memoir, review

Istanbul: Memories of a City

Indonesian edition’s cover (source:

Trust Orhan Pamuk to weave together culture, history, religion, social condition, political issues, and his own point of view on his troubled yet quiet country into a detailed, wonderful tale. Either historical or contemporary, Pamuk’s works of fiction never fail to capture people’s attention. Or raise endless arguments, for that matter. But now he comes up with a memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City. True to his writing nature, Pamuk doesn’t make Istanbul a sole account of his life and experiences, but he recounts the historical events ever happened in the past to the place he lives in, which in turn shape what he is and the choices he makes. First published in 2003, Istanbul offers so much more than a merely written docu-soap, if I may say so, and has particularly amazed me in any possible way.

Pamuk begins his memoir with the story of his childhood, in which, as a kid, he is suspicious that in another part of the world, in another house out there, there is another him. He’s so convinced of having a “twin brother”, of being different from the one in that other house that he creates a belief in his mind that one day he will also have another life, live in another world. Subsequently, he imagines living in two separate worlds, one of which is a world of art. When he draws or paints something (most of them are of scenery of Istanbul, especially scenery of the Bosporus), he feels as though he exists in that another world, being far away from his real life. He continues to feel so; even as he’s in the presence of his friends, he can be different persons.

Alongside the story of his life, Pamuk tells the reader about the city of Istanbul itself and everything within: the ruins and the piles of rubble, the mess, the poverty, the ignorance, the sorrow, the gloom, even the pretense of being “rich and modern” performed by its people. Somehow, Pamuk has intertwined those articles with historical facts and events taken place at the same spot and also books and encyclopedias he deems proper as references and sources of inspirations. And amidst his complicated yet readable description of Istanbul and everything it has, he irreluctantly conveys the secret of his family and even his feeling about it. That unconventionally unashamed part of him is what makes this memoir more gripping and alive, sinking us into a whirlpool of fantastic blending of a particular place, its history, its society, and the persons living in it.

Pamuk presents all this in a somewhat sorrowful atmosphere. He thinks the fall of the Ottoman Empire has brought the fall of Istanbul, and the fall of Istanbul has brought the fall of its people, one of whose is Pamuk himself. He was growing up within and with the sorrow of the city, which is truly undeniable after the last war bringing down the old kingdom. Pamuk can’t help but reveal the irony where the people of Istanbul think that being westernized and secular is the only way to recover from their sufferings of the fall. They think that being “western people” is the best way to get back to the glory of their country as a “new republic”. Yet they can’t be true “western people” because they are not, in any sense of the word.

Though personal, Istanbul: Memories of a City is not a dramatically written account of someone’s life and experiences. Rather, it is a complete narrative of events, connecting people with place and time. Pamuk’s way of narrating it is unexpectedly not boring for a memoir, and he equips his with beautiful images of classical paintings and childhood photos. This memoir is presented, very normally I’d say, in a total narrative and description, giving almost no room for dialogues nor utterances. However, the honest and nostalgic tone of the book has successfully put me through a better understanding and insight into a country I consider as the cultural and social “twin” of my own.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I don’t enjoy memoirs nor biographies as a general rule. Not because Orhan Pamuk is one of my favorite authors, but I found this book comprehensively written and very much attractive, both visually and narratively. So in the end, I would like to recommend Istanbul: Memories of a City not only to Orhan Pamuk’s fans, but also to everyone who seeks for something more than a memoir.

Rating: 3.5/5

2 thoughts on “Istanbul: Memories of a City”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s