Pamuk: Under the Spell of Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk; drawing by Pancho

Uniquely among cities, Istanbul bridges two continents. It lies on the southeast frontier of Europe, while its suburbs expand across the Bosphorus straits into Asiatic Turkey. From a European viewpoint, the city may be the site where Asia begins; from the Turkish hinterland, it is the start of Europe. For a millennium and a half it was the fulcrum of two great Eurasian empires, the Byzantine and the Ottoman, and although it is no longer the nation’s capital—Atatürk rejected the city for Ankara—it remains Turkey’s cultural and economic heart. Now its ruptured geography exemplifies the country’s contending identities: the ambivalence toward both Europe and its Asian neighbors, the rankling sense of exclusion and the bursts of patriotic pride.

The metropolis has found its celebrant in Orhan Pamuk. Winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, he is the preeminent Turkish writer of his time, and the witness to a city that his descriptions saturate in the subtle melancholy of hüzün, an aura steeped in yearning and disillusion. In his Istanbul: Memories and the City, he recorded an ambience inseparable from his childhood, the nostalgia for a fading patrician world of decaying villas and old families grown irrelevant. He is the poet of the city’s strangeness: of its damp back streets, its ferries calling through fog, a place inhabiting its own ruin. In The White Castle and My Name Is Red he made loving play with its Ottoman history, and returned to the upper-middle-class milieu of his own experience in The Museum of Innocence, published in 2008.

So it is initially surprising that his new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, is set not in Istanbul’s historic heart, but in the modern suburbs and slums that smother its surrounding hills: home to a flood of immigrants from Asiatic Turkey seeking a better life than their rural villages afford. These are a tough, adaptable people, who have transformed the multicultural metropolis of an earlier generation—once embracing thriving communities of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews—into a rougher and more contentious place. Now the city’s immigrants outnumber the native-born by three to one.

Pamuk’s attention to rural immigration—the source of Istanbul’s most glaring social problems—suggests a move toward conventional realism, exploring as he does the city’s most workaday dilemmas. But he has written scathingly about his country’s generation of socially concerned writers and his need to escape their tradition. “They were flat realists, not experimental,” he told an interviewer in 2005.

Like writers in so many poor countries, they wasted their talent on trying to serve their nation…. I did not want to be like them…. I had never aspired to the social-realist model….

Elsewhere he has written of his delight at jettisoning from his bookshelves the works of “mediocre, moderately successful, bald, male, degenerate writers between the age of fifty and seventy.”

In the same interview he expounded candidly on his hunt for originality: about how…

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