I originally picked up Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk because lately I’ve been very interested in the history and culture of Turkey and its predecessor the Ottoman Empire. I also knew that Pamuk had recently won the Nobel Prize for literature, so I was curious about him as well.
This book is a memoir of sorts, but it’s not a traditional one. It doesn’t follow the format of, “I was born here, and then my family moved here, and then I grew up, and then I did that, and now I’m writing this book.” What Pamuk offers are snapshots of his life in a westernized, upper-middle-class, dysfunctional, Turkish family living in Istanbul. Sometimes these snapshots are out of order, but they are always vivid. Pamuk is always cognizant of how each phase of his life has been shaped by the millennia-old city around him.
I love reading books where the setting is almost another character. Maybe it comes from growing up in the South, but I have always had a strong sense of place, and I love how intricate Pamuk’s descriptions of the places of his childhood are, from his grandmother’s perpetually dark sitting room crammed with furniture and knick-knacks; to the Bosporus, which can be seen from almost any place in Istanbul; to the empty apartment he used as a studio when he thought he wanted to be a painter. Here’s an excerpt from a dissertation on ferry traffic on the Bosporus:
I find the perfect column of smoke comes with a light breeze, and after the smoke has for a time been rising at a 45-degree angle, it begins to run parallel with the ship, without changing shape, as if someone has drawn an elegant line in the sky to indicate the ferry’s course. The thick column of coal-dark smoke rising from a ferry docked on a windless day reminds me of smoke rising up from the little chimney of a hovel. When the ferry and the wind have changed direction just slightly, the smoke rising from the funnel begins to swoop and swirl over the Bosporus like Arabic script.
It’s just a detail, but it evokes and entire scene. In the novel I’m writing currently, I want the setting to take just as prominent a role, so I’m experimenting with this technique.