ORHAN PAMUK: ISTANBUL & THE CONCEPT OF HUZUN

October 12, 2006 at 7:54 pm | Posted in History, Islam, Literary, Middle East | 6 Comments

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ORHAN PAMUK

ISTANBUL

AND THE CONCEPT OF HUZUN:

According to Orhan Pamuk, the melancholy of Istanbul is huzun, a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” For the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish one feels at not being close enough to God; for Saint John of the Cross, this anguish causes the sufferer to plummet so far down that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. Huzun is therefore a sought-after state, and it is the absence, not the presence, of huzun that causes the sufferer distress. “It is the failure to experience huzun,” Pamuk says, “that leads him to feel it.” According to Pamuk, moreover, huzun is not a singular preoccupation but a communal emotion, not the melancholy of an individual but the black mood shared by millions. “What I am trying to explain,” he writes in this delightful, profound, marvelously original book, “is the huzun of an entire city: of Istanbul.”

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Turkish novelist Pamuk (Snow) presents a breathtaking portrait of a city, an elegy for a dead civilization and a meditation on life’s complicated intimacies. The author, born in 1952 into a rapidly fading bourgeois family in Istanbul, spins a masterful tale, moving from his fractured extended family, all living in a communal apartment building, out into the city and encompassing the entire Ottoman Empire. Pamuk sees the slow collapse of the once powerful empire hanging like a pall over the city and its citizens. Central to many Istanbul residents’ character is the concept of hüzün (melancholy). Istanbul’s hüzün, Pamuk writes, “is a way of looking at life that… is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating.” His world apparently in permanent decline, Pamuk revels in the darkness and decay manifest around him. He minutely describes horrific accidents on the Bosphorus Strait and his own recurring fantasies of murder and mayhem. Throughout, Pamuk details the breakdown of his family: elders die, his parents fight and grow apart, and he must find his way in the world. This is a powerful, sometimes disturbing literary journey through the soul of a great city told by one of its great writers. 206 photos. (June 10)

From The Washington Post’s Book World/washingtonpost.com

All happy cities resemble one another, to paraphrase what Tolstoy famously observed of families, but each melancholy city is melancholy in its own way. The saudade of Lisbon, the tristeza of Burgos, the mufa of Buenos Aires, the mestizia of Turin, the Traurigkeit of Vienna, the ennui of Alexandria, the ghostliness of Prague, the glumness of Glasgow, the dispiritedness of Boston share only on the surface a common sense of melancholy. According to Orhan  Pamuk, the melancholy of Istanbul is huzun, a Turkish word whose Arabic root (it appears five times in the Koran) denotes a feeling of deep spiritual loss but also a hopeful way of looking at life,
“a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” For the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish one feels at not being close enough to God; for Saint John of the Cross, this anguish causes the sufferer to plummet so far down that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. Huzun is therefore a sought-after state, and it is the absence, not the presence, of huzun that causes the sufferer
distress. “It is the failure to experience huzun,” Pamuk says, “that leads
him to feel it.” According to Pamuk, moreover, huzun is not a singular preoccupation but a communal emotion, not the melancholy of an individual but the black mood
shared by millions. “What I am trying
to explain,” he writes in this delightful, profound, marvelously original book, “is the huzun of an entire city: of Istanbul.”

Pamuk begins his inquiry with an image, a kitschy portrait of a child brought back from Europe that was hung in the house of his aunt. “Look! That’s you!” the aunt would say to the 5-year-old boy, pointing at the picture. For Pamuk, the painted child (who resembled him slightly and wore the same cap he sometimes wore) became his double,
another Orhan leading a parallel life in another house in the same city, another self whom he would meet in his dreams with shrieks of horror or with whom he’d bravely lock eyes, each boy trying to stare the other down “in eerie merciless silence.”

