The City Where I Fell In Love

In his latest novel, ‘Istanbul Memory’, Ahmet Ümit has made the city not the setting but the protagonist. In this interview we turned the situation around and made Istanbul the setting and Ahmet Ümit the protagonıst.

Istanbul is not the setting but the protagonist of your novel. You gave Istanbul a special place in your earlier novels as well. What is it like to write Istanbul?
Istanbul was not a city I thought about writing at first. The city found its way into my poems, short stories and novels naturally, because I live here. But all that changed as I got to know and discover it. I live in a city with one of the longest histories and most deeply rooted cultures in the world. I thought I should make Istanbul part of my fiction in a more self-conscious way. The name of the city occurs frequently in my earlier books too, but it only emerges as a protagonist in its own right in ‘Istanbul Memory’. Writing a city is difficult.  I’ve been carrying ‘Istanbul Memory’ around in my head for ten years. It only crystallized as I was finishing up ‘Bab-ı Esrar’.

And you wrote several other novels while you were carrying ‘Istanbul Memory’ around in your head?
Many writers are like that. As one novel ends a new one is born. Before you start writing it’s finished in your head. I never start writing before that happens. I continue to wrestle with the researching and writing process as I write. When the novel is half finished and the book is nearly done, that’s when a new one starts to take shape in my mind.

What did you experience during the process of discovering Istanbul?
My transition from describing Istanbul automatically to doing it more consciously started with ‘Patasana’. ‘Patasana’ is a novel that describes not Istanbul but Gaziantep. Then I became aware of the profound history and culture of these lands, and I said to myself, “Istanbul is the city where I live. Why not write it?” For example, when you come down from Taksim and cross the Unkapanı bridge, there are brick buildings on both sides. It seems they were elephant stables! Who would have thought it? There are hundreds of examples like that… But in order to become aware of them, you have to make a deep reading.

Writers in Turkey don’t give much importance to that. Nobody writes about the Seljuks, the Romans, the Hittites. I portray people, and there are no people apart from history and place. So what is the difference then between the people of five thousand years ago and the people of today? We have all lived on these lands but there are three thousand years in between. So what? How much have people actually changed?

And what is the answer you come up with?
That they have not changed all that much. Their technology and way of life have changed. But human selfishness and aggression as well as creativity and compassion are the same. The human structure is the same. A power struggle five thousand years ago is the same as a power struggle today.

Do you stroll through Istanbul street by street?
Of course. In a nutshell, my style of working is this: I make a general reading. And then, whatever the subject of my novel is, I research that subject. And then I just wander around. I do that a lot.

What does Ahmet Ümit do in Istanbul? What does he recommend?
Living in Istanbul is a great pleasure. Most people are deprived of that pleasure because of their jobs. Sometimes I go up the Bosphorus for breakfast. If I get bored, I skip it and go to the historic peninsula. To the Hagia Sophia, or the Yerebatan Cistern. Or to Süleymaniye Mosque, Topkapı Palace, the Chora Church… Or to Dolmabahçe Palace for the Ottoman period. Sometimes I leave them all behind and go to the islands. Istanbul offers a thousand possibilities all at once. What is important is to open your eyes wide and see all the beauty. Most people who live here are not aware of the city. The streets of Istanbul are not made of gold but of history and culture.

How did you strike a balance between fact and fiction as you were writing ‘Istanbul Memory’?
That’s the crux of the matter. I am a novelist, not a historian. The things I say on the subject of history could be debatable, or incorrect. A novel describes life, human relations. It should not show off knowledge. For example, I made Commissioner Nevzat’s mother a historian. I added Topkapı Museum Director Leyla Barkan to the incident with the ruby. Adem Yezdan is a tourism agent but he’s interested in history. Hence history can come up in the novel’s dialogues. It doesn’t just pop up out of the blue. There is a formula for this of course. First you outline the plot, then the characters…

To what extent is ‘Istanbul Memory’ an acknowledgement of your debt of gratitude to the city?
Yes, I earn my bread from this city. I was not born in this city but I fell in love here. I became a father here, and a grandfather. I have given my signature many times to save this city. But none of this is enough. Something bigger is needed. I feel I have discharged my responsibility to some extent with this book.

Most people say of a city that it is not the city where they were born but they city of which they can’t get enough. But you say it’s the city where you fell in love.

What’s important is not where you were born but where you are happy. For me writing is happiness. In general I am a man who tries to be happy. We only live once. Life to me is a gift. A lot of misfortune may befall a person. But somehow or other one must manage to be happy. The city of my birth, Gaziantep, has made me happy too. I love it there. Some day in the future I will write a novel of that city. As a writer, that is what I can do.