The artist as a young man in an old city



The artist as a young man in an old city

"Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul — these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilisations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment not drawn through roots but through rootlessness; mine, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul's fate is my fate. I am attached to the city because it has made me what I am."

Orhan Pamuk's strangely evocative memoir is as much about his own life as about his city, a city that has seen two great empires rise and fall. The story of Orhan's family and the growing pains of a boy who wanted to capture the spirit of the city, first on canvas then through words, alternates with the chronicle of the city that stretches beyond the picturesque skyline of mosques and minarets and an account of how Istanbul was viewed by painters and writers in the past. The pages are richly illustrated with old photographs, reproductions of paintings, engravings and sketches — all in black and white. No, that is not quite right. Black and white suggests a sharp contrast in tone which is absent in these pictures. They are all in faded shades of grey — to match the pervasive melancholy, which Pamuk thinks is the defining mood of the city.

"Melancholy" is not the right word either. Pamuk explains at length the vast metaphysical distance between the melancholy of Burton's solitary individual and the collective state of mind that he wants to evoke in his portrait of the city. The untranslatable Turkish word is huzun. "Offering no clarity; veiling reality instead, huzun brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea-kettle has been spouting steam on a winter day". Layers of accreted traditions have imbued the concept with complexity. To the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish one feels for not being close enough to God. In Islamic tradition, huzun is the weariness one experiences after investing too much in worldly pleasure and material gain. In Istanbul, it is also connected — according to Pamuk — with the state of mourning the city went into after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Its sadness pervades Turkish music and poetry, yet it is a spiritual state that is as much life-affirming as it is life-negating.

Through the middle of the city of Istanbul flows a body of water that separates Europe from Asia. If the city speaks of defeat, destruction and deprivation, the Bosphorous sings of life, pleasure and happiness. .Maureen Freely's luminous translation brings alive both the shadows in the back alleys of Istanbul and the shimmering magic of the steamers on the water. Pamuk tells us that whenever he felt excessive attachment to the city would ossify his brain, that isolation might kill the desire in his gaze, he took comfort in this stretch of water and its reminder of a wider world. Pamuk's interest in Western representations of the images of Istanbul (from the 18th-Century painter Melling, and Gerald de Nerval who captured the city at the height of its glory to writers like Gautier, Andre Gide and a syphilis-stricken Flaubert) is balanced by his emotional attachment to four early 20th-century Turkish writers (Yahya Kemal, Resat Ekram Kocu, Tanpinar and Hisar) who shaped Pamuk's imagination. Because Turkey had never been a European colony, the influence of Western modes of writing or painting does not seem to Pamuk particularly enslaving. His four Turkish predecessors — all dazzled by Europe and particularly by France — had nevertheless realised early enough that reproducing European models in their work would be a dead end. The decline and fall of the great civilisation in which thy were born gave them a subject that was uniquely their own. We see in Pamuk's novels — particularly in My Name is Red and Snow — that the negotiation between a sensibility shaped by Europe and the fictional raw material available locally continues to be a creative challenge even today.

The prosperous Pamuk family was a part of the Westernised elite of the city whose names appeared in the society pages of newspapers, but the memories of young Orhan are mostly of gloomy and cluttered interiors where sitting rooms were like museums designed to impress hypothetical visitors, glass cabinets with crystal and silver were never opened and pianos were not played by anyone. ("Never having seen them put to any other use, I assumed pianos were places for exhibiting photographs.") Orhan felt claustrophobic in this world that "rejected any suggestion of spirituality, love, art, literature, or even mythology." The ambivalence towards religion that one finds in Pamuk's novels pervades his memoir as well. He is critical of the modernisation project of Kemal Ataturk (of which he himself is a product) for having relegated religion to the poor people — seeing it as a prop the Westernised and the educated could very well do without. He fantasised about another Orhan, his double, who lived in a place that was more open and creative. This motif of an alter ego reappears in various forms in his novels.

Orhan's parents had a strained relationship and many of the boy's early memories are of domestic conflict. Although his father understood his desire for freedom, Orhan was evidently closer to his beautiful and refined mother. That is why the last chapter, which reports an argument between the mother and the son over his choice of profession, becomes particularly poignant. When Orhan decides to give up the study of architecture to devote himself entirely to painting, his mother points out that a desire to be an artist might be respected in France, but in Turkey it would only attract ridicule. There is a shade of Joyce's Portrait of an Artist here, reminding us of Stephen's resolve to "fly by those nets". The book ends when, at the age of 22, Orhan dcides to be a writer and not a painter.

Politics does not enter directly into this haunting huzun-drenched book. But while tracing lyrically a boy's growth, his night-long walks along the dimly lit streets of the city, his sexual awakening and first love, the author is also meditating on the meaning of his inalienable Istanbullu (an adjective frequently used in the translation) identity. His novels — particularly Snow, which blends politics with poetry — testify to his growing involvement in the political crosscurrents in contemporary Turkey but also his refusal to take categorical positions. He captures the unresolved paradoxes of the society without setting up heroes and villains.

But politics of a more blatant variety have now finally caught up with him and it is well-known now that Orhan Pamuk is going to be tried by the State on December 16 for having made allegedly anti-national statements about the mass killing of the Kurds and Albanians. That a man who has voluntarily identified himself so closely with the city of his birth should be accused of disloyalty to the country seems strangely ironic. Much depends on the outcome of the trial — not only Orhan Pamuk's individual freedom (if proved, the charge of "denigrating Turkey" carries a three-year jail sentence) but also indirectly the prospects of Turkey's entry to the European Union. In the flood of public debate that is bound to follow the trial, the subtlety and nuances of his work are likely to get drowned for a while, and, as it happened 16 years ago with Salman Rushdie, even those who have never read him will also feel free to loudly air their views. But after the tumult dies down, Istanbul will continue to be cherished by readers who have a feel for the hesitant, the tentative and the ambivalent areas of experience.