That state of mind has changed, first in Pamuk’s writing and now in his photography.
Istanbul has always been central to Orhan Pamuk’s imagination. When his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, appeared in 1982, Pamuk was thirty. Like Thomas Mann, another precocious novelist whose debut—published when Mann was 26—concerned the decline of a wealthy merchant family over the course of several generations, Pamuk set out to chronicle the inception of Istanbul’s bourgeoisie. The task he set for himself was daunting, but Pamuk achieved surprising success: Cevdet Bey’s eponymous hero, from the city’s first generation of Muslim merchants, was well-received by Turkish readers, who saw something authentic in him. Having profited from the ordeals of Greek and Armenian capitalists who fell out of favor under the reign of the Young Turks in the early twentieth century, Cevdet Bey and his story of progress and capital accumulation told the broader tale of modern Istanbul’s birth.
As Cevdet Bey’s family makes its fortune from government contracts to build railways that link Anatolia’s towns, transformations of the Ottoman Empire’s former capital challenge and change its members. But the most curious character of a novel that overflows with tycoons and factory owners is a young artist named Ahmet Işıkçı, who bears a resemblance to the young Pamuk. Hanno, the character thought to be modeled on Mann in Buddenbrooks, is an artist who dies young, but Ahmet, who loves Goya’s art and despises the narrow-mindedness of the Turkish middle classes, reappears in Pamuk’s subsequent books as a symbol of a path not taken. (The cover art of The Museum of Innocence is credited to him; in fictional form Pamuk’s alternate self remains alive.) In the novel’s much-praised final sentence, Ahmet simply “enters his study to work,” a ritual to which the author has devoted his life since his early twenties.
Cevdet Bey and His Sons was written in a cool, detached voice not unlike Mann’s, but that didn’t prevent Pamuk from describing Istanbul’s transfigurations under a modernizing regime with meticulous precision. This style garnered praise from history professors and literary critics alike, the type of bookworms who, in Pamuk’s early novels, ponder Istanbul’s modernization while poring over monographs in the secluded comfort of their studies. But there were boundaries that Pamuk would not cross. While he excels at chronicling the travails of the intellectual and well-heeled heroes of Istanbul’s Westernized neighborhoods—especially Nişantaşı, where he spent his youth—in his early novels, darker parts of the city, such as its new satellite neighborhoods and inner-city slums, remain in the shadows.
Pamuk’s 21st-century works ponder the palimpsest that is Istanbul [ … ]