Orhan Pamuk’s ISTANBUL

MEMORIES & THE CITY

Having always been attracted to the mystic allure of all things reminiscent of Arabian Nights,[1] I find the topic of ‘The Orient’ and the way in which it is commonly represented in travel writing to be of great interest. As such, I have selected two extended pieces by two travel writers from 19th and 20th Centuries respectively, through whom the evolution and idealisation of the concept of ‘The Orient,’ with particular reference to Turkey, is made apparent.

Orhan Pamuk’s[2] most recent work, Istanbul: Memories and the City, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature (2006), is if you will, a museum-in-prose; a chilling yet enchanting childhood memoir of the first 22 years of the author’s life that takes the form not only of a self-portrait, but a richly detailed history fuelled with reference, allusion and personal response to the city of his birth and the home of his imagination. It is being hailed by Pamuk’s peers as his legacy, for it is a poetic identification with Istanbul’s past and present, emphasising in particular the effects Western influence has had on the evolution of the city since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, its people and its culture; shattering as a consequence an innumerable array of accounts left by writers, artists and storytellers that came before him.

In keeping with this last statement I felt it pertinent to couple Pamuk’s Istanbul in this instance, with a Western piece that predates the fall of the Empire and as a consequence, challenges Pamuk’s voice. Comparatively therefore, penned no less than a century before Pamuk’s birth, is the first literary venture from Eton-educated A.W. Kinglake (1809 – 1891),  Eothen (1844), otherwise titled Traces of Travel Brought Home From The East. Credited as being “one of the finest pieces of satiric portraiture in nineteenth century writing”[3] that came to “establish[ed] the voice of the modern English literary traveller,”[4] Kinglake assumes the voice of an ex-Etonian traversing the Middle East during the 1830’s, of a Victorian Englishman abroad; itself an identity commonly assumed in literature in the mid nineteenth century at a time when the concept of ‘The Orient’ dramatically helped the West define themselves, their image and their personality in direct contrast to the romance, exoticism, landscapes and remarkable experiences that personified the East.[5]

Where these two pieces differ is in the authors’ approach to their respective works. Pamuk’s Istanbul assumes the form of a personal narrative by drawing emphasis on his personal observations, beliefs and emotions; of a journey be it figurative or literal within a particular place. His work speaks of microcosms -namely events, people and traditions – within a greater context of place and time, in order to keep his readers edified and engaged. On the other hand, although Eothen (1844) is considered by some to be a personal narrative, this is a tenuous designation at best. Jonathan Raban goes so far as to call Eothen a “dramatic monologue” rather than a biographical account of Kinglake’s travels.[6] It is more-so a narrative with a determinedly deceptive facade masking the “artistic guile”[7] and devious literary talent of Kinglake. Known for perceiving travel-memoirs as being of a genre of innocence and artlessness made up of an amalgamation of observations and details, Kinglake has seemingly used this to his advantage, by providing himself with a blank canvas on which he could conjure and create works that were clever, funny, true and at times, untrue.[8] Whilst the foundation of the book is based on truth, a real journey from the Danube through Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, its “flesh”[9] is a tapestry of invention and embellishment. Kinglake speaks only “upon those matters which happen[ed] to interest [him],”[10] “refusing to dwell on matters which failed to interest.”[11]

Similarities can however be drawn between the two works, with a number of techniques adopted by each author with which to enrich their narratives. Both authors present their journey by way of short, sharp, crisp chapters each very different from the last, at times changing tense or dramatically altering the pace and mood of the prose. The advantage of which one can assume is the likelihood of prolonged engagement between the reader and text. Added to this is the inclusion by both authors of other ‘characters’ to help set a scene and provide a depth to their prose and sentiment. For Pamuk, it is the introduction of his family members both past and present to his readers that helps establish a backbone to his memoir and a soul to his story; for Kinglake, it is the list of “ultra-Turkish looking fellows,”[12] the Tatar and the Suridgees that accompany him on his quest across the borders into Constantinople that draws the focus from himself, or rather his re-invention of himself from time to time.[13]

The authority with which the author conveys his or her story is also imperative to the success of their work. Pamuk assumes from cover to cover a multi-faceted voice of unwavering assuredness: Harsh truths of disgust and bleak realities are interspersed with recollections of adoration and praise, familial bonds and a yearning for the past. Pamuk slips between a child-like innocence when recollecting his youth and a humorous way of self-analysing his own interpretations (“there must be a link between peas and Brazil  – not just because Brazil is Brezilya in Turkish and the word for pea is Bezelye, but also because the Brazilian flag has, it seems, an enormous pea on it.”[14]) which is admittedly a welcomed relief from the more prevalent, sombre, realistic tone with which he speaks of his city and its “shameful poverty,”[15] of his country which he asserts is bound by a “black passion,”[16] or his fate of unavoidable hűzűn[17] as an Istanbullus.  Perhaps the most enticing aspect of Pamuk’s voice interlaced throughout Istanbul is the frequency with which he references authors, explorers, artists and academics, Flaubert in particular, that visited Istanbul prior to the fall of the Empire and during the flourishing of “Orientalism” in the West and concurrent Westernisation of Turkey.  His interpretation and understanding of their opinions and beliefs, their talent or lack there-of instils in his readers a comfort in knowing he is well educated, of firm beliefs and open minded when it comes to the opinions he holds.

This brings to the foreground the Western idealisation and generalisations of the East as referenced repeatedly by Pamuk.

