Orhan PamukEveryone who has been to Istanbul has been fascinated by the city. I am yet to visit the city, so I was keen to read about it from its most famous author – who has been born and brought up in the city and has spent more or less all his life here.  Orhan Pamuk being a noble laureate, I was wondering if it would be an easy book to read or not and I must tell you that it is a very easy book to read – uses very simple language and metaphors. If you understand a bit if Arabic words as I do, you would relate to his memoirs much better, even if you do not – he has gone to great lengths to explain certain words – around which the book revolves.

City of Istanbul and the author’s growing up years are two protagonists of this book. You get introduced to the city in the beginning and then the author keeps changing the lens and keeps showing you the same city from different lenses. By the middle of the book, you feel quite acquainted to the city and its streets and its most important street Bosphorus. Yes, Bosphorus is not a typical street, but with giant houses on both its side and constant traffic of ferries and ships it acts like a busy street in the city. Interspersed in the narration is the history of the city – from the time it was a Byzantine empire to Ottoman Empire, to when it was called Constantinople and as Istanbullus like to believe – it was the center of the earth. Pamuk again and again takes you through the neighborhoods of Istanbul where the remains of these times stand, some of them in a dilapidated state and some in a burnt down state. He refers to many foreign visitors who came to the city at different points in time and wrote about it. He walks in their footsteps to see what has remained of those places since then. He walks with the native authors and tries to see the difference between what the westerners saw and what the natives saw.

As his personal journey, author introduces you to his family and family houses. Through the story of his family, especially the relationships amongst family members, he gives you a glimpse of the elite society in Istanbul after it became a republic. He talks about religion and how it does not exist and yet it exists in the subconscious. He speaks about the girl he fell in love with, whom he used to paint and how she was sent to another country to be kept away from him and how this led him to a melancholic personality. In the first chapter he introduces the reader to his alter ego but fails to build upon that or use that in the rest of the book that I think could have been a good way to give diametric perspectives of the city.

Most important aspect of the book is its mood – melancholic. Author introduces a the Turkish word for it – Huzun – and he goes on to great lengths to explain the word in as many possible ways as he can – for he is going to use it for the rest of the book. After reading the book you wonder if the city is actually so melancholic or it was the authors mood that reflected in his explorations of the city. At places where he describes the old mansions and rich estates being burnt down and new high rise buildings being built – you do feel the melancholy – a sense of loss of a bygone era and potentially a loss of culture that is now being overtaken by the western inclinations. When he describes the life in Istanbul, I think the mood comes from inside him and the city may have happily moved over.

Language of the book is simple and narration more or less follows a linear pattern. Towards the end the repetitions got too much and I was bored a bit and wanted the book to be over. There are too many parenthesis in the book and I kind of find them distracting while reading and here half of them only opened or closed leaving the reader to figure out the other half. While I was sulking about the typos and editorial mistakes in my own book, I saw so many of them in this book that I wonder if the art of editing is lost forever. If a noble laureate cannot get a decent editor to edit his book, what can I hope for?

Usually books that introduce one to a place make me want to pack up my bags and go there, but somehow this book did not. I felt like leaving Istanbul to itself.

You can read it once.

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