Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy

So, let's see what happens. I'm on a Greyhound bus riding from Cleveland to Buffalo and there's a little wifi symbol on the exterior of the bus. But we're stopped at a McDonald's outside of Erie, PA and I seem to be connected to the wifi there. As soon as the bus pulls away, we'll see where we are (she says, saving this as a Word document just in case!). [And just as an aside, there are a number of Amish/Pennsylvania Dutch (who are speaking in a language other than English) on this bus ... so while waiting in the bus station in Cleveland, I had brief Witness flashbacks. In a total moment of ... something ... Witness was an answer in the crossword puzzle I was doing!]

And so technology fails us. There is no wifi on the Greyhound bus. And now that everyone is fueled with some tasty animal fat, the sleepiness (and quiet) of the beginning of the journey gone.  One lovely thing about the Amish: No cell phones. (I am certain there are more lovely things about the Amish.)

I'm here to talk about a book. Really.  All this 2013-2014 “school” year, I’ve been running two book groups at the library – reading different books, but each with a Middle East/Islamic theme. The last book that had to be read was Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. This memoir, translated by Maureen Freely, was published before Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. Because I couldn't locate a single copy at any library, I joined (and then unjoined) Audible for my free audiobook and downloaded this book, narrated by John Lee.

For a book about memory, I find I have little recollection of its particulars. The overall theme is Pamuk’s reminiscences of a youth spent in an old neighborhood of the city, where the unstable marriage of his parents meant that he had a lot of independent time to freely roam. He completely identifies as Istanbulli, his sense of himself is wrapped up in his feelings for the city. Among other things, Pamuk discusses paintings of the city created by Antoine Ignace Melling (a long-time German resident of the city), and an earlier memoir written by a syphilitic Gustave Flaubert, as well as boat trips across the Bosphorus, dusty bookstores, an odd teenage love affair with a young girl who modeled for him, and the grand house that his fractious extended family lived in, while his father and uncles frittered away the family fortune. 

We learn how he was an indifferent student who started an engineering degree at his parents' insistence, but he really saw himself as a painter. But somewhere along the way, he became a writer. Istanbul is imbued with a sense of melancholy, or huzun (described at length in the book), of a time that is metaphorically shrouded in mist. Indeed, a month later, that melancholy is what I remember most about it.

John Lee, though, is the perfect narrator for this book. His precise speech provides the aural equivalent of Pamuk’s distant memories, while his resonant voice evokes the melancholy felt by the person recalling those memories. There is a slight sing-song quality to his delivery that contributes to the memorial feeling of the book. Lee has no trouble with the Turkish names, and indeed carries off some French as well. I know that the author’s name is pronounced PA-mück (not pa-MOOK [Downton Abbey pronunciation]).

One of the aforementioned book groups will be continuing this fall and a novel by Pamuk is on the reading list, Snow. Thankfully, because I actually find his writing somewhat dense, John Lee reads the audiobook. Look for it in about six months.

[Melling's engraving of the Palace of Hatice, the Sultan Mehmed IV's mother, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[Pamuk uses the title of this post as his epigraph, quoting from the Turkish novelist Ahmet Rasim.]

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
Narrated by John Lee
Random House Audio, 2013.  9:46

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