Secret Love in the Lost City

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Dominique Nabokov
Orhan Pamuk, New York City, May 2006

Istanbul, with its many signs of the time when it was the center of the world, becomes something of a museum in the work of Orhan Pamuk, a writer clearly in love with memory itself, and his hometown, and everything that’s been lost there. In his 2003 memoir, Istanbul, the five-story Pamuk Apartments in which he spent nearly all his first five decades are described as a “dark museum house,” cluttered with sugar bowls, snuffboxes, censers, pianos that are never played, and glass cabinets that are never opened. The people inside the rooms have something of a neglected and left-behind quality, too; they’re devoutly attentive to the fashions and perceived habits of Europe, and yet they know (or at least their sharp-eyed chronicler does) that Europe is spending very little time thinking of them.

Foreigners, Pamuk notes in that book, love to enshroud his city in easy, abstract terms of “East and West”; for him, the real division at the heart of his culture is between local tradition and the imported new. And it is in giving that tension a vividly human, private face—in showing how it plays out in every piece of chewing gum or choice of a Sophia Loren movie—that he gives his theme distinction. It was his growing up in a secular, westward-looking family, Pamuk suggests, that moved him to seek out his country’s indigenous, sometimes mystical traditions; a further irony is that he learned how to give Turkey its own voice by schooling himself in works from abroad.

As a young man, his great hope was to become a painter, and he started, he notes wryly, by producing imitations of Monet and Sisley and Pissarro in a city that Europe had always seen as alien, putting Utrillo shutters, as he has said, on Istanbul houses that had never known such. The result might have been odd and hybrid, but it was inarguably new, neither typically Western nor traditionally Turkish. It was the West, in fact, that showed him what to value in his own culture, and even how to dream of becoming a writer (“This isn’t Paris, you know,” he quotes his mother saying, in trying to dissuade him from pursuing art).

Pamuk made himself up, in other words, by living in foreign books. Dostoevsky offered him the precedent of a ferociously energetic writer, just outside the boundaries of Europe, who turned his raging eye on the issue of how European—or otherwise—his country should become. Nabokov taught him how to caress every detail of the time-stopped, sensual world of his privileged boyhood. Most of all, Proust showed him how to create elaborate fantasies out of his memories, and how to find a universe of feeling in even the smallest detail. Pamuk looks at Europe’s great tradition with a fascination and devotion that few contemporary Europeans would muster (it’s hard to imagine Ian McEwan or Michel Houellebecq earnestly …

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