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Getting to know Istanbul through its noir

April 9, 2009 | 11:35 am


President Obama had a lot to do to prep for his recent visit to Turkey -- brushing up on hundreds of years of history, learning the details of current political conflicts, finding out what you can and can't say about what happened to the nation's Armenians in 1915 and the years that followed. He probably didn't have time to read "Istanbul Noir," an anthology in Akashic Books' city-based noir series. Too bad.

It has been said that noir is deeply connected to place, and in this anthology, you get a sense of Istanbul -- a modern but also ancient city on two continents, both Europe and Asia, with the Bosporus River in between. It explores seedy neighborhoods and new developments, a resort island and the darkened river shore. In the excellent story "The Tongue of the Flames" by Ismail Guzelsoy, the weather possesses the city and its inhabitants:

a crazy, wayward wind kept the area convulsing for days on end, making the city slave to its whim. Though the majority suffered only mild headaches and a little shortness of breath in its aftermath, at the time, melancholy ran like a viscous liquid through the streets.

This is not the Istanbul of whirlwind diplomatic tours but the city as seen through the eyes of the criminal, the desperate and the corrupt. And also those who are lost or condemned, and who've made a wrong turn and are headed for a dead end.

The dark literary corners they explore may be a strange way to get to know the city, but no stranger than a glossy tourist guide. These feel like real inhabitants (or, in the case of Lydia Lunch, real visitors) who have worn paths through neighborhoods, have favorite stores and difficult memories, who are disoriented by new buildings that overlay a painful past.

Of course, you might not want to meet these characters: the untrustworthy narrator, the brutal toughs, the young man desperate for revenge. They exist in a world you might want to get to know, but wouldn't want to be trapped in. It's the best kind of dangerous literary tourism.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bosporus River at twilight. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg