Seeing writer Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul
Turkish author showcases the magical and melancholy sides of his ancient, and modernizing, city.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
On a windswept afternoon in mid-December, writer Orhan Pamuk stood in a leafy square around the corner from Istanbul University, absorbed in a 40-year-old memory. He walked past parked motorcycles, sturdy oaks and a stone fountain, browsing through secondhand books in front of cluttered shops occupying the bottom floors of a quadrangle of pale yellow buildings. Sahaflar Carsisi, Istanbul’s used-book bazaar, has been a magnet for literary types since the Byzantine era.
In the early 1970s, Pamuk, then an architecture student and aspiring painter with a love for Western literature, would drive from his home across the Golden Horn to shop for Turkish translations of Thomas Mann, André Gide and other European authors. “My father was nice in giving me money, and I would come here on Saturday mornings in his car and fill the trunk with books,” the Nobel laureate remembered, standing beside a bust of Ybrahim Muteferrika, who printed one of the first books in Turkey — an Arabic-Turkish language dictionary — in 1732.
“Nobody else would be here on Saturdays. I’d be haggling, talking, chatting. I would know every clerk, but it’s all changed now,” he said, referring to the somewhat touristy atmosphere and the disappearance of characters he’d come to know, such as a manuscript seller who doubled as a Sufi preacher. These days, he said, “I come only once a year.”
Pamuk was born about 3.5 miles from the market, in the prosperous Nisantasi neighborhood in 1952, the son of a businessman who frittered away much of his fortune through a series of bad investments. Pamuk grew up surrounded by relatives and servants, but quarrels between his mother and father, and the ever-present sense of a family unraveling, cast his youth into uncertainty and periodic sadness.
For most of the six decades since, Pamuk has lived in Istanbul, both in Nisantasi and nearby Cihangir, alongside the Bosporus. His work is as grounded in the city as Dickens’ was in London and Naguib Mahfouz’s was in Cairo. Novels such as “The Museum of Innocence” and “The Black Book” and the autobiographical “Istanbul: Memories and the City” evoke both a magical city and a melancholy one, reeling from the loss of empire, torn by the clash between secularism and political Islam and seduced by the West. Most of Pamuk’s characters are members of the secular elite, whose love affairs, feuds and obsessions play out in the cafes and bedrooms of a few neighborhoods.
“I did my first foreign travel in 1959, when I went to Geneva for the summer with my father, and I didn’t leave Istanbul again until 1982,” Pamuk told me. “I belong to this city.”
Through his eyes
Last fall, I emailed Pamuk and asked him if he would take me on a tour of the neighborhoods that had shaped his upbringing and his development as a writer. After many visits, I wanted to get beyond the tourist sights and observe the city as he sees it — a place of epic history and deep personal associations. Pamuk readily agreed, and two months later I met him at his apartment in the affluent Cihangir quarter, overlooking the Cihangir Mosque, a 16th-century monolith flanked by minarets, and, beyond it, the Bosporus, the strait that forms the boundary between Europe and Asia.
I had caught up with him during the last stages of polishing his new novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind,” to be published in English in 2015, chronicling the life of an Istanbul street vendor from the 1970s to the present.
On this cloudy afternoon we followed a zigzag route that roughly paralleled the Bosporus and took us through the heart of Cihangir, once a predominantly Greek neighborhood. Cihangir is now a trendy neighborhood of artists and writers, elegant cafes, antiquarian shops and sky-high rents.
One engine of Cihangir’s revitalization is Pamuk’s own creation: the Museum of Innocence, which opened in 2012. The museum is a meticulously rendered time capsule of 1970s Istanbul and a tribute to the power of obsession. It was inspired by Pamuk’s 2008 novel “The Museum of Innocence,” about an affluent Istanbul businessman, Kemal Basmaci, who falls in love with a poor shopgirl, Fusun, and becomes so consumed that he assembles a collection of every trace of contact with her.
Pamuk found the building himself, designed the exhibits and assembled his character’s fictional collection from flea markets and his own family heirlooms. Glass cases on the walls in darkened rooms are arranged chapter by chapter, filled with these supposed tokens of his character’s mostly unrequited love: crystal bottles of cologne, porcelain dogs, Istanbul postcards and 4,213 of Fusun’s cigarette butts, each one encased behind its own tiny window. “I didn’t publish a novel for years, but I have excuses,” Pamuk told me. “I did a museum in between.”
Karakoy Square, farther down the hill, is a waterfront plaza radiating outward into avenues lined with modern and Ottoman-era office buildings, food bazaars and appliance shops. Street vendors sell pomegranate juice and simit, the wheel-like bread otherwise known as a Turkish bagel.
Tucked off one steep avenue is an alley of government-sanctioned brothels guarded by the police. The Karakoy area conjures vivid memories for Pamuk of his childhood. He pointed out a row of bicycle shops, where his father bought him his first two-wheeler. A bit farther on is a passageway leading to the Tunel, one of the world’s oldest subterranean transit lines.
We continued across the Galata Bridge, the historic epicenter of Istanbul, stopping midway to admire the scene: tourist boats and pleasure craft floated down the Golden Horn, past the mosques of Sultan Ahmet on one side and the steep hills of Cihangir on the other. “This was originally a wooden bridge, and when I was growing up you had to pay to cross it,” he said, “but you could also hire row boats. I remember my mother taking me across by boat in the 1950s.”
In “Istanbul,” Pamuk captured the melancholy, or huzun, that infused the metropolis during his boyhood, when it was still suffering a long decline after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He described “the old Bosporus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter ... the old booksellers who lurch from one financial crisis to the next and then wait shivering all day for a customer to return.”
The autobiography, published in 2001, brought Pamuk’s life story up to his decision to become a writer in 1973 and captured a very different time in the city’s history. “The city was poor, it wasn’t Europe, and I wanted to be a writer, and I wondered, ‘Can I be happy and live in this city and realize my ambition?’ These were the dilemmas I was facing,” he told me. “When I published it the younger generation told me, ‘Our Istanbul is not that black and white, we are happier here.’ They didn’t want to know about the melancholy, my kind of dirty history of the city.”