Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (DNF)

2004 (Translation copyright). Alfred A. Knopf. Hardcover. 384 pages.

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Orhan Pamuk, author of Snow and My Name is Red, writes about the city where he’s lived his whole life: Istanbul. He tells anecdotes about his childhood, and also analyzes the works of other writers and artists who depicted Istanbul.


Although familiar with the name of Orhan Pamuk, I have not read any of his novels. I saw this book at my library and was intrigued by the book jacket’s description: “Blending reminiscence with history; family photographs with portraits of poets and pashas; art criticism, metaphysical musing, and, now and again, a fanciful tale . . .”.

I definitely loved all the photographs and pictures of Istanbul scattered throughout the book. I also liked the window into another life and culture that was provided by Pamuk’s more detailed stories of his childhood and life in Istanbul.

If – as happened once every forty years – my fat grandmother had to go outside or was invited out, the preparations would go on for days; until the last step, when my grandmother would shout for Kamer Hanim, the janitor’s wife, to come up and pull with all her strength on the strings of her corset. I would watch with my hair on end as the corseting progressed behind the screen – with much pushing and pulling and cries of “Easy, girl, easy!”

p. 119

In one chapter, he describes the relationship of Istanbullus to the Bosphorus and the various ship disasters that occur there.

When I told people I was writing about Istanbul, I was surprised at the longing in their voices when the conversation turned to those old Bosphorus disasters. Even as tears formed in their eyes, it was if they were recounting their happiest memories, and there even some who insisted that I include their favorites.

p. 214

Despite these interesting tidbits here and there, Pamuk spent a lot of time discussing a parade of authors (both Turkish and Western) who had Istanbul as their subject. I guess I hadn’t expected such a large chunk of literary criticism. It might have gone down better if I was familiar with the works discussed, or if I had some personal familiarity with Istanbul, but I wasn’t and I had not. Eventually, I realized that reading the book had become a chore with no sure reward at the finish, so I gave up reading at about page 250 or so.

Excerpts of other reviews:

Amy Reads – “It is brilliantly written, full of incredible pictures that show the scenery which he describes. I could see what he was describing and feel it. I felt like I was there, or had been there, or at least that I very much wanted to go there.”

Mirek’s Blog – “The best of this book is in showing the relation between our lives and the places we live in.”


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays

5 responses to “Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (DNF)

  1. I’ve had this sitting on my shelf, half-read, for the past 3 or 4 years. Maybe longer. I keep meaning to finish, but there was just such a sense of melancholy to the book.

  2. I almost gave up on my first Pamuk (Snow) too. He is hard work. The only way I made it to the end was by reading it very slowly over the course of several weeks. I agree that he feels like a chore to read and I don’t think I’ll be attempting another of his books anytime soon. Don’t worry – you are not alone šŸ™‚

  3. You’re enticing me with this review (but only after April1, I’ve pledged to stick to the TBR pile until then). I haven’t made it through his novels either, although Snow sits on my shelf as I keep meaning to try it again.

  4. Amy

    I have been curious about Orhan Pamuk’s books but I have heard that they can be a bit arduous. I thought Istanbul was about his experience growing up there which interested me. I wouldn’t be thrilled to come across the literary criticism if I was reading Istanbul particularly because I know I’m not familiar with many authors who’ve written about Istanbul!

    I’m sorry this book didn’t quite work out for you. I appreciate your honest review and enjoyed reading it.

  5. softdrink – Yes, the book is definitely melancholy throughout, especially with Pamuk explaining the concept of hazun, the Turkish word that means a kind of melancholy.

    Jackie – yikes, I didn’t realize that his novels were also hard work. Thanks for the commiseration!

    bookeywookey – I admire those of you on your TBR dare. I’m addicted to getting books out the library!

    Amy – Although Pamuk doesn’t assume that readers are familiar with the authors he talks about, I think having a bit of familiarity is the only way that literary criticism would be interesting, IMHO. I’d say Istanbul would be best for someone who feels okay with skipping parts.

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