“Beauty resides entirely in the crumbling city walls”

istanbul-orhan-pamukThe Brown Baggers met on January 18 to discuss Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk is a highly successful and influential Turkish author, who has won many awards over his illustrious career including the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, given for his body of work. This book is a work of nonfiction about his home city, primarily focusing on the decades when he was growing up — the 1960s and 70s.

Many readers found Pamuk’s writing beautiful but still struggled to make it through the book saying it was tedious and grueling. They were discouraged by the melancholy and destruction themes Pamuk talks about. Although some readers felt these were descriptions of the people, especially the upper class as they lost their wealth, and not the place. Those readers that had visited the city felt a strong disconnect from the vibrant locale they remember seeing and the crumbling, dour place Pamuk describes. Some felt this may be just a difference in time period — with Pamuk describing his childhood in the 60s, and travelers visiting after the year 2000 when revitalization and development have completely reconstructed the city. They also speculated that the inclusion of only black and white photos in the book added to the gray feelings. Even so they enjoyed the photos, often described them as beautiful, and loved the glimpse into another life and country which they provided.

Readers who are personally acquainted with Turkish individuals commented on how they do seem reserved, which could be perceived as sadness or melancholy.

Many readers found it interesting that Pamuk lived in his family’s building his whole life. Some also questioned his ability to remember so much detail from his young life, but noted that he had a lot of help hearing stories, so it made sense even if what he was sharing were not his own personal memories.  

Despite the pervasive heaviness of the text, readers unfamiliar with Turkey were glad to gain insight into a completely different culture, and learn more about its history and the ongoing struggle to bridge the Europe-Asia divide.

Readers struggled to categorize the text. The library has it in the travel section, as it is very focused on a specific location and wandering about that place. The book suggests it should be in the history of Turkey section. And some argued that the place for it was in Biography with other memoirs. Obviously it has elements of all three kinds of writing, but a single identifying one was not recognized or agreed upon.

In the end readers agreed Pamuk must hold dear his home city since he continues to reside there, despite having lived abroad previously and obviously having the means to relocate should he desire.   

Other information:

Titles mentioned:
Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak
Palace Walk by Najīb Maḥfūẓ (about Egypt)

Reviews of Instanbul:
From the Telegraph
From the New York Times

PBS special on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
The popular song

Pamuk interview with the New York times:

His other works in JMRL’s collection.

Brown Baggers will meet again on February 15 at noon to discuss The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

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