Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk

This memoir suffers from some of the same weaknesses as Snow (see my previous post). The chapters are disjointed and ramble from subject to subject, always circling around the Istanbul of Pamuk’s youth. He has good transitions between the chapters but the book as a whole never coheres, at least for me. However, some of the chapters are outstanding, so evocative that I feel I too am there, pretending the carpet in his grandmother’s museum of an apartment is the sea, watching the ships on the Bosphorus, walking the streets in search of the old wooden mansions that are falling to pieces. And scattered throughout the book are amazing photographs that capture the mystery and routine of daily life in the city.

What most delighted me were his extended meditations on a subject that has interested me for several years, ever since I first wandered through the Forum in Rome, surrounded by the bustling city, the whine of Vespas dodging among cars, the chattering voices of workers heading off for their mid-morning espresso. What does it do to you to grow up among the ruins? To be constantly reminded that your nation once ruled the world, but does so no longer? Would you feel inadequate, a failure because you could not equal the achievements of your ancestors? Would you be proud of the past? Or would you just walk by the ruins every day and not even notice them? The answer probably differs from one person to another.

In The Enigma of Arrival V.S. Naipaul writes about a man coming to stay ” . . . in the cottage of a half-neglected estate, an estate full of reminders of its Edwardian past, with few connections with the present.” He talks about living with the idea of decay and the way things seemed ” . . . like a vestige, a memory of another kind of house and garden and street, a token of something more complete, more ideal.” In this story, the people had not moved on, preferring to remain in the past.

Christopher Woodward’s In Ruins explores how our ideas about ruins have changed over time and from one civilization to another, analysing paintings, books and buildings. An architectural historian, I believe Woodward was at one time the curator of Leighton House, one of my favorite London museums. It is so crowded with THINGS—sculptures, paintings, furniture, bits and pieces of broken marble—a marvelous jumble to be sure but it made me want to go home and clean out the basement.

Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better just to clear out all these old bits and pieces. Pamuk says that “. . . in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible.” Unlike the proudly displayed ruins in Rome or Greece, these ruins ” . . . inflict heartache on all who live among them.” However, he treasures that heartache and describes the peculiar melancholy—huzun—that they inspire.

As I sort through the family papers, photos and mementos that have recently been handed down to me, I struggle with deciding how much of the past to hold on to and how much to jettison. As one of my sons said, what do I want with photos of people I never met? Of course, I won’t get rid of anything. I’ll hand it off to another sibling, but I wonder if anyone in the next generation will care.

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