Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Orhan and Harry

In Sunday's Los Angeles Times Book Review, Michael Frank takes a look at Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul--and for the most part, he likes what he sees. Frank does issue a couple of caveats, including a swipe at the book's shaggy-dog construction: "Pamuk, the quintessential insider, sometimes becomes lost in a loop of personal reflection and digressive associations." Still, he admires the way that the author mingles municipal history with his own sentimental education. And as did I, Frank sees hüzün, Istbanbul's brand of self-flagellating melancholy, as the linchpin of the entire narrative:
The book's prevailing theme is Istanbul's unmistakable melancholy, or hüzün, which the writer characterizes as a "cultural concept conveying worldly failure, listlessness, and spiritual suffering" of a sort that comes about only when "the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible." Hüzün is a paradoxical, pervasive, deep-rooted and widely shared state of mind, and it coaxes from Pamuk the book's most glowing passage, a single-paragraph riff of nearly six pages that is a poem to cobblestones and pimps, soot and mossy barges, old ferries and '50s Chevrolets that serve as taxis, "everything being broken, worn out, past its prime." In short, Istanbul itself.
Meanwhile, as widely reported, the Harry Potter series turns out to be the most popular reading material at Guantanamo Bay. According to the librarian, a civilian contractor, "We have Harry Potter in four languages, English, French, Farsi and Russian. We have it on order in Arabic. We do not have books 5 and 6 in the series, at this time. We have had several detainees read the series." At first I found this a little puzzling. Wouldn't J.K. Rowling's wizardly epic strike the detainees as piffle for infidels? But perhaps He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has more than a passing resemblance to the Great Satan. Runner-up for the Gitmo Prize: Agatha Christie.

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