There is an earned affinity between cities and authors: Venice and one thinks of Ruskin, McCarthy, Morris and Italo Calvino; London and the two that spring to mind most readily are probably Dickens and Ackroyd. With Istanbul one name stands out –Orhan Pamuk.
Originally he trained to be an architect but gave it up to become a full-time writer. His greatest novels are My Name is Red, Snow and The Black Book.
My favourite work, however, is his autobiographical account of his home city, Istanbul – ‘the city of his birth and the home of his imagination’. First published, in English as well as Turkish, in 2005, Istanbul: Memories of City is a testament to the beauty, mystery and melancholy of the place.
It is a little known fact here that in the early years of the Ottoman empire printed books were banned as a corrupting European influence – an early prequel to the late Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, Fahrenheit 451. But it is its sumptuous architecture at this pivotal point between East and West that helped it win its spurs as European Capital of Culture in 2010.
Anyone who has been has their favourites: Hagia Sophia, dating back to 563; Topkapi Palace and its museum and gardens; the Spice Bazaar; and the great underground Basilica Cistern. Everywhere, and everyone, relates to the Bosphorus all the time – a great shipping lane that brings the city alive in a way in which the Thames, today, simply does not, cannot, do for London.
Such is Pamuk’s vision that the 2006 Nobel laureate wrote another novel, The Museum of Innocence, in 2008, then built it. That’s right: he conceived both book and museum together, bought a house in the Cukurcuma district, and converted it for a figure that roughly equates to £1-million, and to celebrate a period in Turkey’s – and Istanbul’s – history that began only in the 1970s.
The most astonishing fact about Istanbul today, standing Janus-like looking East and West, is its precise location in history in these early years of the twenty-first century. In 1975 its population stood at just 2.5-million; by 2010 it had risen, officially, to 13.3-million. Today – 14-15-million? No-one actually knows.
As for Turkey’s burgeoning economy, it is reputedly growing faster than China’s. In 2005 Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, who had coined the original term BRICs to identify the world’s four fasting-growing economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China – added the Next 11 (N-11). Turkey was amongst them. Later he refined this to the top four, MIKT – and the ‘T’ is again for Turkey. In 2008, the Econmist Intelligence Unit devised its own acronym, Civets and once more Turkey is there.
So today Turkey has one of the most dynamic reputations for growth, with Istanbul its greatest tourist magnet. But choked by traffic and with poor public transport, it can take two hours to get downtown from the airport, and four hours to cross the city by car. One of the most contentious local issues is whether to build a third bridge across the Bosphorus: would it relieve congestion or simply add another layer?
The selfish tourist may consider Istanbul worthy of an early visit before it suffers a major heart seizure – think London during our forthcoming Olympics. But let Pamuk, 60 this month [June], be your guide to the history of Istanbul’s
recent past, its charm and complexity. He has no equal, at home or abroad.