Orhan Pamuk, Localist

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow a few years ago. Snow is an atmospheric novel set in ethnically mixed eastern Turkey (the city of Kars). The novel paints a picture of a “frontier” city’s characters, political and religious intrigues, dilapidated architecture, climate, and topography. While the novel is political, even featuring a comic-opera municipal coup d’état, it is not ideological. Pamuk seemed to put ironic distance between himself and every one of the ideologies running through the city’s overheated atmosphere: Kemalism, Islamism, Kurdish nationalism, even the protagonist’s confused “Westernism.”

Lately I’ve been reading Istanbul, a nonfictional meditation on Pamuk’s home city cum memoir. So far the memoir parts are rather dull, but the analysis of Istanbul’s spirit and history is interesting. It is in this book that Pamuk declares his localist sympathies (5-6):

I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood… [F]ifty 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… Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul–these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness. My imagination, 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.

This passage reminds me a great deal of Bill Kauffman’s arguments for local patriotism in Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, an account of the people and goings-on of Batavia, New York. Dispatches is actually a more entertaining read than Istanbul, and its politico-economic analysis of a city’s decline is more compelling. Of course, there are vast differences between Istanbul and Batavia. Istanbul is home to more than 13 million people and former capital of a great empire. Batavia is a small town of less than 20,000 in upstate New York. Istanbul has been rapidly growing, while Batavia has been static. But both cities have experienced the loss of aesthetic and “spiritual” treasures that define them – Istanbul with its cobblestone streets buried under asphalt and old mansions burnt down and Batavia with its decimated, “urbanly renewed” Main Street. To no small degree both cities are defined by what they’ve lost, and both writers constantly refer to these losses in explaining the present.

There is something to the idea that the cultural diversity prized by cosmopolitans is wholly dependent upon the continued existence of people like Pamuk and Kauffman: people rooted in the local knowledge and customs of one place.

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