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Pamuk's battles

Print edition : Nov 03, 2006

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TURKISH NOVELIST ORHAN Pamuk in Istanbul. A file picture.-MURAD SEZER/AP

TURKISH NOVELIST ORHAN Pamuk in Istanbul. A file picture.-MURAD SEZER/AP

Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a master at mixing known genres and styles.

ORHAN PAMUK's winning the Nobel Prize this year for literature will neither enhance nor diminish his reputation. The sales of his novels shall increase a bit in his native Turkey and, of course, in the occidental world where his works are well known.

His eight novels, the most famous amongst them, My Name is Red, The Black Book, The New Life, The White Castle and Istanbul are available in English translation and reveal palpably his evolution as a writer. He is, to be sure, a product of the modern and not unsurprisingly, postmodern world. That he is Turkish is no surprise.

Turkey has been a bone of contention between Europe and Asia in the last 100 years or more. While being Islamic it has drawn freely from Europe and adapted this knowledge to suit its requirement both political and social. It has struggled heroically with the clergy and the military after the Second World War for nearly 40 years and it has always had a rich cultural life.

Pamuk the writer is the outcome of this domestic tussle for power between religion and naked military force both of which have tried, for entirely tenuous reasons, to chain the cultural worker. Among the prime victims were poet Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) and film-maker and actor Yilmaz Gunney (1934-1983). Of them later. Pamuk, at 54, finds himself hugely popular amongst the Turkish literati despite his critical opinion of the governments' handling of the Kurdish problem and the massacres that took place to rout out the separatist movements of the ethnic minority groups. Moreover, his refusal to forget the killings of tens of thousands of Armenians in 1912 at the hands of the Turks, while not exactly endearing him to the establishment, has not affected his popularity even with the conservatives, who admire his books but not his opinions.

Official Turkey while struggling with an increasingly raucous clergy is also keen to project itself as a tourist paradise. The mullahs there are by far more liberal than their counterparts in Iran or worse still, Saudi Arabia, although they cannot take criticism from Pamuk who they regard as a man with radical views.

His projection of the self in an individual has created problems for the conservatives, who despite a fair exposure to European ideas of liberalism, seem to believe that salvation lies in service to the community, albeit without a critical understanding of what it entails. Pamuk's understanding of his world and the role of the individual in it is poetic.

"In one of Uncle Rifki's stories for children, there is an intrepid hero, who, like myself, takes to the disconsolate streets of his own childhood in search of the land of gold, harkening to the call of obscure venues, the clamour of far away countries; and the roaring sound in trees that remained invisible. Wearing on my back the overcoat my dead father who retired from the state railroads left me, I walked into the heart of darkness" (The New Life)

In this one virtuoso passage where time and space overlap effortlessly linking past and present traditions of storytelling, Pamuk makes clear his aesthetic, and dare one say, political predilections. There are echoes in this paragraph of Joseph Conrad, strangely enough, William Saroyan, an American-Armenian raconteur, and that treasure trove of stories, A Thousand and One Nights.

He is a master at mixing known genres and styles. He arrives almost by accident at illuminating moments. Dr. Fine, the half mythical half real figure speaks of himself, a certain type of Turkish male and, inadvertently of shifting values within a seemingly static cultural tradition.

"Others observe nature, Dr. Fine said, "only to see their own limitations, their own inadequacies, their own fears. Then, fearful of their own frailties, they ascribe their fear to nature's boundlessness, its grandness. As for me, I observe in nature a powerful statement which speaks to me, reminding me of my own will power that I must sustain; I see there a rich manuscript which I read resolutely, mercilessly, fearlessly."

Dr. Fine goes on in the same vein, "... when history gets rewritten, this great power moves as pitilessly and decisively as the great man who has been mobilised. Then fate is also set mercilessly into motion. On that great day, no quarter shall be given to public opinion, to newspapers, or to current ideas, none to petty morality and insignificant consumer products like their bottled gas and Lux soap, their Coca Cola and Marlboros with which the West has duped our pitiful compatriots."

