized.

I was delighted to find many of Pamuk’s observations of Istanbul echoing what I had perceived through my Western eyes. I was particularly amused by this:

It snowed on average between three and five days a year, with the accumulation staying on the ground for a week to ten days, but Istanbul was always caught unawares, greeting each snowfall as if it were the first.

I cannot tell you how true this is. When it snowed my first winter there and my students refused to come to class, I thought it odd. But the next year it happened again, and the people of Istanbul reacted with the same surprise. It happens every year, and every year they are unprepared.

The second time I read Istanbul was for a graduate non-fiction survey course, and it was the inclusion of this title on the reading list that solidified my decision to take the course. Upon deeper study, Istanbul revealed itself as an intricately woven portrait of place, memory and self. Pamuk’s narrative of his childhood and adolescence is confessional and his tone humble as he guides the reader with exquisitely subtle steps through this portrait. He handles the portrayal of his adolescent self in crisis with the same clarity and compassion with which he depicts a fallen empire city struggling with decline. Pamuk invites you into the hüzün, the collective melancholy of the city’s people, but does not break your heart with tragedy. Rather, he allows you to bathe in the comfort of it, to feel the resignation, the longing for a more glorious past as he describes old houses one by one going up in flames, the wealth of the city flowing from the old Istanbul families to the newly rich, a city unable to cling to the past but also incapable of defining a future: paralyzed.

So what does this book have to offer one who has never been and may never go to Istanbul? You’ll have to look deep to find it. This is a book about extracting one’s identity from the world, about finding the line between self and society and occupying the place where each is served, finding stasis. In a self-portrait in which self and place are inseparable, Pamuk’s struggle is that of reconciling the two. The history, the geography, the buildings, the people tell him who he is. He recognizes himself as, rather than a unique individual, a character shaped of the collective experience. The habits and possessions of his family are not unique, his hüzün, his melancholy, is not his own but the collective hüzün of Istanbul, his life is not only his life but the life of the city. Young Orhan, however, occupies not only Istanbul but a secret inner world, the solitary world of his daydreams, which he expresses, in childhood and adolescence, through drawing and painting. He is tormented by anxiety and guilt over the separation of this inner world, and when painting no longer serves his need to bring the inner world to the outer, he hits a crisis which is only resolved when he learns to occupy both worlds simultaneously through writing, a moment in which he, unlike Istanbul, manages to disentangle himself from the past, “warmed by the flame of my brilliant future.”

Through its theme of inner and outer worlds, the text explores the tension between our sense of self and our sense of how others see us. “Once imprinted on our minds, other people’s reports of what we’ve done end up mattering more than what we ourselves remember.” We know ourselves through our own memories as well as the memories of others. At the beginning of the opening chapter he writes, “This book is concerned with fate.” Pamuk fancies himself unique in his struggle, but I would say his metamorphosis is common if not universal, at least in modern Western societies in which the individual is expected to cultivate a discreet identity and is responsible for harnessing his “true” self in order to fulfill a destiny.

I understood Pamuk’s point of view through my own experience, not with Istanbul but with returning from Istanbul to Louisiana, my home and my family and grappling with my claim to this place and its claim to me. Having come to view Louisiana through the eyes of an outsider and myself as separate from it, I found myself confronting the truth of my own identity’s inseparability from place and my need to not only claim but defend it. I empathize with Pamuk’s sense of shame knowing how the rest of the country views our poverty, the ignorance of our citizens, the corruption of our government, the state of our infrastructure. Through confronting the connection between my identity and this place, I can accept this melancholy and embrace and the promise of the past’s claim on my destiny.

is the associate non-fiction editor of Bayou Magazine, published by the University of New Orleans, where she is pursuing an M.F.A. She has a B.A. in English from Boston University.

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