Once Upon a Time in Istanbul: The City of Melancholia as Remembered by Orhan Pamuk

Editor’s note: Istanbul is the Metropolis of the Month for September. This is the fifth entry in the series. You can read additional entries, as they are published, linked at the conclusion of this post.

By Nefise Kahraman

Istanbul, that cosmopolitan city of empires, featured in the itineraries of many travelers, an exoticized setting for numerous famed works of world literature, consistently amazing its visitors as much with its history as with its stray cats and dogs. The city plays a leading role once again in Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s autobiography, Istanbul: Memories and the City, where the author construes his identity through interactions with the city.[1] Pamuk’s Istanbul might disappoint those looking for a guidebook, as he does not fill his book with a conventional history of the city, nor does he equip the reader with a list of tourist attractions and landmarks. Distilled through Pamuk’s memory, the story of Istanbul is recounted as it relates to the author’s own life. 

The opening epigraph by the late Ottoman poet and novelist Ahmet Rasim (1884-1933), “the beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy,” sets the mood for the entire book. Istanbul is not merely a locale in Pamuk’s autobiography, but functions as a character potent enough to render its dwellers susceptible to its own moods. Pamuk draws a link between his own melancholic disposition and the prolonged demise of the Ottoman Empire, which left the capital of Istanbul neglected, giving the city its so-called melancholy. Pamuk prefers the Turkish word hüzün, an emotion that oscillates between physical pain and grief, as he speaks of melancholy permeating the entire city. In contrast to the solitary experience of melancholy, hüzün is “a communal feeling, an atmosphere and culture shared by millions.”[2] This pervasive feeling of hüzün, which “stems from the same ‘black passion’ as melancholy,”[3] determines the colors that Pamuk ascribes to the city—he associates Istanbul with black and white aesthetics, the colors that he believes suit the city best. 

“View of Istanbul with Boats and Ships on the Water,” (ca. 1919-22), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Pamuk claims to share this ever-present black and white hüzün with his fellow city dwellers. He writes, “it is by seeing hüzün, by paying our respects to its manifestations in the city’s streets and views and people, that we at last come to sense it everywhere.”[4] In 2014, almost a decade after publishing Istanbul, Pamuk gave an interview to Joshua Hammer wherein the author appeared to have changed his perspective on the topic: “when I published it, the younger generation told me, ‘our Istanbul is not that black and white, we are happier here.’ They didn’t want to know about the melancholy, my kind of dirty history of the city.”[5] Pamuk’s revision of his attitude towards the city demonstrated a core feature of his autobiography—Pamuk’s black and white Istanbul has been fed as much by his own melancholy as by the metamorphosis the city has undergone over his lifetime. This also illustrates the self-indulgence of autobiography as a genre, which is deeply colored by the author’s personal experience and engagement with the city, rather than drawing from an objective outside reality. Pamuk speaks as an Istanbullu of his own Istanbul, the city where he was born and raised. The Istanbul that we read about in this book belongs to none other than Pamuk.

At times, Pamuk’s attachment to Istanbul reads like a confession. He has never lived far from the neighborhoods where he was born and raised (Nişantaşı and nearby Cihangir, alongside the Bosporus), let alone left Istanbul to make another city his home. He speaks from a place of self-awareness, knowing how uncommon this is “in an age defined by mass migration and creative immigrants.”[6] Underlying this sentiment is his gratitude for his privileged position, which has allowed Pamuk to witness, for better or worse, the city’s transformation over the years. “Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am,” writes Pamuk.[7] In the middle of his most astute observations and confessions about his life in general, he finds a way to circle back to the city, perpetually reminding his readers that his story is intertwined with Istanbul’s to the extent that every aspect of the city has a bearing on his life. 

Orhan Pamuk (2016), Wikimedia Commons.

Pamuk’s hüzün is most palpable when he writes about witnessing gentrification that has devoured the city’s old wooden houses and historical sites, replacing them with concrete monstrosities and ever-multiplying high-rises. He laments the lost heaven that he knew in Istanbul. Pamuk’s relation to the city as one of its “more sensitive and attuned residents,”[8] who had the privilege of experiencing the city as a member of “the nouveau riche and the slowly growing bourgeois,” indeed defines his sense of nostalgia.[9] Someone who grew up in the gecekondus (shanty towns) that emerged during the population boom in the 1950s and onwards experienced the city’s transformation differently. Being aware of this dichotomy, Pamuk points out that “studies have shown that those living in the city’s vast new suburbs don’t feel themselves to be Istanbullus,”[10] thereby situating himself in his narrative as an Istanbullu through and through. Although he occasionally applies a critical lens and tries to distance himself from the emotions that overwhelm him, he often succumbs to intense nostalgia, the kind he claims to have blinded the poet and Bosporus memoirist Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar (1887-1963) “to the dark and evil undercurrents of his lost paradise.”[11]

“Cityscape with Galata Tower in Istanbul” (2019), Ahmet Polat, Pexels.com.

