Before my trip to Istanbul, I decided to read something about the city, and I picked up this memoir by Orhan Pamuk, the greatest living Turkish writer. Istanbul as described by this author is a decadent and gloomy city, where people live side by side with a persistent nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire and for the greatness of the past. By the end of the book it becomes clear that the author uses Istanbul to talk about himself, and that the city becomes a double for the writer. It is undeniably true that the Istanbul of sultans and harems is long gone, but the city the author remembers, with decrepit wooden houses, pastry shops he visited as a child hand in hand with his mother, and dilapidated secondary streets is also a thing of the past. Rather than identify himself as an accomplished writer, Pamuk prefers to depict himself as a failed painter, obsessed with the vedute of Istanbul created by Melling, a German visitor in the city, and therefore he embodies the spirit of this sad, bleak and dusty Istanbul he describes and cherishes.
Pamuk writes about his childhood and adolescent years in a big and dusty house in an affluent neighbourhood of the city, Beşiktaş: his large family, his love affair with a fellow student, his own sullenness and imagination as a child, and his relationship with the city, the countless ships cruising the Bosphorus and the opulent Ottoman palaces falling to pieces dotting his memories. He also lingers on his fascination with the complex history of Istanbul, and with a quirky encyclopedia of the city written by a certain Reşat Ekrem Koçu, explaining how the author freely inserted stories, personal opinions, anecdotes and even his sexual preferences into a publication that was inspired by Western encyclopedias but had a distinctive Turkish flavour. By telling anecdotes, describing parts of the town as they were when he was young, and writing about the historians and intellectuals of nineteenth and twentieth-century Istanbul Orhan Pamuk accompanies the reader among sultans and paşas, Western writers fascinated by the city, yalis on the waterfront, and bankrupt businessmen trying to revive the once prosperous commerce of the town.
The book comes with many early twentieth-century pictures of Istanbul that are quite fascinating. Having been there, one can see how different the city is now: the rotting wooden houses are now heavily restored and painted in pastel colours, to the point that it is hard to distinguish the historic buildings from the fake new ones built in imitation of that same style.
This is a perfect book to learn something about Istanbul, but it's more on how it was than on how it is. It's written beautifully, and even though it's non-fiction it's perfectly readable and enjoyable. Pamuk may not be everyone's cup of tea – his slow, descriptive style, and his preference for sad tones may put you off – but if you want to know how a contemporary master writes then give it a try. You'll learn more about a rich and interesting culture that is Western and non-Western at the same time, and that had a great influence on our ideas and preconceptions about the Orient.
In italiano: "Istanbul. I Ricordi e la Città" di Orhan Pamuk
Edito da Einaudi, 2008