“The melancholy of ruins”: Hüzün in Orhan
Pamuk’s Istanbul:Memories of a City
Krishna Barua
Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati
The geographic turn
• with its specificity and spatiality,
territoriality and locality is being adapted in
wide range of literary critical contexts.
Geography is one of the explicit conditions
shaping the production and reception of
texts. The cityscape within the territorial
imagination stands as a rediscovery of
distance,size and location in representation..
Cities are sites of cultural exchange. A
city is a body of habits, customs,
traditions, and attitudes. It is not merely
an artificially constructed physical
mechanism but a collective unity. It is a
social institution that is defined by a complex
web of actions and responses to a particular
environment. The wealth of locations, objects,
and people that the city provides contributes
to a person’s sense of belonging to the world
A public space :a context for the
development of a character
It provides a context from which a character develops. It is
location of human expression, where men internalize the
qualities of the city that they inhabit. Thus, a city stands as a site of
human expression, where men internalize the qualities of the city that
they inhabit
- a process that is equally reciprocated by the city.
Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City.
Published in English in 2005, the text is a translation by
Maureen Freely of the Turkish version, Istanbul: Hatıralar Ve
Şehir, published in the year 2003. This paper aims to discuss
Pamuk’s self/city-memoir in the light of the dialectics of the
East and the West that defines the cultural ideology of the city,
and read the text as a cross-cultural narrative by locating the
melancholy or hüzün of Istanbul (which, for Pamuk, is the
definitive feature of the city) as a site of cross-cultural
Turkey rests in the confluence of Europe and
Asia, so that Istanbul is a veritable locus of
the East and West. Such locational plurality
often results in a cultural clash because it
shows how central the city has been in
history, and how the dynamics of its
civilization are constituted by the constant
interfaces between the East and the West. The
ambivalence of the cultural setting posits a
challenge to the formation of one’s identity
because this meeting of the East and the West
produces, at least for Istanbul, a sense of
cultural unease rather than cultural vibrancy.
this ambivalent location
offers us an insight into a culture that is trying to negotiate
a middle path between what it was and what it is now. The
teeming, chaotic city of Istanbul, once the seat of the
Ottoman Empire of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is now in a
state of poverty, down trodenness and defeat. The history
of the city is replete with stories of once-upon-a-time glory
that has been gradually replaced by narratives of sadness,
pain and desolation. It is into this legacy that Pamuk writes
his narrative. Istanbul is the (his)story of melancholy —
the melancholy that is central to all the Istanbullus and
Istanbul itself.
Istanbul is located at the complex crossroads of the East
and the West.. The ambivalence of the cultural setting
posits a challenge to the formation of one’s identity
because this meeting of the East and the West produces
a sense of cultural unease rather than cultural vibrancy.
Part-autobiography and part-memoir, Istanbul
• tells the story of the city of Istanbul through
the memory of a fifty-year old Pamuk who
seeks his cultural identity in the ruins of the
city. The narrative is more or less
chronologically structured. It begins with
Pamuk’s carefree childhood and traces his
life among his extended middle-class
family, his readings, and his strolls in the
aged city and finally concludes with his
decision to become a writer.
The narrative shift is continuous
• This personal narrative is interspersed with a parallel
narrative of the history of the city, its present condition,
and the way it has internalized the post-imperial gloom.—
in fact it happens almost at every alternate chapter — so
that the personal story is situated at the backdrop of
everything that happens in the city. This two-track
narrative, in fact, allows the reader to understand Pamuk’s
own position in the history of the city, his responses to it,
and the city’s contribution in the formation of his self.
The city figures as centrally as the author
The chapters focus on specific events in his personal life but
Pamuk also elaborates on the way the city has found
expression in the works of several “Western” and Turkish
artists in chapters like “Mellling’s Bosphorus,” “On the
Ships that Passed through the Bosphorus, Famous Fires,
Moving House and Other Disasters,” “The Hüzün of the
Ruins: Tanpinar and Yahya Kemal in the City’s Poor
Neighbourhoods,” and “Flaubert in Istanbul: East, West
and Syphillis.” These give the reader glimpses of the city
through the eyes of the narrator as well as through those
who have attempted to represent it in their works
The “text” and “the city,” become sites of cultural
• There is also a sense of revelation in the dilapidated state
of the city. Pamuk devotes a whole chapter discussing the
melancholy or hüzün of the city that, according to him,
lends the city its grandeur. Melancholy is the central theme
of the book, and melancholy is the central characteristic of
the city. To know the city of Istanbul, it is important to
know its ruins and the history behind them.
