Fiction for a map

Fiction for a map

Fiction for a map

I was a teenager when I first read Anna Karenina. Apart from feeling deeply influenced by the characters and empathising with Anna's hopelessness, the book also resonated with me because of the cities it was set in. I formed vivid images of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the theatre and the races, the balls and operas, among others. Cities in fiction help you map them before you even dream of stepping into those destinations in real life. Or you may never visit them, but they are with you forever, transcending the scope of a certain piece of fiction. So, there's the Cairo of your imagination, and a sense of Lahore or Istanbul, all thanks to the fiction you choose to read.

Settings as characters

Talking of Russian literature, if you have been smitten by Doctor Zhivago like me, you can close your eyes and visualise the landscapes of Russia vividly. The family of Zhivago (aka Yura) makes a train journey from Moscow towards the Urals. This provides ample scope for Boris Pasternak, the author, to depict the landscape - the snow on rail tracks, the towns et al. But, there is one device in the book, that of a candle burning on a table in a room on Kamerger Street, that shows how the setting can play a huge role in fiction. "As they drove through Kamerger Street, Yura noticed that a candle had melted a patch in the icy crust on one of the windows. The light seemed to look into the street almost consciously, as if it were watching the passing carriages and waiting for someone." This is the room where Lara decides to get married to Pasha, another character in the novel. Towards the end, Lara walks into the same room and sees the coffin of Zhivago. Did Lara know that Zhivago had seen that the candle that left an icy crust on one of the windows? Did Zhivago know that Lara too had seen the candle melting and leaving a crust? That room in Kamerger Street, thus, is almost like a character, a silent witness to the comings and goings and the converging and diverging of various people and their destinies. That room, that street, become as important to the reader as those who peopled that place.

A hundred footsteps in Soho, London

Much as stories, moral arcs, conflicts and the style of writing themselves make an impression, the setting does indeed leave a strong footprint. When Lucie Manette (A Tale of Two Cities) sits in her Soho home in London and hears a hundred footsteps, we know it's a metaphor for what's to come, but we also think of a hundred people stomping their way through Soho's streets.

Soho comes alive in the reader's imagination as much as the plot or the characters.

Istanbul of my imagination

The city becomes a strong visual backdrop against which plots and conflicts unfold, yes, but on another level, the city could be shaping the destinies of characters and their dilemmas. The city in which a certain work of fiction is set in dictates the way that work shapes up. The city, then, becomes a character. Like how Istanbul becomes in Pamuk's works, for instance, in A Strangeness in My Mind. Mevlut, the central character, is a young, unschooled boy who comes to Istanbul from his village, and sells boza, a fermented drink, for a living. The novel maps his life in the city, while also showing you how Istanbul itself has changed over the decades. The changing landscape of the city changes Mevlut, too, over the years. Without stepping foot into Istanbul, the city has a clear place in my imagination, all thanks to Pamuk. So, there's Taksim Square, there's Tarlabasi in Beyoglu district, there are Duttepe and Kultepe, the two neighbourhoods that are getting into skirmishes all the time.

I know of Oxford Bar. Do you?

If you are a fan of Ian Rankin or Alexander McCall Smith, you are sure to know a thing or two about Edinburgh as well. You know of the legendary Oxford Bar, the Royal Oak, Princess Street, The University of Edinburgh, the Scottish Gallery, the Old Town, the New Town, Scotland Street before you have landed in Edinburgh.

Discoveries, of cities & ourselves

Walking the streets of a city, like Pamuk's Mevlut, gives you an opportunity not just to discover the many sides to the city, but also yourself. "Walking around the city at night made him feel as if he was wandering around inside his own head. That was why whenever he spoke to the walls, advertisements, shadows, and strange and mysterious shapes he couldn't see in the night, he always felt as if he were talking to himself."

Just as the cities of fiction lead you to discovery once you actually get there, cities of real life lead you to discovery as well. You envelop the city, and the city envelopes you. Pamuk pays the finest ode to the city in A Strangeness in My Mind. "In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes."

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