A Study in Black and White

There are many illustrations sprinkled throughout Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City , all of them in black and white, so that everything, the city, the family, Orhan Pamuk himself, looks like figures cut out of old travelogues or forgotten Kokak prints found at the back of a bottom desk drawer. They are, each one of them, presented in the service of huzun, a form of melancholy, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.”

Pamuk's Istanbul is, more than anything, a portrait of the artist as a young man, written by someone who, like the cited encyclopedist Koçu, resembles the "powerless historian" in Nietzsche's Use and Abuse of History -- homing in on historic details to change the history of his city into the history of himself.

I loved Istanbul from my first glimpse of it from the window of a Turkish Air flight, and I never saw its melancholy. But I am a westerner, who has only put foot to the cobblestones of Istanbul for less than a week all told. By the time I got there, the Istanbul that Orhan Pamuk knew as a child had regrown some of its old splendor, for the tourist trade at any rate. Before that, my image of Turkey came largely from Hollywood, movies like Topkapi and Midnight Express.

Pamuk went to the movies too, and pulls back the curtain a little on what the third world thinks and feels about we happy few, and how they too often see themselves in that reflection:

Happy people in Europe and America could lead lives as beautiful and as meaningful as the ones I'd just seen in a Hollywood film; as for the rest of the world, myself included, we were condemned to live out our time in places that were shabby, broken-down, featureless, badly painted, dilapidated, and cheap; we were doomed to unimportant, second-class, neglected existences, never to do anything that anyone in the outside world might think worthy of notice.

To me, Istanbul was a magical city, but it was an imaginary city. I thought of my visits there as visits to ancient Byzantium, that never never land of myth and magic, the gateway to the East, to Isfahan and Samarkand.

Pamuk knows this imaginary city as well, but he lives in the real one:

...I have always preferred the winter to the summer in Istanbul. I love the early evenings when autumn is slipping into winter, when the leafless trees are trembling in the north wind and people in black coats and jackets are rushing home through the darkening streets. I love the overwhelming melancholy when I look at the walls of old apartment buildings and the dark surfaces of neglected, unpainted, fallen-down wooden mansions; only in Istanbul have I seen this texture, this shading. When I watch the black-and-white crowds rushing through the darkening streets of a winter's evening, I feel a deep sense of fellowship, almost as if the night has cloaked our lives, our streets, our every belonging in a blanket of darkness, as if once we're safe in our houses, our bedrooms, our beds, we can return to dreams of our long-gone riches, our legendary past. And likewise, as I watch dusk descend like a poem in the pale light of the streetlamps to engulf these old neighborhoods, it comforts me to know that for the night at least we are safe; the shameful poverty of our city is cloaked from Western eyes.

And I think, because I also have a melancholy turn of mind, of those ancient cities of myth and magic, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans. Have we, too, begun to cloak our shameful poverty from the eyes of the world, from the eyes of those who once looked our way for beauty and meaning?

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