The Hüzün of Istanbul

Posted on October 19 2017

Submitted by: Kiu Qingyi


By Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk belongs to a class of authors known for producing quality literary works alongside a firm rootedness to their home city. Pamuk’s entanglement with the city in which he was born, Istanbul, was the main subject underpinning his memoir. The city features heavily in this volume – its architecture, its neighbourhoods, its people, and its history. In this book, he suggests that the nature of his interactions with Istanbul shaped and influenced his practice as a writer and creative.

The Istanbul that Pamuk brings to life is one that is engulfed by a sense of hüzün: defined as a shared melancholy, deriving from the city’s tendency to slip right under the radar of stark, solid labels and categories. 

Hüzün "denotes a melancholy that is communal rather than private. Offering no clarity, veiling reality instead, hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a teakettle has been spouting steam on a winter's day".

Turkey sits on the tenuous geopolitical border separating the continents of Asia from Europe, the distinctions of East from the West, and the theoreticised Orient and the Occident. Emerging from this fluidity is a state of being that, unsympathetically, could be characterised as confused, but more accurately would be described as unbelonging.

Out of this unbelonging a city is birthed. This is the same city that inspired Pamuk’s writing, namely My Name Is Red, The Museum of Innocence and the latest of which being Strangeness In My Mind.

"Then as now, home served as a centre for the world in my mind - as an escape, in both the positive and negative sense of the word."

Pamuk is keen to draw the readers’ attention towards the dearth of writings on Istanbul by Istanbullus themselves. The majority of Istanbul’s history and cityscape was written and described to us by nineteenth-century Western travellers, seeking for an exotic Eastern vision, and possibly superimposing this onto the then-Ottoman capital. 

Drawing from this, Pamuk intersperses his personal experiences and correlates them to these accounts. There are moments of reconciliation between the two, or at others, a complete disjuncture. From Pamuk’s own personal journey of waiting, confusion and unmoving comes a strange parallel to Istanbul itself. As Pamuk describes his lack of enthusiasm or his inability to find further solace in painting, one can’t help but feel a similarity between his predicament to that of the greater city. 

“From the fall of the Ottoman Empire: the nationalism of the early republican years, its ruins, its westernising project, its poetry, and its landscapes. The result of this somewhat tangled tale was an image in which Istanbullus could see themselves and a dream to which they could aspire. We might call this dream - which grew out of the barren, isolated, destitute neighbourhoods beyond the city walls - the "melancholy of the ruins", and if one looks at these scenes through the eyes of an outsider it is possible to see them as picturesque. First seen as the beauty of the picturesque landscape, melancholy also came to express the sadness that a century of defeat and poverty would bring to the people of Istanbul.“ 

Istanbul, and the wider context of Turkey today stands at the same fissure of being neither here nor there. In the months that have just passed, the country has nursed wounds from several violent attacks and voted in a constitutional referendum that showed the country’s split sentiment. The same hüzün Pamuk described to hang low around Istanbul seems to be unbudging from the city even today, and does not really show any prospect of lifting anytime soon. Perhaps it is this sadness that makes the city’s colours, people and buildings so much more complex and beautiful. They weave narratives within narratives, build layers into layers, creating a labyrinth that is at once unsearchable and mysterious yet captivating and enthralling.


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