• “[..] to discover the city’s soul in its ‘ruins,’ to see those
ruins as expressing the city’s ‘essence,’ you must travel
down a long , labyrinthine path strewn with historical
accidents” (231).
The locations are not single,nor are they not static.
• Not only the Pamuk family moves from apartment to
apartment but also the narrator himself traverses through
the city so that the reader is familiarized with almost every
nook and corner of the city, although the focus is primarily
on the old and lost areas.
• The journey is interesting especially because a gallery of
two hundred and six photographs, which include both
personal snapshots and Ara Güler’s pictures of the city,
accompanies the reader. These photographs, reproductions
of paintings, engravings and sketches — all in black and
white — complement the narrative in terms of its theme.
They capture the overwhelming melancholy of the city so
evident in its ruins.
“The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy.”
Ahmet Rasim
The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy
• this epigraph function as an entry-point, a
door that leads to the text. The epigraph
serves as a forewarning, cautioning the
reader before he enters the textual maze.
Rasim’s epigraph sets the mood of the text
and, as we discover later, captures the
essence of Istanbul, the city.
The book opens with “Another Orhan ”
• who is perceived by the narrator to be his twin, or
his double, who leads a parallel (and perhaps
happier, as Pamuk imagines) life in another part of
the same city. The kitschy portrait of the child that
hangs in his aunt’s house in Cihangir (the Pamuks
lived in Pamuk Apartments in Nişantaşı) serves
the narrator as a reminder of his other self whom
he would meet in his dreams.
“Another Orhan”
The metaphor of the double self
• does not merely serve as Pamuk’s escape route
into the imaginary but is also suggestive of the
idea that within the city of Istanbul resides another
Istanbul, which keeps on unfolding as the
narrative progresses. It is in the very first chapter
itself that the theme of melancholy is introduced
the double self
signifies that there are two
Istanbuls. One is the city of
many pasts where every brick
and tile is a reminder of the
Byzantine and the Ottoman
regimes. The other is the city of
multiple futures, a globalising
hybrid that is re-inventing
itself.in order to catapult itself
into the European Union.
• whose greatness was prophesized by Gustave
Flaubert on his visit to the city nearly a century
before Pamuk’s birth, is now an almost forgotten
city especially after the decline of the Ottoman
Empire. For Pamuk, Istanbul has always been “a
city of ruins and end-of-empire melancholy” and
he has spent his life “either battling with this
melancholy, or (like all Istanbullus) making it my
own” (6).
• The black-and-white photographs that sit
solemnly on the piano that is never played
testify the desire and attempt to preserve
certain moments for posterity:
• […] my grandmother had framed and frozen these
memories so that we could weave them into the present
[…] wanting to go on with life but also longing to capture
the moment of perfection savouring the ordinary but still
honouring the ideal. (13)
so many photographs to illustrate the text!
• The various trinkets in the house that are never touched and used, let
alone removed from their respective places, are silent participants in
the facade of modernity that grip the Pamuk household.
• Especially striking are the museum-like sitting rooms, which are not
used for rest or relaxation but are places where the householder
displays his Westernized self to the “hypothetical visitor” (10).
• The sitting room is a sad reflection of the Turkish society that is
suspended, like the Pamuk family, between the secular Westernization
propagated by Ataturk, and the decay of the Ottoman Empire, so
poignantly reflected by the once-stately mansions or yalis of the pashas
which line the Bosphorus and which go up in flames with alarming
In the museum-like sitting rooms …
• Interestingly, it is in this claustrophobically carpeted and dusty
apartment building that Pamuk is first confronted with the awareness
of the “melancholy of this dying culture” (27), an emotion that is
common to all the residents of the city.
