Saturday, December 01, 2007


Hüzün is a peculiar kind of melancholy which affects Istanbullus (people who live in Istanbul). So says Orhan Pamuk in his book 'Istanbul'. It's in the sense of spiritual loss, where for example if someone has spent too much time amassing worldly goods, he may feel hüzün because he may not qualify for paradise so well. In the case of Istanbullus, Pamuk suggests that it also reflects the loss of glory that the city had during the Ottoman empire. The reader of the book feels, though, that Pamuk himself has quite an intimate acquaintance with hüzün.

The air of hüzün is promulgated in the book through the use of black-and-white photographs only, of which they are very many. None were taken later than about 1972, I suspect, and these may be the ones of Pamuk himself. It's strange how small black-and-white photos don't actually tell you that much.

If you are looking for a tourist guide to Istanbul, do not buy this book. It does not tell you where to go and what to look at. If on the other hand, you are like me, and enjoy wandering around the streets, expensive ones and poor back streets, looking at what people do and how they live, and you have time to sit and contemplate Istanbul, buy it. I was reading it on sunny and very grey November days in small cafes in Istanbul, having spent much time crawling all over the back streets of the old town and of Beyoglu, and I could well relate to what he is talking about in the book.

In a sense, it's a memoir of his childhood and youth (in a large but not necessarily happy family) where Pamuk seems to have got his own way rather a lot; for example bunking off school with not too much disapproval of his family (so why does he wonder, in another part of the book, that his results were not as good as his older brother's?). It reflects his childhood in a family where mother and father are often at war, his internal adolescent struggles, and his search for identity - what or who will he be?

At the same time he looks at Istanbul through western eyes, which have very long since closed - they are mostly 19th century painters and authors; he also uses the eyes of 4 melancholic Turkish authors. He describes the old wooden houses and palaces which in the past were frequently cause for major conflagration (whilst wandering round Sultanhamet last week I saw quite a few rickety wooden houses where I thought about fire risks), the poverty of these areas (which I saw looking into some of the houses with dirt grimed walls and lightbulbs hanging any which way, or rows and rows of windows with lots of pairs of jeans drying outside them, suggesting the residence of many labouring men), and at the same time the contrast of his fairly privileged young life. At one stage in his teens he takes up painting with a passion, though it seems he often paints in the style of someone - often impressionists? Does his painterly eye explain the very detailed descriptions in his other books?

This books is great for lists of things: 'To savour the back streets of Istanbul, you must first and foremost, be a stranger to them. A crumbling wall, a wooden tekke - condemned, abandoned, and now fallen into neglect - a fountain from whose faucets no water pours, a workshop in which nothing has been produced for eighty years, a collapsing building, a row of homes abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews as a nationalist state bore down on minorities, a house leaning to one side in a way that defies perspective, two houses leaning against each other in the way that cartoonists so love to depict, a cascade of domes and rooftops, a row of houses with crooked window casings - these things don't look beautiful to the people who live among them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless hopeless neglect'. Something like this picture taken last Sunday, but imagine it on a grey day and in black and white. The pictures in Pamuk's book do not include satellite dishes....

(This little extract brings up the eternal conflict in the tourist's soul [or which should be in the tourist's soul]: picturesque poverty is interesting to look at - but is that not also exploiting the poor? People talk about going to Cuba before it changes [if the Americans, especially their Cubans, ever get in there again] - but what's interesting is the way the buildings are, the transport system is, the people live. But who asks the people who live in such constant grinding poverty, where for example a house may not be a shelter when the rain comes in, or when the doors are so poor that anyone can go and steal things? On the other hand, things that rich people do are often activities that they do anywhere in the world. So maybe this means that the rich have globalised, whereas the poor maintain the traditional cultures? But then, what or whose is 'the traditional culture'?) Topic for another debate.

Of all Pamuk's books, this is the one I like the most. I love the atmosphere of gentle melancholy of the book, of a sense of mourning of what had been (though I suspect the present is not as bad for Istanbul as Pamuk describes it - but I don't know enough about it yet - next time I should do what he did at some stage of his life and hop on a bus just to anywhere). It's also a relatively shorter book, with the text broken up by pictures, so it's not so quite hard work to read (in one cafe I spotted a young Turkish woman, with not many words in English, who was reading his book 'Snow' - the only other book of his I have read beginning to End - and she thought she had not chosen well. She should try some of his yet longer, and more fantastic, ones...)

I am not sure though how much it means to people who have never been to Istanbul, and should they travel to Istanbul following their reading, they might get a bit of a surprise.