Istanbul has always been central to Orhan Pamuk’s imagination. When his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, appeared in 1982, Pamuk was thirty. Like Thomas Mann, another precocious novelist whose debut—published when Mann was 26—concerned the decline of a wealthy merchant family over the course of several generations, Pamuk set out to chronicle the inception of Istanbul’s bourgeoisie. The task he set for himself was daunting, but Pamuk achieved surprising success: Cevdet Bey’s eponymous hero, from the city’s first generation of Muslim merchants, was well-received by Turkish readers, who saw something authentic in him. Having profited from the ordeals of Greek and Armenian capitalists who fell out of favor under the reign of the Young Turks in the early twentieth century, Cevdet Bey and his story of progress and capital accumulation told the broader tale of modern Istanbul’s birth.
As Cevdet Bey’s family makes its fortune from government contracts to build railways that link Anatolia’s towns, transformations of the Ottoman Empire’s former capital challenge and change its members. But the most curious character of a novel that overflows with tycoons and factory owners is a young artist named Ahmet Işıkçı, who bears a resemblance to the young Pamuk. Hanno, the character thought to be modeled on Mann in Buddenbrooks, is an artist who dies young, but Ahmet, who loves Goya’s art and despises the narrow-mindedness of the Turkish middle classes, reappears in Pamuk’s subsequent books as a symbol of a path not taken. (The cover art of The Museum of Innocence is credited to him; in fictional form Pamuk’s alternate self remains alive.) In the novel’s much-praised final sentence, Ahmet simply “enters his study to work,” a ritual to which the author has devoted his life since his early twenties.
Cevdet Bey and His Sons was written in a cool, detached voice not unlike Mann’s, but that didn’t prevent Pamuk from describing Istanbul’s transfigurations under a modernizing regime with meticulous precision. This style garnered praise from history professors and literary critics alike, the type of bookworms who, in Pamuk’s early novels, ponder Istanbul’s modernization while poring over monographs in the secluded comfort of their studies. But there were boundaries that Pamuk would not cross. While he excels at chronicling the travails of the intellectual and well-heeled heroes of Istanbul’s Westernized neighborhoods—especially Nişantaşı, where he spent his youth—in his early novels, darker parts of the city, such as its new satellite neighborhoods and inner-city slums, remain in the shadows.
Pamuk’s 21st-century works ponder the palimpsest that is Istanbul differently. A sustained interest in the city’s satellites and dilapidated quarters vitalize these new fictions. A composite of mourning and curiosity is at the root of this interest: Pamuk wants to explore the terrain of his city and his nation’s history while avoiding the trap of political nostalgia. The Museum of Innocence (2008) and A Strangeness in My Mind (2014) both treat Istanbul like an urtext in need of patient reading and careful exegesis. Their heroes read Istanbul by walking its avenues, and the image of the author who retreats from the world’s noise to a book-lined study in Nişantaşı gets replaced by the specter-like figure of a city-dweller in search of something irreversibly lost in Istanbul’s alleyways. With this Pamuk, we get less Thomas Mann and more Walter Benjamin of the Arcades Project.
In The Museum of Innocence, an obsessive collector named Kemal is the most famous incarnation of Pamuk’s new approach to Istanbul. Dumped by his young mistress, Kemal loses direction, and his pursuit of an irretrievable beloved energizes and steers the novel’s plot. On a mental map Kemal marks in orange the Istanbul streets that remind him of his old flame: “My home and Teşvikiye Mosque were, like so many side streets, marked in orange because I knew that the prolonged exposure could inflame my suffering.” Yet he can’t stop wandering those orange quarters, and his hope of encountering her specter overtakes his life. “Those places where her ghosts had appeared most often were the ones where I was most regularly to be found,” recalls Kemal: “Istanbul was now a galaxy of signs that reminded me of her.”
For the heartbroken wanderer obsessed with locating a beloved, Istanbul’s defaced streets become enchanted. “I resolved that I needed to spend more time walking through these streets, more time in these coffeehouses, drinking tea, gazing out the window, and waiting for her to walk by,” Kemal reports, and soon he stops frequenting Nişantaşı, loses interest in the “society amusements” that used to consume his nights, packs his bags, moves to a hotel in Istanbul’s historic peninsula, and curses himself “for having neglected to seek out these charming streets, these old neighborhoods, much sooner.” In the evenings Kemal prowls the backstreets of Fatih, Karagümrük and Balat, his mind fogged by alcohol. These endless walks both comfort and confuse. He feels as if he could see “the very essence of life in these poor neighborhoods, with their empty lots, their muddy cobblestone streets, their cars, rubbish bins, and sidewalks, and the children playing with a half-inflated football under the streetlamps.” With these nocturnal strolls Kemal thinks he was “seeking out my own center.” His listless outings, he suspects, are a disease, “but instead of seeking to relieve it, I made the most of my pain. I took to wandering aimlessly through those forbidden streets of orange light.”
