Istanbul in literature: a journey through books that tell about Istanbul

Reading is also traveling, in a certain sense. It is precisely in the images evoked by reading that travel, the real ones, often take shape. Or, more often, they are a way, on the way back, not to stop. To continue a journey that has remained with us and does not want to leave us. Let’s see the main books that tell about Istanbul and make it dream differently.

Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk is perhaps not an easy book, but it is profound and beautiful.
On each page there is a revelation. When it wasn’t in Pamuk’s sometimes tortuous words, it was in the intense, beautiful black and white photos of Ara Güler to which this book owes some of its appeal.

It is the story of a city that is intertwined with autobiography, memory, dreams. It is almost an attempt to describe the soul of the city, through the eyes of the author, foreigners and its inhabitants. Through history, and the many stories that make it up. And perhaps, if there were only one word to describe this soul, Pamuk would choose the huzun that untranslatable sense of melancholy sadness that is confused with the oblivion of a pain, of a loss, and that pervades this poised city, his poetry, his music.
A feeling that is linked to the historical and geographical condition of the city and which seems to take physical form in the old wooden houses in decay. Sadness, according to Pamuk, “seems to be the fate of the whole city”.


Pamuk Istanbul

Pamuk books

“For me sadness is like the steam on the window panes, created by a teapot that continuously boils on a cold winter day, because it does not have a moment of transparency and tarnishes reality, and so we can live with it – I chose this example because fogged windows make me sad. “

(Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul)

“Pamuk’s istanbul is a spell, like all books written with passion. As you read it you begin to look at the city with your eyes; you see a dark and smoky tangle of narrow alleys and family conflicts, and also a serene and almost imaginary place, the city of a dream “

(Paul Theroux, A ghost train to the Eastern star)

The city is however present in many of the writer’s books, as the famous “The Museum of innocence” and in all of them Istanbul is perceived in a romantic and melancholy way.

Click here to buy Pamuk’s “Istanbul”

The bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak

In this book there is everything, perhaps there is even too much. There are above all the flavors, aromas and ingredients of Turkish cuisine that blend with a contemporary history in today’s Istanbul, capable of dealing with the ‘dark places’ of national consciousness. It is an intimate story made of warm, intimate atmospheres, an almost completely feminine tale of women who confide around a table. And this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book: at the center is the dialogue, which weaves friendships, loves, bonds beyond borders, of differences, as if to suggest that this is the true nature of the city divided between the East. and west. However, it should not be taken literally: some considerations on the political situation appear to me a bit dated in Erdogan’s Turkey, very different from that of ten years ago which still looked to Europe.

Click here to buy Elif Shafak’s “The Bastard of Istanbul”

The bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak
Eco’s books

Baudolino, by Umberto Eco

Eco’s book begins with the sack of Constantinople in 1204. And we return to Constantinople in the end. In between there is a surreal picaresque journey that composes, breaks down, blends legends and medieval tales into a long story, but which involves up to the last page.
This book tells an aspect of the city that has marked its history for millennia, even when it had different names than it does today. It was the gateway to the East, beyond which reality in the perception of many seemed to lose consistency and mix with the fantastic. A little bit is still like that.

Click here to buy Umberto Eco’s “Baudolino”

Constantinople, by Edmondo De Amicis

Who knew that the author of Cuore was also a travel writer? In this story, De Amicis manages to intertwine the story with a fascinating – at times meticulous – description of nineteenth-century Constantinople and, above all, of its inhabitants. Of course, he often succumbs to the charm of the picturesque, but the tone is sincere and shows an acute gaze with which he tries to investigate even the less superficial aspects. And above all, one cannot fail to love this author who from the very first pages tells us how much he dreamed of this trip for ten years, counted his savings, “rekindled the imagination by reading a hundred books”. The first pages, full of expectations, are very beautiful.

Click here to buy Edmondo De Amicis’s “Constantinople”

Commissioner Kostas

The nurse, by Petros Markaris

Petros Markaris, who is a Greek from Istanbul, where he was born in 1937, takes Commissioner Kostas Charitos to the Bosphorus. It is an atypical thriller, we know the killer from the very first pages, but one would say that the real enigma to be revealed is The city, as the Greeks call it. The novel slips through the folds of the Roman community of Istanbul, accompanying us on a painful journey of memory in which Charitos will have to collaborate with his Turkish counterpart, Murat.

It is a novel that is probably not of absolute value, but which has the merit of telling in a very accessible and ironic way a part of the story that I, the first time I went to Istanbul, knew only very superficially.

“Rosso Istanbul” by Ferzan Özpetek

A novel that talks about real life, love and integration, because “there is no need to be afraid of our neighbors, or on the bench, or on the border. There is only fear of hatred and prejudice “. The events narrated are those of a Turkish director who returns home after spending many years in Rome. He remembers his childhood, his first boyfriend, his family and for a short while his story is intertwined with that of a woman he met on the outbound flight. The director’s attachment to his hometown emerges continuously, like a long love letter. The descriptions of the Istanbul of today and of the past, the scents and smells and above all its colors. A book to read absolutely if you are looking for pages that will make you fall in love with Istanbul.

Esmahan Aykol

Istanbul in Esmahan Aykol’s detective novels

The mystery writer Esmahan Aykol, which we particularly appreciate, also writes 4 novels set in Istanbul.
In the four novels of the series starring the bookseller-detective Kati Hirschel, Aykol takes us through the alleys of old Istanbul and into the homes and lives of its inhabitants, of which she describes, with a touch of irony, the vices and virtues. What emerges is a colorful and fairly faithful portrait of the Ibizan society.
Aykol also gives us some amusing descriptions of the typical Turkish habits, such as the massive use of the telephone or the reckless driving of taxi drivers. Although the writer does not spare to describe the negative aspects of Turkey (first of all the high corruption rate) from the novels in the series a wonderful and pulsating city emerges, with so many secrets to discover, which only those who know it well can reveal.

Click here if you want to buy Esmahan Aykol’s novels