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Christopher De Bellaigue, “There is no east: Reading Orhan Pamuk,” Harper’s, Sept. 2007
Who is the greatest living writer? Society doesn’t tend to be a great judge of the living. Bestsellers don’t usually withstand the test of time. Geniuses often go unrecognized, living on the margins of society and achieve fame only long after their death. There are, of course, the comfortable exceptions: Goethe, Hugo, Tolstoy, Twain. So perhaps it’s far too early to assay the greatness of the contemporary generation. But I have a sense that one of the prime contenders will be the man who is the subject of Christopher De Bellaigue’s essay in the current Harper’s: Orhan Pamuk.
A short while back I aspired to be a member of the “212 Club,” a small group of people who pass between the two great world metropolises which share the 212 area code: New York and Istanbul. In my mind there are no better places to be on the planet. Roughly fifteen years ago I started working with some regularity in Central Asia, and I found myself spending large blocks of time in the city on the Bosphorus—in transit, and then working with businessmen and professional service providers there. An April morning spent touring the Haya Sophia, an afternoon strolling the clogged pedestrian walkways of Beyo?lu, visits to the Egyptian market or to trendy boutiques and offices in ?i?li, evenings at a Bosphorus-side fish restaurant in Bebek, filled with its wonderful old villas—the city was a sort of paradise. But this was always balanced by the rather more depressing political and economic realities of Istanbul–a city which had for generations been poised, just at the cusp of emerging as a world-class center of politics, culture, finance and business, but never quite made it.
Back in college I read some Byzantine history and wondered about the Eastern emperors and their obsession with their capital city. Nothing mattered more to them than Constantinople. It seemed strange. But once you’ve spent some time there you come to understand it. Istanbul is not just another piece of real estate. There is something charming, endearing, wonderful about the city. Also something inexplicably sad. A sense of unrecognized importance in and to the world. A sense of lost grandeur. A place of great history, art and ideas. I don’t think there is another city with which one can so quickly fall in love.
Orhan Pamuk writes about many subjects, but none so compellingly as Istanbul. That is the topic of his most recently published book, but what he writes is not a tour guide, a description of buildings and sights. It is more of an internal, a spiritual biography. It is a personal world. And this world is not limited to Istanbul, it appears in virtually every book: that is, Istanbul, the great metropolis, is itself a character in these books. More than tableau. Pamuk is the chronicler of Istanbul, he is an internal master of the city, much as Dr. Johnson was the master of the spirit of eighteenth century London, Balzac of early nineteenth century Paris or Gogol of St. Petersburg. De Bellaigue gives us a good taste of this:
Pamuk came to relish melancholy and decay. The Istanbul of the 1950s and 1960s was no longer the capital of a world empire, or even of an impoverished nation-state. Atatürk had not seen fit to establish his capital there, choosing instead the rural fastness of Ankara, far from foreign threats, a bare hill for a new cult. In Istanbul many acres of old trees were felled; imperial mansions, marble fountains, and waterside villas surrendered to fire, neglect, and developers. This was not regeneration–the new buildings coming up would be denounced as shoddy and hideous–but a further indignity to add to the existing insults. Amid the furies of change, reminders stood everywhere of the old Ottoman heritage, “traces,” as Pamuk writes in Istanbul, “of a great culture and a great civilization that we were unfit or unprepared to inherit, in our frenzy to turn Istanbul into a pale, poor, second-class imitation of a western city.”
But the ghost of that great past lingers wonderfully in many of Pamuk’s books: The Black Book, for instance (out now in a new, vastly superior translation), with its swirl of characters. When I first read it, I found a feat on so many levels—the clever array of citations, the storms of intellectual history, of East and West, all meeting in a great maelström on the Bosphorus. My first thought was: here is someone who has read, knows, has devoured E.T.A. Hoffmann and has transported him to modern Turkey; but in fact, Pamuk is a better writer than Hoffmann ever was—a greater master of irony for one thing. Hoffmann strains to be humorous. Pamuk balances flashes of hysterical humor with moments that are morbid, hopelessly dark.
And then there is My Name is Red, which I picked up suspiciously. “This will be a commercial work, appealing to the Istanbul middle class and its nostalgia for everything Ottoman,” I thought, but it wasn’t anything like that. It was an intoxicating other world, a world on the border between the artisan and the high artist, a world of wondrous esthetics and symbols. And it was a murder mystery, though that hardly seemed to matter. The Metropolitan Museum will be launching an exhibition of the amazing miniatures that form the core of My Name is Red in the near future, and this event is certain to further develop the renown of Orhan Pamuk. Another bridge will join New York and Istanbul.
