Saturday, October 29, 2011

Aimless Reading: The P's, Part 16.2 (Orhan Pamuk)

Istanbul: Memories and the City
Pamuk, Orhan
Istanbul

Purchased at Talking Leaves...Books.

Amos Oz was in town this week for the Babel Series. We had everyone reading his excellent book, A Tale of Love and Darkness, onto which his American publisher tacked on the  subtitle, A Memoir. Oz objected to this classification, saying he preferred instead the term he chose in the title, "Tale." The book is a memoir only in the sense that it openly acknowledges its debt to reality by keeping the names of actual people and places rather than change them, which act would carry it over into the realm of fiction.

Oz noted in his talk that in Hebrew there is no word for "fiction," a term he hates because it connotes lying. Instead, his fictional works are classified as "narrative prose" and this category would also include his memoir.

Which is a way of getting back to this book, Istanbul, which also has a subtitle, Memories and the City. Just as Oz's memoir is really a mostly factually accurate portrait of his family, in which Oz plays the part of narrator more than protagonist, so Istanbul is a mostly factually accurate portrait of the city he's spent his life in, wherein Pamuk plays the part of tour guide instead of the protagonist.

Both are excellent reads because of the prose and also because the portraits they render of specific times and places (and in Oz' case people) are as rich in detail as if they had sprung completely from the imagination. Usually memoirs and biographies and autobiographies and histories and so on are dull precisely because they attempt to be faithful to factual and chronological accuracy.

If one chooses to fictionalize a situation, then one can let the imagination run wild, but if one chooses to render it as non-fiction, then the expectation is that all the facts, times, places and dates will appear exactly as they occurred (another false notion is that this is even possible).

My other favorite book in this genre is Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude. All three are highly structured works of the imagination. That they allow reality to creep into the stories they tell is almost beside the point.

Here's a video of Pamuk reading from Istanbul:

http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=113

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