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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical


Orhan Pamuk

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Istanbul

Title: Istanbul
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 368 pages
Original in: Turkish
Availability: Istanbul - US
Istanbul - UK
Istanbul - Canada
Istanbul - India
Istanbul - France
Istanbul - Deutschland
Istanbul - Italia
Estambul - España
  • Memories and the City
  • Turkish title: Istanbul
  • Translated by Maureen Freely
  • With 206 photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing memoir of an Istanbullus

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B 13/4/2005 David Flusfeder
The Economist . 9/4/2005 .
FASz . 12/11/2006 Henning Ritter
FAZ . 18/11/2006 Hubert Spiegel
The Guardian . 2/4/2005 Jan Morris
The Independent . 8/4/2005 Alev Adil
The Independent . 7/4/2006 Boyd Tonkin
The Los Angeles Times . 7/8/2005 Michael Frank
NZZ . 16/11/2006 Monika Carbe
New Statesman A 11/4/2005 Katie Hickman
The NY Rev. of Books . 15/3/2007 Amos Elon
The NY Times Book Rev. . 12/6/2005 Christopher de Bellaigue
The Observer A+ 17/4/2005 Nouritza Matossian
San Francisco Chronicle . 12/6/2005 Sandip Roy
The Spectator A+ 14/5/2005 Philip Mansel
Sunday Telegraph . 9/4/2005 Noel Malcolm
TLS . 13/5/2005 Nicholas Birch
The Washington Post A 26/6/2005 Alberto Manguel

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but most very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The overall effect of Istanbul is like being in the melancholy company of a learned, egotistical uncle, who takes you on a slow tour of his photo albums in twilight. This uncle has perfect recall for details, but his memory is almost entirely visual (...) Fans of Pamuk's fiction will be grateful for this book; travellers familiar with Istanbul will be stimulated; those unfamiliar with either may well be wearied." - David Flusfeder, Daily Telegraph

  • "(A) fascinating read it is too for anyone who has even the slightest acquaintance with this fabled bridge between east and west. (...) Read this book then for its internal symmetries, not for its verisimilitude." - The Economist

  • "Im Lauf der Jahre wird er nicht nur zu einem neugierigen Beobachter des Stadtlebens, sondern schließlich sogar zu einem Stadthistoriker, der vieles zusammenträgt, von dem er annimmt, daß es eines Tages noch dazu dienen kann, sein Bild der Stadt mit einem sprechenden Detail zu bereichern. Sein Leben wird immer mehr zu einem Leben mit seiner Stadt." - Henning Ritter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "(Z)ugleich Autobiographie, Porträt seiner Heimatstadt Istanbul und eine Geschichte vom Zerfall einer Familie. Mit seinen Stadtansichten und den vielen privaten Familienfotos der Pamuks ist dieses reiche Istanbuler Lesebuch auch der Versuch, das prägende Lebensgefühl der Metropole am Bosporus zu erfassen." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This is an irresistibly seductive book, and its seduction lies not in the author's self-portrait, but in his poetical identification with Istanbul." - Jan Morris, The Guardian

  • "Part memoir, part cultural history, the vision of his home city that Pamuk presents in this book is occluded by the mists of reminiscence. He tries to make sense of the contested representations of European travellers and Turkish writers, the changing fortunes of Istanbul, and his own place within it." - Alev Adil, The Independent

  • "Above all, Pamuk sees the melancholy longing of hüzün as the hidden key to Istanbul. For a complete definition of this nebulous nostalgia, you'll just have to read his hazily enchanting testament." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "(A)n engaging if curious grab bag of a book that is partly a memoir and partly a portrait of the place he has lived all his 50 years." - Michael Frank, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Istanbul – Erinnerungen an eine Stadt ist ein Psychogramm Istanbuls, in gleicher Weise jedoch auch des Autors als Kind, eine Selbstbespiegelung im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes." - Monika Carbe, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Part memoir, part history, part brilliant and eclectic encyclopaedia, Pamuk’s Istanbul is also a book about dislocation. (...) For all its brooding introspection -- exquisitely conveyed by Maureen Freely’s translation -- and its occasional longueurs, it is a long time since I have read a book of such crystalline originality, or one that moved me so much." - Katie Hickman, New Statesman

  • "Pamuk, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, draws a brilliant portrait of the city which has long infused his imagination. (...) Istanbul goes beyond an account of deprivation of rights. By evoking the gradual changes in the cityscape, and in the very faces of the people of Istanbul, Pamuk exposes the decline -- but not the fall -- of a great city." - Amos Elon, The New York Review of Books

  • "Pamuk is not a sunny memoirist, but neither is he a sunny novelist. In this memoir of his youth, as in the six novels he has set in the city, Istanbul bears only a fleeting resemblance to the smiling and vibrant place many Westerners know from vacationing there. (...) Istanbul is full of byways that lead the reader into Pamuk's fiction -- sometimes with a jolting literalness." - Christopher de Bellaigue, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The book is brilliantly constructed, delving into the phenomenological world of the young boy. (...) A master of elegant miniatures, Pamuk writes concisely, piling scene upon scene, and, at one stage, composing a dazzling single sentence a hypnotic two-and-half pages long. He is eloquent, too, in his empathy for his country's dilemma: Westernisation and Europe or tradition and Islam. (...) Orhan Pamuk has remained faithful to his opulent muse. This quietly instructive and enchanting elegy to a redeemed childhood and to Istanbul itself will bring the world to his feet. It should be read, and reread, simply for joy." - Nouritza Matossian, The Observer

