Swans Commentary » swans.com July 3, 2006  



Orhan Pamuk: A Novelist Where The Currents Cross


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - July 3, 2006)  Sisli is an Istanbul neighborhood close to the water on the European side of the Bosphorus. It has all the smudged and outdated modern appurtenances you might find in a Balkan capital. But it differs in the zest of its dominant population, the brash new Turkish middle class. On December 16, 2005 there was more excitement in the air than that thrown up by the tangled, honking traffic. A noisy crowd had gathered in the rain to see a tall, boyish figure in a dark suit being escorted into the Sisli district criminal court. To judge by the jeering, his crime must have been a vile one.

Inside the court he remained on his feet for forty-five minutes while the judge strove to keep order. It wasn't easy despite the great number of riot police in full regalia that stood about. The lawyers of the accused man argued that the case should be dropped; those of the prosecution that it should be pursued forthwith. The besieged judge finally got a word in and postponed the case until February 7, 2006. More important, he referred the decision whether to prosecute to the Minister of Justice in Ankara.

A lawyer had punched the pink face of an elderly man who accompanied the accused. The same man, leaving the court, was kicked by an excited spectator who had been shouting "traitor." The presumed criminal was then set upon by a woman who struck him with a rolled-up folder. The crowd surged as he stumbled toward a waiting car. But the police stood back. Some of their number in plainclothes were busy inciting the crowd. A banner called the accused "a missionary child," an insult meaning foreign-bred, impure Turk. Shouts came of "Get out of Turkey." Stones were thrown. Eggs splattered the car windows as it pulled away.

The man in the now-crumpled dark suit had just time to look out at the building opposite the court. It was a five-story block built in 1951 and marked Pamuk Apartments. He had lived most of his fifty-three years there amongst family and relations. His name was Orhan Pamuk, and he was Turkey's most famous living writer. The former British Minister for Europe, Denis McShane -- he of the pink face -- had come to lend support with other campaigners for human rights.

There's a short explanation of why Pamuk had to appear in court. He was quoted in the Swiss periodical Tages-Anzeiger of February 6, 2005 as saying, "thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it." This brought a charge in Turkey of "publicly denigrating Turkishness," which could cost him from six months to three years in prison. Turkish laws enforce Turkish taboos.

There's also just as short an explanation of why the judge could send the case to the Minister of Justice and how that cabinet member could avoid a prosecution. Article 159 of the old penal code was in effect when Pamuk made his statement. But by September 2005 when the district prosecutor filed an action against the writer, a revised penal code had been in force for several months. It was the new code's Article 301 that would cover the case. The old code, but not the new one, stipulated that the Minister of Justice must approve a similar charge. The Sisli judge therefore felt justified in asking the Minister for clarification. The response came on January 22, 2006. The Minister of Justice said he was unable to consider a case concerning the former penal code, and the Sisli court was able to drop the case. Pamuk was acquitted, but on a technicality.

However, short explanations can miss the point. At the moment a pro-European Islamist government rules in Turkey. It has staked its future on getting the country into the European Union. But overriding power in modern Turkey resides in the military establishment flanked by old-guard secularists, Kemalist authoritarians, enriched bureaucrats and small-time zealots who foam at the mouth outside of courtrooms. Nothing has changed in that respect since Mustafa Kemal, afterwards Ataturk, founded the Republic. This nationalist force suspended parliamentary government in 1960, 1971, and 1980, when things were not going its way. It would like to be free to intervene when it pleased in the future. Turkey's membership of the European Union would make such interference difficult. It would also endanger a vast system of special interests and privilege built up by this new elite since the 1920s.

Enter the somewhat ingenuous figure of Orhan Pamuk. As a Turkish novelist he has attained unprecedented international fame. His last novel, Snow, had an initial printing of one hundred thousand copies, an unheard-of figure in Turkey. It goes without saying that both the moderate Islamists in power and the nationalists ready to pounce on them have always considered Pamuk suspect. He may have shied away from politics, but being a novelist in Turkey is quite enough to present a danger to men of power. Novelists at their best plumb their feelings and those of their countrymen to reveal what's really going on around them. Can there be a greater public peril? Imagine how the politicians of both sides were flummoxed by Pamuk's statement about Snow: "I'm not writing a political novel to make propaganda for some cause. I want to describe the condition of people's souls in a city."