• In the museum-like sitting rooms of the residents of the Istanbul
Pamuk recognizes an unacknowledged awareness that they are living
in a seat of historical conflicts and of ruined imperial glories. This
dichotomy allows Pamuk the possibility of negotiating identities of
individuals, nations, cultures, periods, multiplicities, changes, slips,
and even literary styles and genres.
The formation of the territorial identity
• : “an ongoing story in which the plot is directed by social rules,
practices, institutions, places, interactions with family, nation, the
economy, and lots of other social and political institutions and
practices that constitute our social world and that are temporally and
spatially specific” (Catherine Brace “Landscape and identity” 122).
Landscape is, therefore, a cultural entity that informs the lives and
identity of a people.
The spirit of Istanbul
• is captured in the texture that engulfs it. Pamuk sees the
city’s soul in a shroud of black-and-white, which defines
the melancholy of the city.
• “To see the city in black and white is to see it through the
tarnish of history; the patina of what is old and faded and
no longer matters to the rest of the world. […]. To see the
city in black and white, to see the haze that sits over it, and
breathe in the melancholy its inhabitants have embraced
as their common fate “ (38)
The once-dazzling Istanbul no longer exists
Its imperial mansions, the expansions of woodland, and the marble
fountains tell tales of neglect and decay. The pervasive melancholy is
evident in the misty an smoky mornings, and on rainy and windy
nights. It is evident in the everyday sights of life in the city — in the
mud and snow-sloshed roads on winter evenings; in the forgotten
mosques; the dusty, dark and aged grocery stores and the dilapidated
shops; the unemployed men who throng these shops; the hawkers, the
drunks and the packs of dogs who have made the streets their home;.
Even the pale, drab and shadowy clothes of the Istanbullus seem to be
a deliberate habit worn to mourn the decline of the city.
The black-and-white texture
• This shade seems to signify a sense of fellowship that
binds the Istanbullus together. Pamuk goes on to say that
the colour of grey — the hue of the twilight — provides
the citizens an escape from their dreary reality into a dream
world where their legendary past conjures in them a sense
of pride and belonging.
characteristic feature of
the city. It is in the
twilight that the mood
of the city is best
“the melancholy of the ruins”
Turkish word denoting a feeing of deep spiritual
loss, but is also a hopeful way of looking at life.
It is “a state of mind that is ultimately as life
affirming as it is negating.” It signifies a state of
spiritual anguish when one is not close enough to
God. Hüzün is a sought-after state. It is “the
absence, not the presence of hüzün that causes [a
person] distress. It is the failure to experience
hüzün that leads him to feel it.”
Relationship between cultural history & cultural memory
“the past does not merely exist as repetitions, social habits or
unconscious casual chains, but precisely as history” (Simon During 52).
Further, history is not merely a way of conceiving the past; rather it acts
as a referent both to “knowledge about the past […] and [...] as it
continues to exist for the present”(ibid).
History is, therefore, an event. During’s assertions are relevant to
understand the hüzün of Istanbul primarily because this emotion maps
the history of the city not only in the sense of a past long dead but, more
importantly, in the sense of how the past penetrates into the present and
touches the lives of humanity.
For Pamuk the hüzün of Istanbul is connected with the state of
mourning that the city went into after the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire Hüzün begins in the past but seeps into the
present. The sadness is evoked not only by the poetry and
music of the city but also by the city itself.
And herein lies its solace.
• By experiencing hüzün the people of Istanbul are bound by
a communal feeling of cultural respect towards their city.
Hüzün is, therefore, a collective state of mind that is
experienced and which allows the people of the city to
“think of defeat and poverty not as a historical endpoint,
but as an honorable beginning” (94).
• Pamuk goes on to explain this state of melancholy as
somewhat like what “a child might feel while staring
through a steamy window,” (83) but is multiplied and
shared by the inhabitants of an entire city, and is so
intrinsic to their consciousness that it does not become
negative — in the sense of depression — but poetic. It
becomes beautiful. In other words, the past does not
hamper the present but makes its way into the present to
make it beautiful.
