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Customer Review

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars decay and (introverted) passion, 6 May 2011
This review is from: Istanbul: Memories of a City (Paperback)
Perhaps it is true that you either love Pamuk or don't. I find that once I adapt myself to his style, what he is offering is simply wonderful. You carry your expectations to a book, and with Pamuk I never know what to expect. This memoir is a description of his native city and his family, as a gateway into the mind of an unusual autodidact, extremely introverted and melancholy, yet passionately committed to his art.

These three levels are the core themes of the book, which plays lots of games with its structure and images that readers can unravel if that is their bag. First, there is Istanbul - a character in the book, just like his mother and brother - a city that is in decline from its glory as the Ottoman Empire's capital city. From the heights of sophistication and colonial richness, it has entered the modern age as a decapitated giant of ruins with a crumbling (and extremely present) past. One of Pamuk's favorite childhood pastimes was to watch old Pasha mansions burn down, another was to watch disasters on the Bosphorus. But the feeling of decay and loss pervades everything, seeps into the heart of everyone, esp. the author. He breathes this decay with a never-ending fascination and love, finding in poverty and even mediocrity a key to his own identity.

The second level is his family, which is squandering its wealth from the previous generation and squabbling over a painfully unbalanced marriage. It is a mirror of the decline of the city, of course, and Pamuk must decide what to do. That is the third theme, which brings it all together: how he can carve out a role for himself as an artist, in a society that has little place for them. In addition to European writers, Pamuk focuses on a few artistic Turks, but again, they are not what you'd expect: writers who published virtually nothing in their lifetimes, even an encyclopaedist, who stops at the letter K. Again, the descriptions are as astonishing as they are understated, a window into a developing talent and alien world.

Finally, the book is packed with wonderful photos, engravings, and paintings. I wish they were of higher quality than in my edition.

There is a political subtext to it, of course: Ataturk's secular revolution is woefully incomplete: while the empire is gone, nothing has risen that can quite take its place. What you get is a half-formed society, extremely sad at its decline, but somehow proud and contented in its particular melancholy, or Huzun. The expression of this is absolutely wonderful and vivid, yet understated and infinitely subtle.

This is what this book said to me. I got a feeling for Turkey that was completely unexpected, and it will fuel my own passion for history for years. That being said, this book is not for everyone. It is about the life of the mind in a place that many will find obscure and depressing. Also, Pamuk is so introverted that many readers will not identify with him. And his style is extremely quirky.

Warmly recommended. I got a wonderful sense of the passage of history and human struggle and identity unlike anything I have ever read.
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Location: Balmette Talloires, France

Top Reviewer Ranking: 563