A Strangeness in My Mind features a different city-wanderer, yet one equally obsessed with Istanbul’s nocturnal dark labyrinths. Mevlut, a street vendor, pursues something beyond rescue: his own peace of mind. Impoverished, precarious and anxious, Mevlut considers modernity a “demon of change” that casts its spell over Istanbul, tearing asunder the fabric of a past he pledges to preserve. Each night he leaves home at around 8:30 p.m., when the evening news broadcast draws to a close, wearing a brown sweater, a blue apron and a woolen skullcap. But Mevlut doesn’t seek a beloved on Istanbul’s streets. His journey is routed inwards. He often gets lost in his mind’s dark depths: Mevlut’s Istanbul is a city of cemeteries, of “factories of all shapes and sizes, garages, workshops, depots, medicine and lightbulb manufacturers” whose ghostly silhouette terrifies the working-class flaneur. Pamuk writes of how the city “lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.”
But Istanbul’s multitudes are built on a particular historic erasure, and A Strangeness in My Mind boldly retrieves what has been excised from the city’s streets. In September 1955, we learn, Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox churches were burned to the ground; Jewish, Greek and Armenian shops were looted; soon afterward, “the social fabric of the neighborhood had begun to fray.” Another major blow against Istanbul’s non-Muslim population has come with an anti-Semitic property tax, “through which the government, having become increasingly open to German influence during World War II, imposed levies on Tarlabaşı’s Christian community that most of them would never be able to pay, and sent the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, and Jewish men who failed to do so to labor camps.” Racist mobs, armed with sticks and carrying flags, “looted and vandalized churches and shops, chased priests away, and raped women. Those who didn’t leave the country then had to do so overnight in 1964, by government decree.”
For these wandering heroes, Istanbul’s streets soon become reminders of a violent past while also serving as symbols of their private spiritual crises. Pamuk highlights this in A Strangeness in My Mind by using as an epigraph a sentence about Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “It shocked him to find in the outer world a trace of what he had deemed till then a brutish and individual malady of his own mind.” This encapsulates Mevlut’s own connection to nocturnal Istanbul. “Hearing the things the city told him at night and reading the language of the streets,” we learn, “filled Mevlut with pride.” Wandering its half-lit streets, he “was also reaching into the world inside his mind.” The streets on which Mevlut worked each night “and the universe in his mind were one and the same … walking around the city at night made him feel as if he were wandering around inside his own head.”
While working on another novel—his eleventh—that again promised to consider Istanbul from a sociological purview, Pamuk published Balkon (2018), his first book of photography. Tastefully designed and printed by Gerhard Steidl in Göttingen, the fog-colored volume comprised 467 images that Pamuk took with a Canon 5D camera from the balcony of his Cihangir home. A telephoto lens and a tripod assisted Pamuk in capturing Istanbul’s vistas: freighters, the slopes of distant shorelines, clouds, promontories and construction cranes that appear and disappear in his horizon fill Balkon’s pages.
Pamuk likens himself to a bureaucrat trying to “observe and record everything that goes past his door.” In fact, he most resembles his younger novelistic self, who considered Turkey’s history from a historian’s detached perspective. From a remove his photographs surveil Istanbul’s seasonal changes, ponder its snow-covered roofs and consider its sun-baked boats. “There is something in this view which reflects my own state of mind,” Pamuk wrote.
But that state of mind has changed, first in Pamuk’s writing and now in his photography. In Orange (2020) Pamuk again wields a Canon camera, but this time he enjoys little control over his mise-en-scène. The comfort of the balcony and the preplanned distant-viewing sessions have been abandoned for Istanbul’s grim streets, which impose their own aesthetics on his lens. People object to being photographed; dogs chase him. “Perhaps the real issue was that during evenings when the weather was good, people treated the streets as if they were their own living rooms,” he muses.
Photography has allowed the 68-year-old novelist to behave as if he were a traveler in his own city, and in these 350 views, captured after sunset in Istanbul’s backstreets, he has found a novel way to inscribe his city’s soul between the covers of a book. By trying to combine his strengths in different media, Pamuk is attempting to overcome barriers in both—in the novel, a lack of spontaneity and improvised prose; in photography, an apparent lack of expertise with the medium and its form—in order to forge a different, more supple form of narration.
