An eerie, subtle evocation of childhood and a melancholic, loving ode to home.
Award-winning novelist Pamuk (Snow, 2004, etc.) grew up in an elite household; his childhood was both charmed and fraught. The cast of characters included his beautiful mother, his two-timing father and his grandmother, who looked like a “relaxed matron from a Renoir painting.” They inhabited a culture in transition. The ancient Turkish regime had collapsed, but westernization had not quite rushed in to fill the void; people were mournful and confused, betwixt and between. Even Pamuk’s family was finally claimed by “the cloud of gloom and loss that the fall of the Ottoman Empire had spread over Istanbul.” His father continually flirted with bankruptcy and would sometimes vanish for days at a time. Young Orhan wanted the city to westernize, yet he wanted everything to remain the same. His memoir also delves into literature and art, discussing how outsiders like Flaubert have seen Istanbul and considering the ways in which Western configurations of the city have shaped its self-understanding. Pamuk discusses the many Western artists, like Antoine-Ignace Melling, who painted the Bosphorus. The author himself took to drawing as a child, painting the landscape and eventually graduating to portraits, among them one of a beautiful girl he would fall in love with. Later, Pamuk studied architecture, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Pah,” says his mother, “do you think you can earn a living just making pictures? Maybe in Europe, but not here.” There it is again, the long shadow of the West. In the last pages, Pamuk turns from art and architecture to writing, making this ultimately a book about vocation. The text is augmented by a remarkable collection of photographs, many by Ara Guler. Translator Freely also deserves kudos for rendering Pamuk’s perfect Turkish adjectives in spare, startling English, from the “ghost-ridden” house to the “cold-blooded candor” of Westerners.
An engrossing tale of a city—and of an author as a young man.