“A city, it may be said, owes its very character to the ways in which it ‘goes too far’ and while an outside observer can take things out of proportion by paying excessive attention to certain details, these are often the same details that come to define that city’s nature.”[18]

The prose penned in Kinglake’s Eothen is no exception for his voice is characteristically ‘Western.’ Although he brazenly speaks of his “plan to adhere to sentimental truth”[19] Kinglake fails to support this statement, instead presenting nothing but conjecture and embellishment representative of nineteenth century Western thought. This is where a prose reminiscent of that which was once uttered in the ‘Arabian Nights’ becomes prevalent:

“poor though they were…they were Turks of the proud old school and had not yet forgotten the fierce, careless bearing of their once victorious race.”[20]

Repetitive, iconic, evocative vocabulary and descriptions further flesh-out Kinglake’s tale; “they wore the old Turkish costume…the decayed grandeur of the garments to which they were attached…long drooping mustachios…white turbans…piercing eyes…haggard features…tawny skins and grisly beards.”[21] References to the exotic such as “cotton…silk…silver and brass and steel,”[22] landscape “…free from the stale civilisation of Europe, spread your carpet in the midst of these eastern scenes…you will glory the more in your own delightful escape,”[23] as well as generalisations of women “you see nothing, except the dark, luminous eyes that stare against your face…suddenly withdrawing from the yashmak.”[24] The foundation of Kinglake’s voice is however fuelled by his subtle yet recurrent lapse into that of a “representative Englishman;”[25]  a voice with an inherent condescension towards the ‘Orientals’ and who perceives the East as being merely an exotic stage upon which the image of the Westerner can be enhanced.[26]

Both Istanbul and Eothen have proven to be in their own way, revolutionary pieces of work; the works of authors pioneering the evolution of thought and discourse amongst their respective contemporaries. To read the two works in chronological succession is to become familiar with two very different writers who although use similar literary techniques to seduce their reader, will leave you with juxtaposed sensations about the subject matter. Whilst Eothen is an extraordinary stretch of writing that at times teeters on the edge of travel fiction, it none-the-less gives its readers an insight into the nineteenth century Western conception of “Orientalism,” the fundamentals of which are still to be found today in works such as Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps.[27] To read Pamuk’s Istanbul, is to be given an insight into the author’s vivid awareness of the reality of his city, its people and its soul. As if a silent observer on a deeply personal voyage of self discovery and a quest to liberate the emotions of his past, Pamuk’s reader will be left feeling emotionally charged, edified and passionate about Istanbul, its history and its future.


[1] Arabian Nights is a collection of Persian, Arabian and Indian folk tales documented on a number of varying manuscripts, originally translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton in 1850.

[2] Orhan Pamuk, born in Istanbul in 1952, is attributed as being Turkey’s greatest living novelist, whose work has since been translated into 55 different languages,. He has achieved universal success over the course of his thirty-two year career as a writer. his prior published works are: Cevdet Bey and Sons, Silent House, The White Castle, The Black Book, The New Life, Snow, My Name is Red, Other Colours, The Museum of Innocence. “Orhan Pamuk – Autobiography.” Nobelprize.org. 10th August 2011. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2006/pamuk-autobio.html

[3] Raban, Jonathan. 1982, ‘Introduction,’ in Eothen. Century Publishing Co., Ltd., London, 1982, pp v – viii.  p vi

[4] Ibid. p viii

[5] Said, EW, 2003, ‘Introduction,’ Orientalism. Penguin Books, London, pp 1-9. p 1

[6] Raban, Jonathan. 1982, ‘Introduction,’ in A. W, Kinglake Eothen. p vii

[7] Ibid. p v

[8] Ibid. p viii

[9] Ibid p vi

[10] Kinglake, A.W. Eothen. Century Publishing Co., Ltd., London, 1982, preface, p xi

[11] Ibid p xii

[12] Ibid. p 3

[13] Ibid. pp 10-11

[14] Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul. Memories and the City. (trans.) Maureen Freely. Faber & Faber  Ltd., London, 2006. p75

[15] Ibid. p 32

[16] Ibid. p 91

[17] Hűzűn – a recurring theme throughout the memoir: It is the Turkish word for ‘melancholy’ which finds its roots in Arabic tradition. The hűzűn of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry, it is the way of life that implicates all Istanbullus: a state of mind that is as affirming as it is negating (Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul. Memories and the City. p 82). The hűzűn is to Pamuk, unique to Istanbul: it provides a sense of self that binds all Istanbullus together – Istanbul’s “black passion” is absorbed with pride and reflected as a community (Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul. Memories and the City. p 91). It is the emotion that rises from a sense of defeat after the fall of the Empire: a feeling felt by all and affirmed as one (Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul. Memories and the City. p 95).

[18] Ibid. p 212

[19] Kinglake, A.W. Eothen. p xi

[20] Ibid. p 3

[21] Ibid. pp 8-11

[22] Kinglake, A.W. Eothen. p 10

[23] Ibid. p 14

[24] Ibid. p 24

[25] Bassnett, S. 2002, ‘Travel Writing and Gender,’ in P Hulme & T Youngs (eds.) The Cambridge Companion To Travel Writing. Cambridge University Press, UK, pp 225-441. p 226

[26] Ibid. p 227

[27] Raban, Jonathan. 1982, ‘Introduction,’ in A.W. Kinglake, Eothen. p viii

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