Pamuk sets out to photograph his city’s neighborhoods and streets “while they were still bathed in orange light.” A realization triggers this resolution: since the early 2000s, the color of Istanbul’s interior lights and streetlights has changed, annoyingly, from yellow to the white of modernized bulbs. His role model in this endeavor is the French architectural photographer Eugène Atget, who set out to document Paris streets in the 1890s before they fell victim to modernization. Atget was aware that his “city’s appearance would soon change beyond recognition”; like Atget, the novelist wants to “preserve the fading image of Istanbul.”
An unlikely factor contributed to the production of these orange images. An outspoken critic of Turkish nationalism, Pamuk began receiving death threats in the mid-2000s, and the government offered to protect him with a bodyguard. Pamuk soon got used to wandering Istanbul with his new shadow, taking him on his nocturnal walks and finding himself “wondering what my friend the bodyguard might think, as he walked behind me, of the orange-hued streets I had chosen to explore that night.” There is a peculiar joy in picturing this guardian of Istanbul being trailed by another guardian. Trawling Istanbul this way has altered his relationship with the city—“I could go anywhere now”—and allowed Pamuk to engage with it in the manner of heroes of his post-Nobel novels.
Over the course of several months, Pamuk slipped on a baseball cap, pulled the visor low over his face and ventured “into Istanbul’s farthest, remotest streets and through its most disreputable districts without anybody recognising or stopping me.” And what did he photograph there? Five men around a table playing cards in a basement floor; a boy cycling furiously; an out-of-focus woman carrying an infant on stairs; a deserted alleyway; two women in chadors walking near a man sporting white cassocks and a turban; a mustachioed man whiling away his time in a hairdresser’s; a laborer driving a bulldozer; a woman shielding under an umbrella on a snowy day; watchmen chatting with locals; a waste picker; posters of mayoral candidates from the ruling party and its opposition; flags, flags, red Turkish flags; a Syrian woman begging, perched on a street; phaetons of Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands; a pack of dogs raiding the trash; a snack shack captured in the manner of an Edward Hopper painting; and graffiti in Arabic, among hundreds of other city fragments.
These images—chaotic, disorienting and unromantic, in search of a center that’s never found—appear in the book in the style of a personal photo album. There are just a few secular-looking figures; mostly men dominate orange streets that contain hints of a culture turning its back on the West, toward what Pamuk calls “a more subdued, more cautious kind of nationalism.” Over the past half-decade, these streets have witnessed clashes of a divided city: a noisy and deathly coup attempt in 2016; the mayoral elections of 2019, the results of which were annulled by the ruling party after the progressive opposition candidate emerged victorious; rising rates of poverty due to a currency crisis, rising inflation and snowballing unemployment. Yet there is little nostalgia in Pamuk’s survey of Istanbul. “Nostalgic,” we read in A Strangeness in My Mind, was “a word Mevlut didn’t like.” Pamuk doesn’t like it either. In Orange he doesn’t quite mourn Istanbul’s cultural shifts; instead, he locates in them signs of a personal decay, both of his own and his nation’s.
“Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography. “Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos.” Atget’s photographs “of neighborhoods now torn down,” she noted, “supply our pocket relation to the past.” Pamuk’s works offer a similar service. “Whereas thirty years ago I might have walked in Istanbul more frequently, I suspect I saw fewer things than I do now,” the novelist admits. “Back then the city was darker at night … There were fewer stores, fewer shop windows, and even fewer illuminated billboards than there are today.” Nostalgia, in Turkey, has become a political tool in the hands of politicians, misused for ominous ends. Pamuk’s images in Orange, and his post-Nobel novels, explore the dimensions and value of a different yearning—a melancholy gaze that invites us to reconsider the experience of the city and our investment in it. Instead of mourning the homely, cozy orange light that is fast disappearing, bulb by bulb, Pamuk acknowledges that the new, bright and icy white light has become part of Istanbul’s palimpsest.
Sitting at my writing desk in Istanbul, I can see bathed in orange light the rail-lines of the intercity train, built by tycoons who shared Cevdet Bey’s self-interested determination to modernize their country. Just behind them, a coastal sidewalk glares in that ugly white light. It’s their intermingling I find beautiful. In the background, hundreds of meters away, sits one of the Princes’ Islands. The dying sunlight glistens on the Bosphorus. The island glimmers in orange. Will it turn white as well? It just might.
Art credit: © 2020 Orhan Pamuk in Orange, courtesy of Steidl Verlag