As with himself and the picture of his “other,” Pamuk suggests, Istanbul is haunted by another Istanbul, a shadowy presence in the shadows. He sees the city in black  and white, mirrored in the ancient engravings and old photographs that illustrate the book — a city in which ruined buildings conjure up the ghosts of their former selves and stately monuments insinuate their future collapse. Through the descriptions of otherwriters — several Turkish masters, various traveling foreigners — Pamuk parades yet more double-images of the Istanbul he knows. As seen by the poet Yahya Kemal or the historian and encyclopedist Resat Ekrem Kocu, by Gerard de Nerval or Gustave Flaubert, Pamuk’s
Istanbul keeps unfolding like a series of Rorschach tests, multiplying its ink-stained ghosts and tempting the reader with potentially infinite interpretations.

Pamuk tells the story of the city through the eyes of memory, warning the reader at every step that “these are the words of a fifty-year-old writer who is trying to shape the chaotic thoughts of a long-ago adolescent.” His accounts of his parents’ difficult relationship, his eccentric grandmother, his embattled friendship with his brother, his sexual awakening and his first self-guided explorations as an artist lead inexorably to the book’s final, decisive words: “I’m going to be a writer.” And yet even that foregone conclusion is lent a slightly duplicitous tone, a dreamlike, remembered quality. There is a past tense in Turkish — it does not exist in English — that allows the writer to distinguish between hearsay and what he has seen with his own
eyes. “When we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense,” Pamuk explains. This is the tense in which his book seems to be written, in a voice on the edge of reality, halfway between what he knows has happened and what he believes imaginatively to be true. This voice, this tone, this tense,
is perfectly suited to describing melancholy.

Istanbul as shared melancholy, Istanbul as double, Istanbul as black-and-white images
of crumbling buildings and phantom minarets, Istanbul as a city of maze-like streets seen
from high windows and balconies, Istanbul as an invention of foreigners, Istanbul as a
place of first loves and last rites: In the end, all these attempts at definition become
Istanbul as self-portrait, Istanbul as Pamuk himself. “Here we come to the heart of
the matter,” he says early in the book. “I’ve never left Istanbul, never left
the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood.” Such a city becomes the
inhabitant’s in more senses than one. “To Be Unhappy Is to Hate Oneself and One’s
City” is the title Pamuk gives the 34th chapter. The reader must therefore deduce
that he is not an unhappy man, because Istanbul is a book by a man in love.

A city one has lived in long enough shapes itself into one’s own image, acquires the
traits of one’s personality, the features of one’s soul. It becomes what Jorge Luis Borges
once called “a map of my humiliations and failures” or, as in the case of
Pamuk’s Istanbul, a map of a man’s
huzun, both of his intimate miseries and betrayals and of his secret victories.

Product Details:

Hardcover: 400 pages

Publisher: Knopf (June 7, 2005)

Language: English

ISBN: 1400040957

In 1923 when Turkey became a republic, Muslim Turks made up half of Istanbul’s
population of 500.000. The other half consisted of Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians and
other non-Muslim ethnic groups. The city was truly cosmopolitan and highly fashionable in
the 1960s when Pamuk was growing up in upscale Nisantasi district: Non-Muslim religious
temples outnumbered mosques even then, although the population has unevenly grown to 1.5
million
in favor of Muslim Turks. One could order ham or pork
sausages for breakfast in most restaurants or drink lemon flavored vodka at Rejans, a
Russian restaurant run by two emigrant White Russian ladies, in Beyoglu. In those days,
Istanbul was a visibly secular, highly sophisticated, cultured and refined city.

Today, Istanbul has a bustling population of about 12 million people where the
non-Muslim population can hardly reach 100 thousand in total. Some churches and synagogues
are closed most of the time because of lack of attendance and funds. Pera (or Beyoglu) is
no longer a cosmopolitan community despite its long surviving name. The city has a much
different, lackluster character now. It looks tired, burdened by heavy traffic, crowded
streets and dense housing.

When Orhan Pamuk reflects on his life in Istanbul, he cannot help feeling melancholic
about it because the city has now been inundated by an influx of conservative migrants
from rural Turkey. While walking around in working-class districts similar to Fatih or
Carsamba, a secular Istanbullu (like Pamuk himself) would indeed feel depressed. Clad in
clothes compliant with Islamic values, overpowering number of bearded men and headscarved
women would contrast very poorly to the secular images of the past.