Those familiar with Pamuk’s fictional work will recognize one of the quintessential features of his style—his penchant for intertextuality and his frequent references to other works. Istanbul brims with allusions to world literature giants, such as Italo Calvino, Mark Twain, and Constantine P. Cavafy, alongside painters and architects, such as Goya and Le Corbusier.

Pamuk seamlessly weaves this web of allusions into the fabric of his narrative, all of which enrich the book with historical tidbits, legends and anecdotes about the city. For example, in 1850, seven years after Nerval’s visit to Istanbul, Flaubert stayed in the city for five weeks. Pamuk recounts that Flaubert, grappling with syphilis at the time, visited an Istanbul brothel where he was asked to show his organ to verify that he was not sick. Feeling offended, Flaubert left the venue and later recorded the incident as follows: “since on the lower part of my glands I still have an induration and was afraid she would see it, I acted the monsieur and jumped down from the bed, saying loudly that she was insulting me, that such behavior was revolting to a gentleman; and I left.”[12] Pamuk reminds his readers of Flaubert’s visit to Cairo prior to Istanbul, where he attended the medical examination of patients with syphilis in a hospital setting intended for visiting western physicians. As Pamuk notes, “Flaubert had studied them [patients] all meticulously and made careful notes about them in his notebook, remarking with satisfaction—as he would when describing the height, stance and dress of a dwarf in the courtyard of Topkapı Palace—that he had seen yet another eastern oddity, another filthy eastern custom.”[13] The widespread bias and vanity that characterize the orientalising gaze of the Western travelers must have urged Pamuk to acknowledge the exceptional case of Antoine-Ignace Melling who would not fall into the trap of orientalising or exoticizing his scenes and figures in his engravings of Istanbul.

Mosques and Buildings of Istanbul (undated), Oleksandr Pidvalnyi, Pexels.com.

In Istanbul Melling receives an honorable mention, so to speak, with a chapter dedicated to his name and work, “Melling’s Bosporus Landscapes,” where Pamuk lauds the engravings that transport him to “Ottoman Istanbul in all its unspoiled glory.”[14] Melling spent eighteen years in Istanbul, where he worked for Hatice Sultan, the sister of Selim III, overseeing the construction and decoration of the palaces and summer dwellings. First published in 1819, Melling’s book Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore of forty-eight engravings was republished in 1969 by Pamuk’s uncle Şevket Rado, a poet and publisher. What attracts Pamuk to those engravings is that buildings and landscapes that no longer exist are preserved in Melling’s engravings. “I am aware that part of what makes Melling’s paintings so beautiful,” writes Pamuk, “is the sad knowledge that what they depict no longer exists.”[15] Leafing through the book, Pamuk juxtaposes his own memories of Bosporus to Melling’s depictions of yalıs (waterfront mansions), caïques, and boatmen along the Bosporus, his most cherished venue from his childhood where he went on family excursions on weekends. Taken over by nostalgia, Pamuk mourns a past that can no longer be recuperated but was captured in the works of great painters, architects, journalists, novelists, and poets, all of whom provide solace for him. 

In contrast to this recognizable feature of intertextuality that readers are familiar with from Pamuk’s other books, they might be surprised to find that Pamuk spares them of his usual wit, which often appears in the form of a metafictional twist as he incorporates his real-life, authorial self into the end of his fictional works. In Istanbul, readers stay with the same first-person narrator throughout, Pamuk himself, speaking from memory. Istanbul reads like an exercise in remembering a long gone past, a kind of remembering that is attainable as much as allowed by the author’s crowded memory and second-hand accounts. Though the narration remains constant, the narrator is an unreliable one, just like any other who reconstructs a story from memory. Regardless of its reliability, by writing Istanbul Pamuk writes himself into the history of the city as an Istanbullu writer through and through, inserting himself into the tradition of Istanbullu writers and poets, such as Yahya Kemal (1884-1958) and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962), who came before him, influenced his developing ideas about the city, and, according to Pamuk, were touched by the same hüzün.

Additional posts on Istanbul

Nefise Kahraman is a literary scholar and translator with a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2020). She holds a BA in Translation Studies from Bogazici University, Istanbul. She is passionate about collaborative literary translation and is one of the founding members of Translation Attached, an independent publishing house dedicated to bringing literature from Turkey to an English reading audience. She lives in Toronto and has taught Turkish language and literature courses at the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations.

Featured image (at top): Constantinople, Turkey (ca 1919-22), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

[1] Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City, trans. by Maureen Freely (New York: Vintage International, 2006).

[2] Istanbul, 101.

[3] Istanbul, 92.

[4] Istanbul, 99.

[5] Joshua Hammer, “Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul” in Footsteps: From Ferrante’s Naples to Hammett’s San Francisco, Literary Pilgrimages Around the World (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2017), 267.

[6] Istanbul, 6.

[7] Istanbul, 6.

[8] Istanbul, 101.

[9] Istanbul, 101, 59.

[10] Istanbul, 115.

[11] Istanbul, 55.

[12] Istanbul, 290.

[13] Istanbul, 291.

[14] Istanbul, 62.

[15] Istanbul, 63.

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