Cut off from the past

Istanbul: memories of a city

Orhan Pamuk; translated by Maureen Freely <em>Faber & Faber, 348pp, £

When he was a child, Orhan Pamuk often used to spend time with his grandmother. He would observe her as she wiled away the long afternoons, smoking cigarettes and playing bezique (and occasionally poker) with the other old ladies of Nisantasi, a newly westernised suburb of Istanbul. Among the poker chips that his grandmother kept in "a soft, blood-red velvet pouch" were handfuls of old, perforated Ottoman coins, inscribed with imperial monograms, with which young Orhan liked to play. Of equal fascination was one of the regulars at his grandmother's soirees, an old lady who had once been a member of the sultan's harem and who, after the fall of the empire, had married one of his grandfather's colleagues. The boy was intrigued as much by the overly formal manner in which she addressed his grandmother as by her unabashed fatness and fondness for cakes.

Part memoir, part history, part brilli- ant and eclectic encyclopaedia, Pamuk's Istanbul is also a book about dislocation. Istanbul, he claims, is a place where, for the past 150 years, "no one has been able to feel completely at home".

After the fall of the Ottoman empire, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, made changes so sweeping and fundamental - from abolishing Arabic script to outlawing the fez and the yashmak - that many Istanbullus were left with a profound sense of being cut off from their past. On family excursions down the Bosphorus, Pamuk would see traces of a once great, now vanished civilisation where, "once upon a time, people very much like us had led a life extravagantly different from our own - leaving us who followed them feeling poorer, weaker and more provincial".

Describing his childhood in the 1950s, Pamuk sees his family as a paradigm of the new Turkish condition. Enthusiastic advocates of Ataturk's westernising project, they lived in a European-style block of flats, complete with heavy carpets, glass cupboards and pianos that no one could remember how to play: "little museums designed to demonstrate to a hypothetical visitor that the householders were westernised". Yet although everyone welcomed this, principally as a freedom from the laws of Islam, "no one was quite sure what else westernisation was good for . . . The cloud of gloom and loss that the fall of the Ottoman empire had spread over Istanbul finally claimed my family too."

Istanbul becomes a poetic metaphor for this condition. With loving obsessiveness, Pamuk describes the city's peculiar atmosphere of melancholy. Huzun, a Turkish word denoting collective melancholy, is everywhere: "on cold winter mornings, when the sun suddenly falls on the Bosphorus and that faint vapour begins to rise from the surface, the huzun is so dense that you can almost touch it, almost see it spread like a film over its people and its landscapes". Seeing Istanbul in the snow is another of the "sad joys" that he relishes. Reduced from Byzantine splendour to the monochrome colours of an old photograph, the city seems even more like an outpost, the contemplation of their "common fate" drawing its inhabitants "closer to our fabulous past".

But Istanbul is not just a lament for the loss of an Ottoman city that now exists only in the imagination of its poets and historians. There is plenty here that is real. Pamuk describes the old water-front yalis (wooden mansions) that once belonged to Ottoman pashas, the Istanbullu obsession with counting ships on the Bosphorus (an obsession I eagerly share whenever I visit the city), and the various writers - both European and Turkish - whose collective imagination has helped turn what is a series of villages into an imagined whole.

The chapter entitled "On the Ships that Passed through the Bosphorus, Famous Fires, Moving House and Other Disasters" gives some idea of the marvellous eclecticism of Pamuk's approach. In this city, once built almost entirely of wood, fires were frequent. Pamuk remembers how, in his childhood, crowds would form to watch these spectacles. Many of the best ones, indeed, are remembered still. When he tells people that he is writing about Istanbul, Pamuk is surprised at the longing in their voices when the conversation turns to the old Bosphorus disasters: "Even as tears formed in their eyes, it was as if they were recounting their happiest memories, and there were even some who insisted that I include their favourites." (This he obligingly does.)

But he knows, too, that this strange nostalgia has its roots in a spiritual ache, in "the guilt, loss and the jealousy" that old Istanbullus feel at the "sudden destruction of the last traces of a great culture and a great civilisation that we were unfit or unprepared to inherit in our frenzy to turn Istanbul into a pale, poor, second-class imitation of a western city". In Pamuk's eyes, as far as Istanbul is concerned, "western" is always to be equated with "poor". This left me wondering what his attitude might be to the proposed entry of Turkey into the European Union. It may be presumptuous, but I will hazard a guess that, despite his misgivings about westernisation, he is for it. Not on the usual grounds of economics or politics, but because he might see it as one way - an unexpected way, perhaps - to return the Ottoman city to the multilingual, multiracial, cosmopolitan place that it once was.

"I poured my soul in the city's streets," Orhan Pamuk writes towards the end of this extraordinary and transcenden-tally beautiful book, "and there it still resides." For all its brooding introspection - exquisitely conveyed by Maureen Freely's translation - and its occasional longueurs, it is a long time since I have read a book of such crystalline originality, or one that moved me so much.

Katie Hickman's most recent book is Courtesans (Perennial)