Excerpt from Istanbul: Memories of a City
Here we come to the heart of the matter: I’ve never left Istanbul – never left the houses, streets and neighbourhoods of my childhood. Although I’ve lived in other districts from time to time, fifty years on I find myself back in the Pamuk Apartments, where my first photographs were taken and where my mother first held me in her arms to show me the world. I know this persistence owes something to my imaginary friend, and to the solace I took from the bond between us. But we live in an age defined by mass migration and creative immigrants, and so I am sometimes hard-pressed to explain why I’ve stayed not only in the same place, but the same building. My mother’s sorrowful voice comes back to me, ‘Why don’t you go outside for a while, why don’t you try a change of scene, do some travelling …?’
Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul – these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilisations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness; mine, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate: I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.
Flaubert, who visited Istanbul a hundred and two years before my birth, was struck by the variety of life in its teeming streets; in one of his letters he predicted that in a century’s time it would be the capital of the world. The reverse came true: after the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the world almost forgot that Istanbul existed. The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been its two-thousand-year history. For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy, or (like all Istanbullus) making it my own.
At least once in a lifetime, self-reflection leads us to examine the circumstances of our birth. Why were we born in this particular corner of the world, on this particular date? These families into which we were born, these countries and cities to which the lottery of life has assigned us – they expect love from us, and in the end, we do love them, from the bottom of our hearts – but did we perhaps deserve better? I sometimes think myself unlucky to have been born in an ageing and impoverished city buried under the ashes of a ruined empire. But a voice inside me always insists this was really a piece of luck. If it were a matter of wealth, then I could certainly count myself fortunate to have been born into an affluent family at a time when the city was at its lowest ebb (though some have ably argued the contrary). Mostly I am disinclined to complain: I’ve accepted the city into which I was born in the same way I’ve accepted my body (much as I would have preferred to be more handsome and better built) and my gender (even though I still ask myself, naively, whether I might have been better off had I been born a woman). This is my fate, and there’s sense arguing with it. This book is about fate …
Excerpt from Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk
Original title: Istanbul: Hatıralar Ve Şehir
Translation by Maureen Freely
Copyright © Orhan Pamuk, 2005
Published by Faber & Faber Limited, 2006
Published by permission of the Wylie Agency
Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy