Melancholy: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

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Snow in Istanbul (Google image search)
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Young Pamuk drawing (Google search image)

Istanbul: Memories and the City

In a city whose colors can easily turn drab and dark by stumbling around wrong corners, one’s eyes constantly refer back toward the Bosphorus as a reminder of its beauty. Pamuk describes a similar orientation in his memoir of Istanbul and his childhood. The Bosphorus encapsulated for its residents a circus of life, death, and entertainment as the heart of the city with a soul deep enough to forever swallow whole anything that fell in. Ships and cruise liners from all over the world would flow through challenging the children to identify each and every one, car accidents consisted of leaps of faith into the Bosphorus and old wooden Ottoman mansions burned and served as a pastime spectacle. The last vanishing remnants of an empire for child’s play.

For Pamuk, while everyone was drawn to the Bosphorus, he was also drawn to the streets, those melancholy, dark alleys where he spent his formative years wandering. He lovingly tells the story of some of his favorite chroniclers of the city, whether it be in the form of drawings or out of print encyclopedias seen through foreign eyes or as natives. A young French expat Antoine Melling comes to Istanbul and gets commissioned to design buildings and interior spaces and draw some landscapes by an Ottoman Princess only to have his money cut when he marries an Italian. An homosexual academic Reşat Ekrem Koçu takes on the task of completing an encyclopedia of Istanbul also including youths or street boys he encountered on the streets he had crushed on.

A view of the Bosphorus from Antoine Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (Google image search)
A view of the Bosphorus from Antoine Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (Google image search)

Pamuk also grapples with the relic of a former Ottoman glory and the poverty that could be seen walking the streets. He admits to being a victim of seeing the city through the receptacle of a critical Western lens but approves of this over a romanticization of the past.

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