For me, this book is not as simple as it appears at first glance. Here, in disguise
there are strong political and social messages about the current tendentious issues in
Turkey. Again, author Orhan Pamuk delivered us a gem in “Byzantine” style.
Bravo!

Ah, to understand a Turk. To comprehend a vast, neglected city like Istanbul, a
once-splendid hub of empire and now the veritable locus of “East Meets West.”
Even better, to glimpse intimately, what makes a great author, great. If you haven’t read
any of Orhan Pamuk’s work, reading this fine memoir is the perfect place to start, it can
only whet your appetite for future readings. If like me, you lament that nothing remains
unread in Pamuk’s translated canon, then this book will feel like pure luxury, like a
series of grace notes floating above a collection of excellent fiction.

“Istanbul: Memories and the City” has many tender accounts of the author’s
childhood and family life along with insightful musings on the character of Istanbul and
its denizens, the Istanbullis. Certainly, the book’s central theme is an exploration of
how relationship and birthplace make us what we are. As Mr. Pamuk makes plain, (and lucky
for us) he was born in no ordinary city. In addition, the book harkens directly to the
zany, dream-afflicted characters found abundantly in Mr. Pamuk’s work, which the memoir
makes amply clear, are so much in their parts . . . like unto himself.

Once again, Pamuk has us pondering the structure and nuance of Identity, this time, as
a grand idea explored through the medium of childhood and birthplace. The sensitive candor
with which Mr. Pamuk describes his background and relationship to the City is quite
touching. The chief literary pleasure of the book has to be the chapter describing “
Huzun” (which may be an aging sister
to notions of “Kismet”). “
Huzun,” according to Pamuk, is a
collective melancholy consisting of, in differing degree; longing, nostalgia and
unrequited love. Mr. Pamuk explains how the experience of “
Huzun” both limits and expands the life of
Istanbul, its citizens and himself, as a quality central to shared identity.

Despite Istanbul’s storied allure, the book highlights the deeper mystery of Istanbul’s
past, by belying old notions of “orientalism,” and revealing the cultural affect
of early 20th century “Westernization” and its resulting distortions. The
Ottoman past is transformed into the modern Turkish state within the lifetimes of his
grandmother and parents. This transformation is most opaque when Mr. Pamuk recalls the
interminable, empty “western-style” apartment “sitting rooms” used by
modern apartment block dwellers to testify to their incipient “
Westernization.” Photographs of neglected
Ottoman-era houses leaning sadly into each other over the Bosphorus along with pictures of
the author’s family are an exceedingly pleasant accompaniment to the text.

Also not to be missed, is the chapter on the never quite completed and wholly
subjective “Encyclopedia Turkey.” This chapter captures a certain frenetic
intensity that lies with The Turks, a people who did the unthinkable by adopting new
habits of dress, writing and socio-political organization, within an unimaginably short
peroid of time. The energy behind this intensity appears (to the reader) to
counter-balance the undertow of “
Huzun,” in both Mr. Pamuks’ memoir and his collected fiction. By the author’s
account, the chaos brought by the redirection of Turkish society and requisite
“westernization” resulted in difficult years for Pamuk’s family and the legacy
of Istanbul. Fortunately, today Turkey is the seventh fastest-growing economy in the
world. Similarly, Mr. Pamuk is an internationally recognized writer.

Paramount to “Memories and the City” is the true art of sweet memoir. As Mr.
Pamuk engages us in his city and childhood, (even a first romance) the shades of Hoja,
young bus riders from “The New Life,” shadows of the poet Ka from
“Snow” and especially Jelal, that crazed columnist from “The Black
Book,” rise above the blue haze of Istanbul’s “
Huzun” with devastating grace, to the reader’s
extreme delight.

