Author: Orhan Pamuk: 2003
Review: Kirk Bowman, Jon R. Wilcox Professor of Soccer and Global Politics – Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech
I made my first trip to Istanbul in 2014, exploring the societal conflicts represented by tensions between the anarchist and secular ÇarÅŸi fan club of the Besiktas Football Club and the increasingly authoritarian and Islamist Erdogan government. A friend recommended this book as an introduction to the neighborhoods, the love affair between the people and the Bosphorus, as well as the conflicts between east and west, modern and traditional, and secular and religious that combine to make Istanbul one of the world’s most fascinating, beautiful and dynamic cities.
The city is his haunting muse, and Pamuk provides a history of perceptions of Istanbul, from Western travelers to famous painters to Turkish writers to Divan poets. The descriptions of others are layered on Pamuk’s own revealing memories of Istanbul’s glories and horrors, of architectural splendor and urban decay, and of a people who are both brash and terribly insecure. Pamuk’s own family serves as a parallel metaphor to the city itself, with both hefty servings of joy and pleasure as well as pettiness and bankruptcy.
Pamuk was my constant companion during my time in Istanbul, welcoming me to the ferries, the massive wooden mansions, and the interesting “consoling streets” of the local neighborhoods beyond the reach of the hordes of tourists. I would strongly recommend it to any visitor. For observers from afar, the book is as relevant as ever. In Istanbul’s boom years in the decade after its publication in 2003, Pamuk’s portrayal seemed anachronistic as Prime Minister Erdogan seduced foreign observers into believing that a democratic, Islamic and prosperous Turkey had slain its identity demons. Gezi Park and the government’s heavy-handed persecution and imprisonment of opponents, journalists, protestors, soccer fans and others, along with now-President Erdogan’s increasingly disturbing rhetoric and brash behavior, have invigorated “Memories of the City.” Turkey remains at the crossroads of east and west and continues to wrestle with Pamuk’s principal theme, Istanbul’s irreconcilable tension between the past and the present.