We’re going to Turkey in the fall despite the fact that our IRA ship has sprung leaks worthy of a certain iceberg-bashed White Star Liner. Probably we should wait for better economic conditions, but for why? We’ll soon reach our proverbial three-score and ten, and though life expectancy has improved since biblical times, time’s a-wasting even faster than the money.
Knowing our plans, certain of the offspring blessed us with Istanbul–Memories and the City by the Nobel Prize winning Turk, Orhan Pamuk. They also included Snow in the package, and though I’d read it (See the April 24, 2007 comments.), Susanne hasn’t, so thanks to them.
Why Turkey? For one thing, they’re not on the Euro yet, so things are reputedly cheaper. For another, we have friends with connections, so that will help reduce expenses some. Finally, though, it’s always been such an exotic crossroads of religions, nationalities, ethnicities. You can swim where Byron swam if you want to (I don’t), and it’s a great complement to our trip to Greece, where we stood on Rhodes, saw Turkey no more than a SF-to-Oakland’s distance away, and realized graphically how interrelated these peoples have been for centuries–millennia.
Our friends say you can take a water taxi from their place on the Turkish Aegean coast and have a great dinner at a restaurant on Lesbos. I recall a church on Mykonos named after Saint George whereon a classic icon was painted of George on a horse slaying a dragon at his feet. Except that the dragon is a Turk. I remember all the tales of sultans and harems and the Ottoman empire, which in all my long academic career I’ve studied only as a footnote. And there’s a place in Istanbul where you can put one foot on Europe and the other on Asia. And many folks we’ve talked to say you shouldn’t miss it. So we won’t. However, it won’t be because of Pamuk’s book on Istanbul.
The man is a wonderful writer, and Istanbul is a fiercely honest examination of himself, his native city, and their parallel development from his 1952 birth to the present. However, as a promotion for the beauty and virtue of Istanbul nee Constantinople nee Byzantium it’s a loser. Pamuk has lived in Istanbul for the entirety of his fifty years. Not particularly remarkable, but it is remarkable that he has lived in the same building, a starkly undistinguished high-rise apartment house of that depressing 1950’s utilitarian architecture that has infected so many cities the world over. His family started out wealthy. His grandfather built the apartments. His father and uncle spent most of their lives frittering away through unsuccessful schemes the fortune their father had garnered. Similarly, from Pamuk’s point of view, Istanbul, and by extension Turkey and the Turks have frittered away the glories of their Ottoman past.
Since the mid-to-late nineteenth-century dissolution of a 300-plus year old empire that had been in decline for some time, Turks have been living among ruins. With neither the riches nor, apparently, the inclination to repair or recover the prosperity of the past, the crumbling walls, palaces and mansions one finds throughout the city are emblematic of the depressed spirit of a depressed people. Pamuk even devotes a whole chapter to what he calls Huzun, a special form of melancholy endemic to Turks–or at least Istanbullus–alone. Left without material or spiritual resources of their own, they look to the west for inspiration. Not surprisingly, the results are distinctly unsatisfactory.
Pamuk details not only various Western writers’ responses to Istanbul (Gautier, Flaubert), but Turkish writers’ response to the responses. The Turks seem unable to get in touch with their own feelings about their homeland, but are condemned to filter it through a Western consciousness. All this is complicated by the admirable and largely successful efforts of the famous Attaturk, who arabacized the alphabet and strove to secularize all aspects of Turkish life. Unfortunately, according to Pamuk, this resulted in a cultural chauvinism which ignored the contributions and vitality of the thriving Jewish, Greek, and Armenian cultures that had helped make the empire a glorious economic and ethnic crossroads. Ironically, then, the successful drive for a strong national and cultural identity resulted in further isolation.
Throughout, Pamuk connects his own personal, artistic, and educational development to his perceptions of Istanbul itself. He sees in his family’s declining fortunes a reflection of his country and culture’s diminution. He walks the poor neighborhoods and wallows in the hopelessness of their decrepit grime, watches the glorious old wooden mansions along the Bosphorus burn and crumble, no one with the money or inclination to repair or restore them. He has some talent as a painter, but seems unable to find, or at least value, his own style, instead seeking to imitate. He likes best those painting of his that are the best copies of other–usually western–artists rather than those of landscapes in front of his face.
This sense of depression, of living in the shadow of Europe pervades Snow as well. It’s striking how the mood I described in my comments about Snow also fit Istanbul:
Westerners seldom get a chance at insight into the mind of the Muslim world. I’m not talking here about political posturing or slaughter of innocents or quaint costumes. I’m talking about a first-rate artist showing us what it means to live constantly with the idea that your culture is inferior, playing catchup with a world that has passed you by and judges you while glancing over its shoulder as it speeds far down the road ahead. It’s not an idea you necessarily accept or live by, but it permeates your world like a bad smell you can’t get rid of.
Pamuk has chosen to live amid that smell, and he’s made the most of it. I just wish he and his countrymen–if indeed his mood does reflect those of his countrymen–had a more joyous time of it. I certainly hope we have a better time of it. In the meantime, Orhan’s bad moods have made for my good reading, and I’m grateful to him for it.