Hüzün is a mood shared by millions
• The grey shade that colours in the city and in the
habit of the people, which is symbolical of the
periphery and of melancholy, defines the people of
Istanbul and their response to the city, both in both
terms of then and now. By wearing grey they
symbolize the conflict that is inherent in them and
in the city. They mourn the city’s lost glory, but
by doing so they celebrate the glory that was once
theirs and is now lost.
The paradox of celebration in mourning
• This mourning does not reveal a nostalgic longing for he
past and the grandeur that once belonged to it. Rather, the
mourning signals the acknowledgement of loss. To mourn
is not to yearn for the lost but it is to bring the loss into the
present and make it a part of life. The fact that they mourn
the city is indicative of their reverence of the magnificence
and the glory that the city had known.
This is hüzün
• At the same time they continue their lives
with the burden of their heritage, indicating
that they celebrate the present city despite
its ruins. For them the ruins are not
shameful reminders of their former glory;
rather, these ruins symbolize the need to
continue the legacy that has been left
This is hüzün
• In this sense, Pamuk says, the Istanbullus carry the city in
their hearts. For them, history ceases to be a story that
needs to be told.history continues in the present. (For
example, they take the stones from the crumbling city
walls and add them to the modern materials to build new
buildings.). Hüzün allows an understanding of the presence
in absence, and it gives birth to a melancholy that is not
sad or longing but is celebratory.
• The hüzün of the ruins of Istanbul speak of its splendid
past and gloomy present. It differs from other historical
cities like Delhi or Sao Paulo where the artifacts of
imperial glory are preserved in museums. In Istanbul the
remains of the glorious past are everywhere amid the
degradation. They are everywhere visible, and the people
simply carry on with their lives amongst the ruins. Further,
the ruins serve as reminders of the poverty and confusion
that envelope the city
The past is not preserved in museums but is an existing
feature in the everyday life of the city.
The people respond to the city in terms of then and now,
concepts that are not separate but a collective.
The Bosphorus
This strip of open sea that runs through the middle of the city is also an
archive of the magnificent heritage of the past .It is the city’s inbuilt aid
to shoulder the weight of history and ancient gloom;the ferries that
maneouver on the Bosphorus, and the smoke from their chimneys that
blanket the city together with the mist.
This parallel is again evident in the mansions or yalis that belonged
to the pashas of the imperial regime that line the Bosphorus and
stand as mute testimonials of the past. This stretch of water is Pamuk’s
comfort zone from his loneliness and his excessive attachment to the
“if the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy,
and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness.
Istanbul draws its strength from the Bosphorus” (43)
The packs of dogs are a continuous feature of the city. They are members of the
past that continue to live in the present too. This is perhaps the city’s point of
“Why this fixation with the thoughts of the Western
travelers..? ”
Pamuk’s imagination of Istanbul is shaped by the works of writers and
artists who had earlier tried to capture the essence of the city. He is
particularly interested in the paintings of Antoine-Ignace Melling, an
eighteenth century German artist “who saw the city like an Istanbullu,
buy painted it like a clear-eyed westerner” (67)
“Why this fixation with the thoughts of the Western travelers..what they
did on visits to the city […]? It’s partly that many a times I have
identified with a number of them (Nerval, Flaubert, de Amicis) and —
just as I once had to identify myself in order to paint Istanbul — it was by
falling under their influence and contesting with them by turns that I
forged my identity”(260)
The roots of hüzün are European
first explored by Gerard de Nerval and Gautier. Nerval’s
description of Istanbul at the height of its glory, years before
the collapse of the imperial regime, and Theophile Gautier’s
exploration of the poorer quarters of the city, the dingy
residential districts and the city walls, their dark, filthy
streets and the ruins (which to him were equally important as
the scenic views) resonates with the melancholy that defines
the city. Of these ruins a shocked Gautier writes:
It is difficult to believe there is living city behind these dead ramparts!
[…] I do not believe there exists anywhere on earth more austere and
melancholy than this road which runs for more than three miles between
ruins on one hand and a cemetery on the other. (209)
Despite this, the city refuses to melt under the Western
and in this context the image of Istanbul created by the four Turkish
writers is important.