  • "In part tales of the city, laden with photographs, in part the portrait of the artist as a young man, it is overall a skillful literary exercise using the personal to map a larger portrait of a society at a crossroads. (...) It's an erudite memoir, rich in detail and research, though not warm and fuzzy." - Sandip Roy, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This magnificent memoir interweaves the political and the personal: the history of Istanbul with the early years of its most famous living writer. (...) Pamuk’s perception, attention to detail and many quotations from books and newspapers give readers direct insight into the life of a city which he calls ‘so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than Western cities’." - Philip Mansel, The Spectator

  • "In his new book -- part childhood memoir, part extended essay on Istanbul life -- he describes, with a marvellously painterly eye for detail, what it is that he loves so much about this city. This is not the sort of detail, however, that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would have in mind. (...) This evocative book succeeds at both its tasks. It is one of the most touching childhood memoirs I have read in a very long time; and it makes me yearn - more than any glossy tourist brochure could possibly do - to be once again in Istanbul." - Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The tour on offer here, dazzling though it is, is not so much of Istanbul as of Pamuk's efforts to mould it into a personal vision. His point of departure, and the source of his sense of disorientation, is the difficulty he finds in being modern in a city not only a pale shadow of its former grandeur, but also cut off from its past by the abandonment of Arabic script and an ideological sea change.(...) With its pervasive sense of ennui, its espousal of the idea of art for art's sake and the image of artist as struggling hero, Istanbul often reads like some strange leftover from post-Romantic nineteenth-century Paris. (...) If this deeply stimulating book has one flaw, it is that the reader (this one at least) never gets a very clear sense of who Pamuk thinks he now is." - Nicholas Birch, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(D)elightful, profound, marvelously original" - Alberto Manguel, The Washington Post

  • "This is one of my favorite city books because it is written by a native son, a keen observer who knows all his city's faults as well as its virtues." - Paul Theroux, in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul is a memoir, but -- as the title suggests -- the city itself figures as centrally as the author. It is not so much that Istanbul made Pamuk (though he does go so far as to say it did), but it is an integral part of who he became and is. Explaining and describing his hometown allows Pamuk to describe himself, using it as a reflection of his character, outlook, even personality.
       Istanbul and Pamuk are completely intertwined in this memoir. Pamuk proceeds more or less chronologically, from his earliest childhood until his university days, culminating in his decision to become a writer, all the while always situating almost everything that happens against the backdrop of Istanbul. It is not a single, static locale; indeed, Pamuk's Istanbul is ever shifting and changing, not least because Orhan and his family seem to be constantly moving from apartment to apartment (or Orhan is temporarily taken in by some relative or another), but also because Orhan constantly explores and traverses the city.
       The chapters focus on specific events or aspects of Istanbul, neatly tying together city-history and autobiography, whether he's writing 'Melling's Bosphorus Landscapes' or 'On the Ships That Passed Through the Bosphorus, Famous Fires, Moving House, and Other Disasters' or 'Flaubert in Istanbul' or 'First Love'. Concerned more with how Istanbul is and has been perceived -- both by outsiders (Westerners such as Melling, Flaubert, Nerval, etc.) and locals -- than, for the most part, actual history, Pamuk revels in the slightly decrepit state of the city and its very distant grandeur. He devotes a chapter to trying to explain the local type of melancholy, hüzün, which, of course, he feels intensely (and already did as a child), a sort of fin-de-siècle nostalgia of a city whose glory-days are irretrievably lost -- and yet remains incredibly vibrant (just not in the way it once was ...).
       Part tour-guide, part history teacher, and always raconteur, Pamuk speeds the reader through what seems like every last nook and cranny in town, though in fact his focus remains largely on the old and lost (or in-the-process-of-getting-lost) and he ignores much of the real city. It's a dizzying expedition, not helped by the absence of any map to help orient oneself. On the other hand, the book is richly illustrated -- 206 photographs ! -- and the pictures are often splendid: fabulous structures, scenes much like those he describes, and a fair number of family snapshots that all nicely complement the text.
       Fast-moving too is the somewhat shadowy and frequently shifting family around him: parents who frequently fight and often leave Orhan in the care of others, a brother with whom he has an antagonistic relationship (yet who he misses terribly when the brother goes to study in America), a vast number of other relatives, and a variety of servants. Orhan is the centre of the memoir, and only rarely do the others come into focus for more than a few pages -- and yet it's realistic enough, that the very self-absorbed child would remain largely oblivious to how exactly dad was once again losing more of the family fortune, etc.
       The mixing of personal and city experience occasionally works very well, as in the description of Resat Ekrem Koçu's Istanbul Encyclopdedia, though elsewhere the two don't always meet as neatly.
       Ultimately, the ambition of mixing city-portrait and autobiography was perhaps just a bit too great: each is, in part, fascinating, but the connexions aren't compelling enough throughout to fully justify such a two-track narrative (with the tracks so very close together).
       Istanbul does impressively convey what a place can mean in a person's life, and also offers an interesting personal story of a boy becoming an artist (a writer, via the detour of painting), and it is an interesting take on this particular city -- but too many gaps remain, both regarding Pamuk and Istanbul.
       Enjoyable, if not entirely satisfying.

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Istanbul: Reviews: Orhan Pamuk: Other books by Orhan Pamuk under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Internationally acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.

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