But important as these works are, one in particular is key to my high opinion of Orhan Pamuk, and that is Snow. The writing and publishing of this work was a courageous act, since by doing it—and offering a compellingly honest and candid account of issues of passionate concern in contemporary Turkey—he had to reckon with being viewed as an enemy both by Westernizing reformers and the now ascendant Islamists. The name Snow requires a bit of commentary; in Turkish the name is Kar, which means “snow,” but is also close to Kars, the city in remote eastern Turkey where the plot unfolds. Kars, of course, was one of the principal points of Armenian settlement in Turkey, an ancient Armenian capital in fact, and Pamuk makes no bones of reminding his readers of this vanished legacy. There are few things a writer in Turkey could do today that would draw a heavier attack than this. And Pamuk is highly conscious of the provocation he is delivering. He quotes a passage from Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma at the outset:
Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.
And the ugly matters which he portrays are the stuff of everyday headlines across modern Asia Minor—the affair of the headscarf. Suicides and killings. All of it linked to the determined resurgence of Islamists and an equally determined Kemalist opposition, fixed on its suppression. A handful of key exchanges between Pamuk’s protagonist Ka (I have almost convinced myself that he has lifted this name from Franz Kafka’s Trial since this is how the last name of Kafka’s protagonist would be sounded) are among the most riveting, intense dialogues to appear in recent literature. They demonstrate that Pamuk has a deep understanding of the Islamicist mind; he does not trivialize it or present it in a hysterical transmogrification—as we commonly find it in the West. Ka views all of this as an outsider, a man sheathed in the knowledge and ways of the West, shown by the warm gray coat that he purchased at Kaufhof while living in Germany, but nevertheless as a man not hostile to Islamic culture. He feels a part of that culture; he recognizes that the violent impulses of the terrorist are a part of that culture, too, though a part he would prefer to reject. The writing is simple, convincing, hypnotic. There is no literary work that deals more honestly with this, one of the most fundamental problem of our day. And it’s largely on that basis that I assess Pamuk as a truly great writer.
But Orhan Pamuk reminds us of this message which is so vital to our “post-9/11″ world: reason, caution, humanity are values which can be betrayed by any society, including those in the West. As he said in his Nobel speech:
What literature needs most to tell and investigate today are humanity’s basic fears: the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations that are their next of kind … Whenever I am confronted by such sentiments, and by the irrational, overstated language in which they are usually expressed, I know they touch on a darkness inside me. We have often witnessed peoples, societies and nations outside the Western world – and I can identify with them easily – succumbing to fears that sometimes lead them to commit stupidities, all because of their fears of humiliation and their sensitivities. I also know that in the West – a world with which I can identify with the same ease – nations and peoples taking an excessive pride in their wealth, and in their having brought us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, have, from time to time, succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid.
Orhanbey is a man of genius. But as Hermann Hesse reminds us in one of the magic lantern scenes in Steppenwolf, men of genius invariably have a child within yearning to escape. Orhan Pamuk has a childish side and that’s one of the things I most like about him: his ability to stand outside of the self and laugh. But also to laugh at others who badly need to be laughed at.
Last June in Istanbul, I found myself at a formal dinner in the gardens of the Topkap? Palace, with Orhan Pamuk seated across the table. It was a languid political affair graced with a captain of industry and a couple of ministers of the current AK Party Government. And as the government minister delivered his address, consisting of utterly predictable political humdrum, Orhan gave his neighbors at the table a non-stop sotto voce interpretation of the speech for the politically impaired. His tablemates were kept in stitches, but the hosts were rather miffed. I departed the affair thinking how fortunate we were that Orhan Pamuk was moving back to New York this year. Yes, we need Orhanbey back West for a while. We need him as a champion of Istanbul and its glorious past. We need Orhan Pamuk, the salvage artist who knows how to extract and blend the best of two worlds (many more than two, actually). This is how we can keep our world in balance. Orhan Pamuk’s role is vital.
Read De Bellaigue’s essay, and then get yourself to a book store and buy Snow, Istanbul, The Black Book and My Name is Red. That’s a good start. You won’t regret any of it.
More from Scott Horton:
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