They weave their stories from the fall of the Ottoman Empire and
present the Istanbullus a dream to which they could aspire.
Yahya Kemal, Resat Ekrem Kocu,, Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar, and
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar who had witnessed the fall of the Ottoman
Empire and Turkey’s subsequent nationalism and Westernization
The four early twentieth century Turkish writers
When they recalled the splendour of the old Istanbul, when their eyes
lit on a dead beauty lying on the wayside, when they wrote about the
ruins that surrounded them, they gave the past a poetic grandeur. As
it happened, this eclectic vision, which I call the ‘melancholy of the
ruins’ made them seem nationalist in away that suited the oppressive
state... (102)
This dream grew out of “the barren,
neighbourhoods beyond the city walls” (228)
Early in the narrative Pamuk observes:
Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul — these are writers known for having
managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries,
continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations are fed by exile, a
nourishment drawn not through the roots but through rootlessness;
mine, 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” (6).
The element of intertextuality
His idea of Istanbul is also the product of a life lived in the heart of the city as well
as of the many accounts that are available of the city in the archives. His only
regret seems to be that Istanbullus themselves wrote very little about their city.
It is only by looking into the archives of the Western accounts that one is
acquainted with the living, breathing city of the nineteenth and early twentieth
And it is here that Pamuk presents the master-theme of his work, the self-conflict
that he discovered during the years he pursued painting, “this was my first
intimation of the thing that would nag me in later years, the self–contradiction — a
Westerner would call it a paradox — that we only acquire our identity by imitating
others” (244).
Ansiklopedisi locates at the history of the
For Pamuk, Kocu’s success lies in his
failure to explain Istanbul using the
classification. The ordered disorder of
Istanbul eludes any such attempt. This is
Pamuk’s point of departure for this is
where he chooses to identify himself
with his mentor and, once again, we are
reminded of the Derridian concepts of
mourning and indebtedness
History and territory
For Pamuk, history allows a reflection of one’s relationship with the
past, to ones teritory , to choose the stories that one wants to narrate
about the past, and to explore the effects of these stories. In this way the
past enters the present and allows one to negotiate one’s identity in
relation to it. Pamuk himself states in a conversation, “I tried to tell my
story …[in] two distinctive ways of seeing the world and narrating
stories [which] are of course related to our cultures, histories, and what
is now popularly called identities” (Knopf).
Melancholy, which had defined the city’s landscape as picturesque, also
symbolizes the sadness and defeat and poverty that the Empire left
behind as a legacy.
The Galata Bridge.
Then and Now…
The city’s identity is informed by its
past and its present.
Out of the ordinariness of everyday life
emerges a culture that reverberates with
significations of the past and the
Istanbul is a complex text where the memories of Pamuk are
filtered through a personal temperament as well as two
hundred years of representation of the city in art.
It can be perhaps concluded that the book is concerned with a
bigger issue: of the division between the quotidian and
another world, between the past and the present, and
There is a sense of striving towards an ideal, an ideal that is
essentially located in the past. This prescribes the ceaseless
task of honouring the past, the past that can be possessed only
through knowledge.
The city of Istanbul consoles Pamuk against all these
dilemmas. In searching for the elusive soul of the
city, Orhan Pamuk actually searches for his own.
Works Cited
Brace, Catherine. “Landscape and identity.” Studying Cultural Landscapes. Eds. Iain
Robertson and Penny Richards. London: Arnold, 2003.
During, Simon. Cultural Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2005.
Genette, Gerard. Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation. Trans. Jane. E. Lewin. New
York: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Knopf, Alfred A. “A Conversation with Orhan Pamuk.” The Borzoi Reader Online.
Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul: Memories of a City. Trans. Maureen Freely. London: Faber
and Faber, 2005.
Williams, R. Border Country. London: Hogarth. 1960
------The English Novel: From Dickens to Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1966.
----The Country and the City. Oxford: Ox- ford University Press. 1973.
------Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press

“The melancholy of ruins”: Orhan Pamuk`s Istanbul:Memories of a