Back to the Ottomans by Maya Jaggi

Maya Jaggi

Back to the Ottomans


At one end of a pedestrianised avenue in Beyoğlu – the ‘other side’ of the Golden Horn from the skyline mosques of Old Stamboul – is a peeling pink edifice where the man described by Orhan Pamuk as the greatest Turkish novelist of the 20th century once lived. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar had an apartment in the handsomely columned Narmanlı Han, built in the 1800s as the Russian embassy and rented out to local writers and artists after the 1930s. Now behind a pomegranate juice vendor and a betting shop, its leafy courtyard colonised by cats reeks of neglect, despite its location on Istiklâl Caddesi (‘Independence Avenue’), a frenetic artery plied by toy-like red trams. At the other end of the avenue is Taksim Square, where the flower stalls are flanked by police vans. Mass protests last summer, ignited by moves to cut down a few trees in the adjoining Gezi Park, were violently extinguished by riot police. The link may be obscure to the throngs in Istiklâl’s ceaseless passeggiata. But Tanpınar’s earlier revolt against the brutal, top-down transformation of Turkey’s cultural capital makes him a kindred spirit of the Gezi Park rebels. He even wrote a paean to Istanbul’s plane trees and cypresses, saying, ‘the death of a tree is like the loss of a great work of architecture’.

Tanpınar, who died in 1962, wrote the Turkish Ulysses, A Mind at Peace (1949). His modernist masterpiece is a love story unfolding over 24 hours on the eve of the Second World War. For Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel laureate whose praise helped propagate the book, it is the ‘greatest novel

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