Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul

People who have travelled comparatively little but read quite a lot (and there is an essay waiting to be written on why, for some, readerly journeys are preferable to real ones) often derive their conception of the world's great cities from novels. Their image of London is from Dickens, they think of Naguib Mahfouz whenever they hear the mention of Cairo, and Chicago for them is the same Chicago that can be found in Saul Bellow's novels. In much the same way, when I think of Istanbul I picture it as it appears in the novels of Orhan Pamuk, one of the leading novelists of our time.

Pamuk's novel My Name is Red, a luminous tale about a group of sixteenth-century Ottoman miniaturists and calligraphers whose conception of art is a religious one and who feel disturbed and threatened by the emerging Western school of portraiture, is a modern classic, containing hundreds of sentences so beautiful and evocative as to move, in Bellow's phrase to describe the effect of great books, 'wonder in the soul'. Also, each chapter of the novel is entrusted to a different narrator, so that the book itself becomes, like a fine Ottoman carpet, a weave of many perspectives, each adding to the effect of the other. Early in the novel a murder takes place, but we do not know who the murderer is. However, the culprit appears every once in a while to narrate a chapter from his point of view, all the while refusing to divulge his identity. In this passage below - note that it is only one long, winding sentence - the murderer follows Black, an artist who is competing with him for a woman's affections, around the city one night:

We were two men in love with the same woman; he was in front of me and completely unaware of my presence as we walked through the turning and twisting streets of Istanbul, climbing and descending, we traveled like brethren through deserted streets given over to battling packs of stray dogs, passed burnt ruins where jinns loitered, mosque courtyards where angels reclined on domes to sleep, beside cypress trees murmuring to the souls of the dead, beyond the edges of snow-covered cemeteries crowded with ghosts, just out of sight of brigands strangling their victims, passed endless shops, stables, dervish houses, candle works, leather works and stone walls; and as we made ground, I felt I wasn't following him at all, but rather, that I was imitating him.

What is wonderful about this sentence is the way it gives us a sense not only of an external world - that of various Istanbul scenes at night - but also at the same time through an internal world, that of the murderer. We note his fevered and extravagant imagination, which senses hidden presences in the most deserted places; we feel his intense vexation at his realisation (which the sentence delivers up in its final clause) that he is merely mimicking his antagonist, tailing the man he wishes to dominate and defeat. In a way, this sentence is a story all by itself.

Pamuk's most recent book is a work of non-fiction called Istanbul, in which he makes the case that the city of his birth is the most melancholy (the word for this in Turkish is 'hüzün') of all: "For the poet, hüzün is the smoky window between him and the world." An excerpt from Istanbul can be found here. The first chapter of My Name is Red is available here, and an interview with Pamuk on the subject of the novel here.

And speaking of journeys that involve staying at home instead of travelling, here's Alain de Botton's introduction to Xavier de Maistre's eighteenth-century classic Journey Around My Bedroom, recently reissued by the Hesperus Press.


Adrian Weston said...

I have to say I loved Istanbul - and I never really got it as a city when I visited in the late 1980s. Now it's reconstructed in my mind as an almost mesmeric place, drifting with smoke from coke fires. Pamuk's vision has completely supplanted my own memories of the city - which is a little strange but a testament to Pamuk's writing skill.

Ashwin Raghu said...

My comment has to do with your first sentence ("People who have travelled comparatively little but read quite a lot.."), as well as something the commenter above has mentioned in passing (" Pamuk's vision has completely supplanted my own memories of the city"): when does reading start supplanting real-life experience? While a book about, say, Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, may provide a far, far more valuable picture of this place than we might ever personally hope to form, what does one give weight to? Is not personal, first-hand experience eventually more valuable - however less fleshed out it might seem in comparison - than the experience of something obtained from reading about someone else's experience?