Pamuk's deft, sly putdown comes immediately when Dr. Fine calls himself a genius. Every megalomaniac in history has felt the same. His literary journey has also been facilitated by the relative political freedom that Turkey has had to offer. There is room now for an individual and his dilemmas.

Not very long ago before Pamuk began writing Nazim Hikmet, a considerable people's poet, dismissed as a pamphleteer by his adversaries in the Army and the government - the former ran the latter - spent 13 years in prison intermittently for criticising the decadent Turkish way of life and its politics.

In this age of globalisation poets such as Hikmet are easily, unjustly forgotten. Then there is the famous case of Ilmaz Gunney, senior by many years to Pamuk, a popular actor-turned political activist who opposed the junta at every step and found himself in prison ever so frequently. That he became a director of rare sensitivity and made films like Herd and Yol amongst others from prison through his faithful assistants outside, most gifted among them Sheriff Goren, is a feat unparalleled in cinema. Gunney died of cancer in exile in France.

Pamuk was lucky to come at a time when Turkey was changing for the better and was thus spared the psychological, and sometimes physical battering that Hikmet and Gunney had been subjected to in their times.

In The New Life the following passage signals Pamuk's post-modern credentials. Here he teeters between Khalil Gibran and Eric Segal. "Love is submitting. Love is the cause of love. Love is understanding. Love is a kind of music. Love and the gentle heart are identical. Love is the poetry of sorrow. Love is the tender soul looking into the mirror. Love is evanescent... Love is a process of crystallisation. Love is giving. Love is sharing a stick of gum." Gibran, no matter what the lost-it-all Western existentialists say, was a genuine lyric poet more in tune with the yearnings of the human heart than most and Segal, despite being the king of schmaltz, to use an American Jewish colloquialism for high sentimentality, may possibly have had something to say about human relations.

Pamuk's sly wit comes into play here. Ingredients: glucose, sugar, vegetable oil, butter, milk, and vanilla.

New Life Caramels are a product of Angel Candy and Chewing Gum, Inc. 18 Bloomingdale St. Eskisehir.

It is a pleasure to see him put down the American fetish of providing the consumer with accurate information on the product sold without necessarily saying anything as in this case, truthful about its "health giving qualities".

If The New Life is a metaphysical thriller about the art of living, then My Name is Red is at least to this writer an artist's testament of faith and has a poignance akin to Umberto Eco's Name Of the Rose, which also has the quest for knowledge as its theme despite being a whodunit in a medieval setting.

Pamuk extends the art of the daasthan, storytelling, by attributing to the narrator certain transformative qualities that impinge upon the consciousness of the reader. "I appeared in Ghazni when Book of Kings poet Firdusi completed the final line of a quatrain with the most intricate of rhymes besting the court poets of Shah Mahmud, who ridiculed him as being nothing but a peasant... I became the blood that spewed forth when he cut the notorious ogre in half with his wondrous sword; and I was in the folds of the quilt upon which he made furious love with the beautiful daughter of the king who received him as a guest."

His vision of a socially conscious writer comes to the fore while relating to the present by quoting from the past. This quote from My Name is Red for example does duty both to illustrate the conflict between the artist and the patron and the citizen and the state.

"Why did Shah Tahmasp send this terrifying needle with the book he presented to Sultan Selim? Was it because this Shah who as a child was a student of Bihzad's and a patron of artists in his youth, had changed in his old age, distancing poets and artists from his inner circle and giving himself over entirely to faith and worship? Was this the reason he was willing to relinquish this exquisite book, which the greatest masters had laboured over for 10 years? Had he sent this needle so all would know that the great artist was blinded of his own volition or, as was rumoured for a time, to make the statement that whosoever beheld the pages of this book even once would no longer wish to see anything else in the world?"

Ibne Sena, said to be the father of medicine, a doctor, philosopher, was reviled during his lifetime for his ideas. It took several centuries before Ibne Rashd came along to vindicate him. Today both are forgotten by the West or at best regarded as oriental curiosities despite having contributed in no small way towards the evolution of medicine.

But Orhan Pamuk has made a place for himself as a writer in a world where both information and knowledge are much more easy to access and preserve.

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