Orhan Pamuk’s L.A. stroll conjures up familiar sights

Just a few hours before Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in literature, was set to read from his new novel, “The Museum of Innocence” (Alfred A. Knopf: 540 pp., $28.95), at the Japan America Theatre, the lifelong Istanbul resident was strolling down Hill Street, recognized by nobody, on his first visit to Los Angeles.

In awarding him the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited Pamuk’s “quest for the melancholic soul of his native city.” In his mesmerizing “The Museum of Innocence,” Istanbul -- its sounds, its smells, its history -- permeates everything. The fragrance of the lindens and plane trees, the horns of the ships on the Bosphorus, the ancient mosques, the neighborhoods from which generation after generation of peoples have come and gone all open like a vast archaeology, turning a tale of family, class and thwarted love into a multi-level portrait of a vital, ancient city.

Since winning the Nobel, Pamuk has become a global literary figure. His work has been translated into more than 50 languages, and he has traveled around the world. “I’ve been everywhere,” he said, from Tokyo and Venice, Italy, where he taught for six weeks, to Alexandria, Egypt, and Calcutta -- “cities that had been empires and end up as ruins.” On a trip to Russia, “a guy who loved old Moscow showed me all the neighborhoods that were about to be demolished.”

Pamuk is an explorer, a “seeker after cities and souls,” sifting through the remains for stories. “I’m an Istanbul boy,” he noted, “so I like things similar to that. I like observing the ruins of modernity.” By way of explanation, he cited a review by Walter Benjamin of a book about Berlin. “Benjamin said there were two kinds of city books, the ones written by outsiders, who tend to look for the exotic. The books by insiders always tell you their memories. I care about memories.”

Downtown, Pamuk took pictures of Disney Hall from every angle. He asked about the history of Bunker Hill. It wasn’t the sleek business towers that enchanted him, but the historic core. “All my friends say there is no downtown Los Angeles,” Pamuk said, but clearly he was pleased to see that there was. “There is a downtown here,” he noted approvingly. “And it looks very old-fashioned.”

Pamuk’s first stop was Grand Central Market, where he fell in love with the meticulously restored neon. He photographed everything: the gleaming trays of chiles, the abstract patterns of dried beans displayed behind squares of glass, the cathedral-like wall of whiskey bottles rising into the shadows of the shed. He stopped to snap a picture of the sign above Roast to Go, which boasts it has been serving football-sized burritos “since 1952" -- “That was the year I was born!”

Crossing the street, Pamuk entered the hushed lobby of the Bradbury Building. He studied a display recounting the building’s role in “Blade Runner.” Pamuk has seen the movie twice. “Istanbul seems more and more like the crowds in ‘Blade Runner,’ but I like it. I like the chemistry of the streets.” His favorite L.A. writer, he said, is Raymond Chandler. “Is there a Raymond Chandler museum here?”

Heading south on Broadway, Pamuk drank it all in: the amplified accordion music blaring from a music shop, the soccer games on flat screen TVs, the shop girls in spiked heels and tight pants on the sidewalk tugging at his sleeve. “Pásale, pásale” they implored in gravelly Spanish, trying to lure him into their arcades. Pamuk’s eyes fixed on a raccoon-like toy eternally chasing a weighted battery-operated rubber ball. A Korean lady signaled that the price was $10 by holding up 10 fingers. When Pamuk started to walk away, she held up five.

“Every one of my books has a character who walks around,” Pamuk said, “looking for something, like a detective. My characters, when they are troubled, they go out in the street. You walk in the streets, you are sad or happy or troubled or anxious. The urban scape you see becomes associated with the feelings you have inside you.” Eventually, “your mental pictures of the city have layers and layers and the city begins to show your memories, your sentiments. The kind of writing I like associates the characters’ drama with the landscape. I’m not interested in big square residential blocks. I want shadows and drama. That’s what literature is all about.”

To Pamuk, “a novel is composed of little details of daily life. I like walking through cities. I take notes, then something I see stays with me.” He doesn’t write on a computer. “I hand write. On pads. I can write any place -- cafés, libraries, waiting for the plane to go. I really like working in train stations. In Dostoevsky’s ‘Diary of a Writer,’ he made the observation, ‘What a lovely thing to walk around a city. You walk around, you see a face, and it’s a story.’ ”

Pershing Square looked even more like the day room of a mental hospital than usual, but it didn’t bother Pamuk. He ignored the absurd purple stucco tower, the café that had been shuttered since the 1980s, and the people sleeping in the shade, and went directly to the lengthy quote from Carey McWilliams’ “Southern California Country: An Island on the Land” that graces the back of a line of concrete benches. Though he’d never heard of McWilliams, Pamuk read it carefully.

Writing just after the Second World War, McWilliams recounts a night of carousing in Hollywood, sleeping off a hangover at the Biltmore Hotel, then stumbling the next morning into the crowded, vibrant Pershing Square of 60 years ago. Observing the wild slice of downtown -- performing as if for his exclusive pleasure -- he concludes that sitting in Pershing Square is like having “a ringside seat at the circus.” The phrase pleased Pamuk enough that he pulled out a pen and wrote it down. “This is the only city I’ve been in,” he laughed delightedly, “where a guy writes horrible things about the town and the town is so proud of him they put his quote in the park!”

Pamuk’s driver was waiting on Hope Street. Ahead was a radio interview, a trip to the Getty and his reading, but he was thinking about the past. “I like it when there is history, when there is decay. I’m very much impressed that this city has a decaying face. I identify it with my own.”

MacAdams is a Los Angeles author and poet.