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Customer Review

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exotic Literary Memoir and Travel Guide, June 16, 2005
This review is from: Istanbul: Memories and the City (Hardcover)
This memoir stikes me as both erudite & conversational thanks to a fairly reader-friendly translation, but it can be boring at times. Pamuk deals on three levels simultaneously: it is first and foremost a personal memoir,containing voluble childhood memories of mother,father, brother,grandmother and numerous aunts and uncles,his schools(at which he was a precocious student who found time to make fun of those who were more prone to disciplinary problems),his love of painting,his rich sometimes malicious fantasy life, as well as a great deal of teenage angst in the latter chapters regarding his guilt and self-hatred regarding a career choice;a wonderful if sad chapter on his first love,"Black Rose", a model; and his decision to drop out of college and abandon his original love of painting in favor of a career as a writer, a decision he makes after the "Black Rose" rejects him.In the last chapter we learn that his mother, who exerts a high degree of influence over him, believed that painting, though a highly esteemed vocation in the West, was not a practical alternative especially in the more backward East, and she strongly recommends that he finish college and find a profession,so that he won't become neurotic or constantly dependent on the beneficence of art patrons. She did, however, encourage his interest in art by allowing him to use one of her apartments as an art studio; his father supported all his interests. As a youth he moved a lot, due to his parents' frequent arguments and his father's extramarital affair.

The memoir is also notable for his family's secularized view of religion; for the most part,with a few exceptions, he considers most of the rituals of Islam, including Ramadan, to be almost in the realm of superstition and the province of the poor rather than his own more intellectual family. Symbolic of this is the family maid who tells Orhan his hands will turn to stone if he touches her while she is praying.
The family which I would describe as upper middle class slowly squanders its fortune over time--he mentions this repeatedly-- but Orhan has the benefit of a private school education in his early years. Many of his best friends were rich at the American Robert Academy. The memoir is also in large part a literary history of 4 modern Istanbul writers he greatly admires and other French writers who visited Istanbul as tourists especially in the 19th Century; the book also contains a large amount of art commentary as well as quite a bit of emphasis on the Bosphorus, its accidents, its fires, the architecture of its now time-worn palaces, and its steam ferries. The memoir is less a political history but we learn the importance of the Ataturk Revolution, and the Westernization and Turkification that it inspired, as well as its negative impact on the wealthy industrialists of Istanbul, including some interesting details about vendettas among the rich shipping magnates. The Turkification was also a form of ethnic cleansing of minorities. One of the first efforts at Westernization, and certainly not the last, was to eliminate traditional Turkish dress. There is a great deal of emphasis on the melancholy aspects of this now dilapidated city which fell from world power in the 19th Century as it slowly lost all or most of its conquered provinces; melancholy, or "huzun",a word used to denote apathy, is the word Pamuk most frequently uses to describe Istanbul, a quality shared by citizens of every class. At the turn of the 19th Century, from the engravings provided by Melling, Istanbul seems to rival Paris as a world class city. Besides the personal memoir, the book focuses on the travel writings of French authors like Gautier, Nerval, Flaubert and Gide and the indigeneous Istanbul writers,most educated in France and some of them newspaper columnists,who like Victor Hugo in Paris, frequented the poor back alleys and ruins of this complex city, a habit Pamuk emulates in some detail after making his decision to become a writer. These foreign writers as a rule were quite condescending in their negative views of the primitive East and held their own Western values as far superior. Flaubert, for example, blames the East for his contracting syphilis, a false charge; some of them, including the Turkish writers, enjoyed watching fires. Unfortunately Pamuk often, perhaps necessarily, slips into didacticism in discussing the literary history of Istanbul; it often seems rather dry and in some ways Pamuk fails to bring it to life. As the writer, it is his responsibility to do so.
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