Saturday, February 15, 2014

Memory's Garden: Orhan Pamuk's 'Istanbul'



     Two years ago I suffered wardrobe trauma on the streets of the old city of Istanbul when my daughter pointed out to me that everyone could tell I was an American because only Americans wore white sneakers. I don't want to stand out when we travel; I want to fit in.
            As I recall, this advisory on international fashion took place just before I fell into a startlingly deep hole in the not quite finished Turkish sidewalk on the way to the Sultan's Topkapi Palace. That didn't fit in either, since I didn't see anybody else falling into this unmarked hiatus on the newly laid walkway.

            I didn't have much recourse in footwear since I'd left my extensive shoe collection (joking) at home. However, the next day I wore my leather shoes and black pants. This enabled me to stand out less egregiously. "You look much more European today," my daughter noted approvingly. However, a cold rain fell that day and when we went back to the Topkapi Palace (it was Monday; everything else closed), my feet were soon wet and cold and I was a fair distance toward having a miserable time.
            I rallied, we intrepid travelers overcame the late winter cold spell, and we all fell in love in Istanbul.
            But I now know what the perfect visit to Istanbul would be like because the New York Times travel section recently published a story detailing it, titled "Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul."
            Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's Nobel Prize winner, is a lifelong resident of the city of his birth. He has published novels about Turkey's recent history, "The Black Book"and "Snow," which I love, and the more recent "Museum of Innocence" (not so much), and its deeper past such as "Red" -- which taught me more about the Ottoman Empire than I would likely ever learn anywhere else.
            But my favorite book by Pamuk is his memoir, "Istanbul: Memories and the City." When certain writers match up with the just right subject, reading their book feels like living. That's what reading Pamuk's account of growing up in a half-modern, half-decaying city which I had never been to and knew precious little about felt like to me.
            The city we visited in 2012 was not the city of Pamuk's childhood fifty years ago. It's more colorful, modern, European, prosperous.
            The city of Pamuk's "Memories" was black and white, still recovering from the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the loss of revenue that came from being a colonial overlord to much of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. (The contemporary "Middle East" arose from that collapse.) His memoir is colored by a decline in family fortunes, nightly fires as derelict mansions along the Bosporus Sea went up in smoke, and rowboat excursions on the Bosporus to go visiting. His city was filled with secret pleasures in rickety old neighborhoods, twisted streets, neglected Ottoman architecture, and trips to favorite merchants in tiny shops.
            To create the perfect "travel story," Times writer Joshua Hammer persuaded Pamuk, who still lives in a part of the city he's known all his life, "to take me on a tour of the neighborhoods that shaped his upbringing and his development as a writer... [in] a place of epic history and deep personal associations."
            Those deep personal associations are the stuff of Pamuk's "Istanbul: Memories and the City." He illustrated his memoir with scores of black and white period photos. (After enjoying their effect
I wondered why, in this age of technological resources, so few 'literary' books are illustrated.) The mood generated by the sacred fires of memory in both words and images in "Memories" left an enduring impression. Many readers of English "know" how David Copperfield grew up. Some of us know how Orhan Pamuk grow up. The fact that the one is a fictional character drawn from who knows how many 'real' childhoods and the other real person drawing on his own 'true' memories does not in the last analysis make that much diffrerence. Stories told this well are "magic."
            Hammer's Times travel section piece is beautifully illustrated -- generously, as they say in the trade -- with a large selection of contemporary photos. For a recent visitor like myself, the combination of the photos and Hammer's closely described account of his "ambles with Orhan" through neighborhoods whose names are at least familiar revived strong impressions of our week in Istanbul: seek modern trains, Ottoman era buses, the original two-stop uphill subway; the skyline of mosques; the blue tiles of the remnants of Ottoman glory; the presence of water in every viewpoint; the stone walls and winding lanes of the Old City.
             The most nostalgic of the published photos is the largest: a spectacular view of where the Old City joins the new one (a relative term, dating from the Middle Ages), centered on the connecting Galata Bridge,a neighborhood in itself because it's lined with restaurants and cafes and men dangling fishing lines into the Golden Horn. The profiles of the mosques -- domes and minarets -- spot up on the distant horizon. A yellowish sunset under the broken blue-gray clouds that roof this world like heaven looking down from the ceiling of Aya Sophia.
            It's the photo that any visitor to the city would love to get, but only someone with access to some unimaginably elevated perspective could capture. It's the city glimpsed from the eye of God.
            One more borrowing from the Hammer's rich travel account of his time spent with Pamuk in the master's city. He quotes the author's preference for winter in "Memories": "I love the early evenings when autumn is slipping into winter, when the leafless trees are trembling in the north wind, and people in black coats and jackets are rushing home through the darkening streets."
            Pamuk still holds true to this seasonal preference, Hammer writes: "From the balcony of his apartment he looked approvingly at the sun shining weakly through the cloud cover and pronounced it an optimal day for a walk."
            He quotes Pamuk saying, "If this was a hugely sunny day I would be upset... I like the black and white city as I write in 'Istanbul.'"
            Most of us would choose the sun. But Nobel laureate's embrace of the shadowed pleasures of memory have a message for us. There is room for melancholy, the black and white music of winter, and the loves and losses of childhood in the heart of the greater writer.  
            The rest of us should keep an eye out for the hole in the sidewalk. 
(The link for "Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul" is http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/02/travel/orhan-pamuks-istanbul.html)