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Total immersion

June 1, 2011

One of the several excellent books I read on my recent tour of Turkey was Orhan Pamuk’s memoir “Istanbul.” It’s a wonderful exploration of the sad, crumbling remnant of a city in which his childhood and early adulthood was rooted, and the novelist and Nobel laureate remains both enamored with and haunted by its grim and powerful dominance over his life.

One of my favorite passages is a moment of black humor from Chapter 22, titled “On the Ships That Passed Through the Bosphorus, Famous Fires, Moving House, and Other Disasters,” where he recalls, during research for this book, reading old newspaper articles about people killing themselves by jumping into or otherwise ending up in the Bosphorus.

“However many cars that have flown into the Bosphorus over the years, the story is always the same: It’s passengers are dispatched to the watery depths, from where there is no return. …

“I should remind readers that, once cars start sinking, it’s impossible to open their doors because the pressure of the water against them is too great. At a time when an unusual number of cars were flying into the Bosphorus, one refined and thoughtful journalist, wishing to remind readers of this fact, did something rather clever: He published a survival guide, complete with beautifully drawn illustrations:

” ‘HOW TO ESCAPE FROM A CAR THAT’S FALLEN INTO THE BOSPHORUS
” ‘1. Don’t panic. Close your window and wait for your car to fill with water. Make sure the doors are unlocked. Also ensure that all passengers stay very still.
” ‘2. If the car continues to sink into the depths of the Bosphorus, pull up your hand brake.
” ‘3. Just as your car has almost filled with water, take one final breath of the last layer of air between the water and the car roof, slowly open the doors, and, without panicking, get out of the car.’ “

Pamuk concludes wryly, “I’m tempted to add a fourth pointer: With God’s help, your raincoat won’t get caught on the hand brake.”

“Istanbul” is a beautiful book. I’d also recommend Pamuk’s short stories, some published in the New Yorker, and his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “My Father’s Suitcase,” also reprinted in the magazine.

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