Colourful memoirs are Turkish delight

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Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk

Faber & Faber, 16.99

‘MY IMAGINATION 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... it has made me who I am," writes Orhan Pamuk a few pages into his bracing memoir. Two hundred and eighty pages later he confesses his sense of detachment: "the idea rises up inside me that I’m worthless and belong nowhere". The tension induced by this self-revulsion, at odds with his need for creative stasis, is born out of guilt. In this richly laden survey of his life he describes his earliest guilty pleasure - an erotic experience at the precocious age of four. It is a portrait of the artist’s privileged childhood - born to rich parents, a younger son in competition with his brother for the affection of their mother. Passively loved by the rich, he had a playboy father to whom he dedicates this book. There are chapters recalling the painters and foreign writers (Flaubert, Gide, Nerval) who gave the city a travellers’ cachet, and the local writers who gave it resonance.

But the book’s emotional ripples move through every conceivable aspect of Istanbul life towards the vortex of the story: Pamuk himself. If Istanbul is the narrative’s subject, Pamuk is its object. "Bear in mind that I am prone to exaggeration," he writes, by way of making sense of his mother’s and brother’s fierce denials of the brawls he recalls from his childhood. Being a novelist at heart, he indulges blatantly in the fantasy of a double: his dreamlike doppelgnger self, holed up in some other imagined corner of Istanbul, sending nightmares to Orhan’s sleep.

You could simply read all this as a hymn to growing up in a magical, deeply mysterious city. What he calls "the chiaroscuro of twilight - the thing for me that defines the city" takes on the power of a muse; not Pamuk’s alone, but Istanbul’s too, for the city’s essence - its twilight transformed into mood and emotion - is a mystical, mythical entity known as huzun.

"The huzun of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and poetry, it is a way of looking at life." This delicious, melancholic vision both romanticises the subject (Istanbul) and bathes the object (Pamuk) in writerly, almost heroic solitude. The melancholy, like the city itself, pales into the background in the book’s concluding chapters, when the writer’s turbulent adolescence blots out all else. He drops his studies and walks off his anger in midnight streets, bathed in the warmth of the "furious flame of my brilliant future" as a painter, he hoped. It was not to be. He snaps at his mother in contrariness: "I am going to be a writer." In this stunningly visual memoir, he somehow manages to be both.