A river through time, June 5, 2006

Pamuk spans the distances of time and memory in this novel as he searches for the
meaning of the melancholy, or huzun as he calls it, of the city of Instanbul. Born into a
wealthy Turkish family, Pamuk slowly watches his family’s fortune dissolve in the hands of
his father. He recounts his memories as his family moves from one quarter to another,
interspersing personal accounts with various literary observations. Through it all we
experience the uneasy balance between
Islamic and
Western forces
that have shaped the city over the centuries. He
explores through the writings of Europeans, how foreigners perceive the city, and how
Turkish writers have attempted to respond to these views. Pamuk has such an elegant way of
writing, with many undercurrents, like the Bosphorus which he so much loves. I
particularly liked his literary chapters, like that of the four melancholy writers of
Istanbul, and their attempts to forge an identity for the city. These attempts may have
fallen short of their grand expectations, but the books became treasures, and helped to
define modern Turkish writing. There are also his amusing observations on Flaubert, Nerval
and other French writers and painters, who became absorbed in the city and to whom he felt
modern Turkish writing owes a substantial debt. While Pamuk tries to escape this
melancholy in his painting, ultimately finding a muse on which to hang all his hopes, he
can never fully escape it, as he too becomes absorbed in this great city, which proves to
be his literary release.

The haunted metropole, June 3, 2006

Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul–melancholy, decaying, and haunted by the
memories of multiple shattered empires–does not even really exist anymore in quite the
way he describes: the parts of the city which seem to him most characteristic of gorgeous
and splendid decay have been largely rebuilt today, so that what seems most characteristic
to him of Istanbul is something contemporary visitors to the city will have to seek out
for themselves behind the bustle of Sultanahmet and Beyöglu. But that makes his beautiful
Sebaldian memoir of the city no less powerful nor evocative, and Pamuk draws a beautiful
correspondence between the aging metropolis and his young self trying to find a vocation
in a city that offers all kinds of possibilities to him he cannot fully see. (The memoir
in many ways evokes Joyce’s PORTRAIT, especially in the narrator’s final recounting of a
conversation with his mother when he decides upon his career.) This is a splendid
introduction to Pamuk, the best-known Turkish novelist in the United States, and to his
beloved city–even if the city he describes exists mostly in memory.

I read this book ‘in parallel’ with Amos Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness”;
both are written by noted novelists looking back at their early years, but they are vastly
different: a character-focused dynamic memoir marked by the birth of a state (Oz) versus a
landscape-centered pathetic travelogue marred by the death of an empire (Pamuk)!

I generally do not read novels, so Pamuk is no exception. It is hard for me to believe that he has been so successful, as I found the writing in “Istanbul” rather mediocre. Although I can see an overall decadent individual producing great fiction, I suspect that his success is propelled by Turkey’s bid to join the EU: identity fusion such as that of “White Castle” and overall ‘confusion’ between East and West serves as a great spice for Turkey’s bid in the Brussells kitchen!

Of course a careful reading of “Istanbul” may reveal the origins of Pamuk’s East-West vision, and explain the style of writing as well: when the author was young he dreamed of becoming a painter, and that dream was fueled by relentless exposure to Western painters and travelers, so in the end he is not sure whether he gazes at his own city as a Turk or a Westerner, etc etc.

But in addition to those Western painters and writers there were some local Turks whose quest for ‘Turkishness’ amidst Ottoman Istanbul’s ruins — and contemporary Istanbul’s poorer districts — did not escape Pamuk’s notice. There is nothing unique in intellectuals from ‘peripheral’ countries searching for their ‘roots’ in the culture and lifestyle of those fellow men that are — or rather were, before globalization — least likely to be affected by foreign influences. But in Turkey’s case we have the added paradox of a parent empire that
shunned the mother tongue and generally did not view itself as ‘Turkish'; add to that a city that was largely non-Muslim when Pamuk was born and the most prominent monuments of which are pre-Ottoman, and you begin to see where the author is coming from.

I could be biased due to my ethnicity, but the concept of contemporary — to a youthful Pamuk at least — Turks not knowing what to make of a fabulous city they somehow ‘inherited’ seems to emerge through the reading of “Istanbul”. To his credit, the author is very open about the endless persecutions of the now nearly extinct Greek (Rum) minority, and he even mentions the silence of the Turkishness-seeking Istanbul intellectuals after the 1955 pogrom. But this honesty does not make me share his sorrow at the decay of Ottoman Istanbul, and the vividly described phantasmagoric to cathartic burnings of the old pasha villas by the Bosporus in particular.

Ah, yes, the Bosporus… Many of the book’s best moments are connected to it — like the young author’s awe at the silent passing of a larger-than-death Soviet warship in the middle of the night, for example. Another moment for which I retain some affection is the old museum guard ending a young couple’s kisses through the sound of his steps on decaying wooden floor…

As other reviewers — notably Turks — have pointed out, you don’t get a good image of contemporary Istanbul and its dynamism by reading “Istanbul”. I can even say that a Guardian article by his translator (Maureen Freely) following the November 2003 terrorist attacks was, in a way, more worthwhile reading than the entire Pamuk’s memoir! Still, “Istanbul” might be remembered in the future as a valuable chronicle of that global city in its numbing phase between Ottoman Turkey and European Turkey.

The Imperial City, April 21, 2006

Is any city as mysterious or compelling as Istanbul? To be the seat of the Ottoman Empire for centuries only to see itself poor, downtrodden and defeated in the modern age must produce a melancholy unknown in the West. Turkey’s greatest living national treasure, Orhan Pamuk, gives us an insider’s view of Istanbul. And he does so in the best possible way – by using his own life as a guide for Istanbul’s intrigues in a highly personalized story of the city.

ISTANBUL therefore is not a detailed or comprehensive history of the town. Rather, its thirty-seven chapters provide bitesized snapshots of Istanbul through the lens of a young man growing up knowing that his city was once great and also knowing, alas, that its best days are behind it. Istanbul residents even have their own word for the melancholy this produces and this sense of huzun infuses the entire book.

Pamuk covers many things in ISTANBUL, including growing up
in the shadow of a once great empire, the intimate relationship city residents have with the Bosphorus river, tales of various writers and artists who have visited Istanbul and the legacy they left behind, and the picturesque nature of outlying neighborhoods. The reader finds himself strangely drawn to Istanbul at the same time as he feels the pain and isolation of its residents.

Given the personal nature of the writing, Pamuk also focuses quite a bit on the odd pull the streets, buildings and citizens of Istanbul have had on him. I once heard an interesting question about rock-and-roll. Would U2 have been a spectacular supergroup had they been from Oklahoma City rather than Ireland even if all else, the music and talent, had been the same? An interesting thought to chew on and one that is relevant here. Pamuk is one of the more important writers today. But where would he be if he had been born somewhere besides Istanbul? The city so infuses his soul that it is difficult to imagine him being from anywhere else and writing the books that he does. A non-native could not have written ISTANBUL and we should be thankful that it has a native son like Pamuk to do the job for us.

6 Comments

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  1. [...] published by ZED Books. (The UK edition has a slightly different title).  In a related post, at Cambridge Forecast, is a look at Pamuk and the concept of huzun as “the melancholy of Istanbul”. Elif [...]

  2. [...] befitting of the black-and-white imagery is Pamuk’s lengthy description of the concept of huzun, which denotes melancholy, but is far more complex, communal, and spiritual than a typical Western [...]

  3. […] a dourness perhaps, but no two melancholic cities are the same. There’s a little more on it here but if you get the chance to read the chapter, you really […]

  4. […] City, and I had to admit that it was difficult for me to understand the melancholic veil of “hüzün” that coursed through the brilliant author’s blood and draped over his eyes, at least […]

  5. […] Dal turco = malinconia derivante dalla percepita distanza dalla spiritualità; per estensione, l’atmosfera malinconica di Istanbul. […]

  6. […] From Turkish = melancholy deriving from a perceived distance from your spirituality; by extension, the sombre atmosphere of Istanbul. […]


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