Nevertheless, Pamuk's renown abroad made him untouchable. The move to incriminate him over the Swiss interview came when the nationalists found that it would better serve their ends for Turkey to be seen as incapable of meeting Europe's standards on human rights. They hoped the indecision in Brussels on Turkey's entry would tip over into outright rejection and the nationalists could continue to run the Republic from behind the scenes as they always have. The ruling moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development saw its interest in the opposite direction. Europe had to be convinced of Turkey's respect for human rights. That's why Prime Minister Erodgan's cabinet put an end to Pamuk's case before he was scheduled to appear in court again on February 7th.

Pamuk was left on slippery ground. He'd experienced nationalist rage up close. There had been library purges, burning of his books, intimidation of booksellers, ritual destruction of his photograph, ostracism in the streets, goofy death threats, and other rites of voodoo fascism. At the same time he also felt uncomfortable in having been spared because of his fame while his colleagues suffered official persecution unnoticed by the world at large. But if he whooped up the abuse of free speech in Turkey -- as Salman Rushdie was doing from a perch in Manhattan -- it could well bar Turkey's way into the European Union. That's doubtless why at the time of his December 16th ordeal Pamuk had only said meekly: "It is not good for Turkey, for our democracy, for such freedom of expression cases to be prolonged." With the nationalists free of external restraint and bolstered by a backlash against Europe's rejection, they could easily resume the more brutal censorship of the past.

Pamuk has often spoken more boldly. In 1999 he refused the honor of Turkish State Artist: "For years I have been criticizing the state for putting authors in jail, for only trying to solve the Kurdish problem by force, and for its narrow-minded nationalism. I don't know why they tried to give me the prize." He was the first writer from a Muslim country to support Salman Rushdie when Khomeni called for his death. Immediately after 9/11, Pamuk wrote in the New York Review of Books:

We should try to understand why millions of people in poor countries that have been pushed to one side, and deprived of the right to decide their own histories, feel such anger at America.

A foot in both worlds, Pamuk could set up no facile us-and-them dichotomies. He added:

To debate America's role in the world in the shadow of terrorism that is based on hatred of the "West" and brutally kills innocent people is both extremely difficult and perhaps morally questionable. But in the heat of righteous anger at vicious acts of terror, and in nationalistic rage, some will find it easy to speak words that might lead to the slaughter of other innocent people. In view of this, one wants to say something.

In accepting the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair of 2005, Pamuk waxed Dostoevskyan on the hatred generated by Turkey's 20th century modernization. The nationalists made the annihilation of tradition the gauge of progress. They attempted to create something from nothing by fiat. When the results inevitably fell short of Western norms, their pride suffered. Full of shame, they turned spitefully against their country's past and their hapless countrymen who embodied it.

Pamuk delivered the inaugural PEN American Center Arthur Miller Memorial Lecture in April 2006. He recalled a visit of Miller and Harold Pinter to Istanbul after the military coup of 1980 that threw countless writers into jail. At that time most of the persecuted were leftists. He noted that at present half of these people are aligned with authoritarian nationalism, and remarked:

Living as I do where, in a very short time, someone who has been a victim of tyranny and oppression can suddenly become one of the oppressors, I know also that holding strong beliefs about the nature of things and people is itself a difficult enterprise.

Official attacks on free speech have diminished but by no means disappeared since Turkey has tried to measure up to the European Union. There are fifty writers, editors, and publishers now being prosecuted for what are nothing more than thought crimes. Pamuk hasn't failed to make use of his international prestige to defend them. In the London Guardian of June 3 he took up the case of Perihan Magden, an incriminated newspaper columnist. She irked the military by writing a column called simply "Conscientious Objection is a Human Right." (Conscription is obligatory in Turkey and there is no conscientious objection.) Magden considered the predicament of Mehmet Tarhan, a homosexual who faced conscription. His sexual orientation alone would have kept him out of the army since it considers homosexuality a grave physical disability. But Tarhan would not submit to the degrading physical examination required. He was consequently sent to a military prison for four years.

Pamuk's midstream viewpoint came out in his comments. Ataturk had promised that the republic would give birth to a new independent woman of which Magden is certainly an example. But the same army that claims to guard Ataturk's heritage has done nothing but persecute the columnist. A dirty tricks campaign snooped on her private life and insinuated that as a divorced woman she couldn't be trusted. As a matter of fact, without male protection in a difficult country for women and on her paltry salary as a Turkish journalist, she managed to raise another independent woman, her daughter. Magden also writes novels, two of which have been translated: The Messenger Boy Murders, 2004, and Two Girls, 2005. Her first hearing took place on place June 7, with the usual group of jeering nationalists in attendance. The case was then adjourned to July 17 "to allow prosecutors to collect more evidence."

There's irony in Pamuk's discomfort in a public role and his refrain about wishing only to get back to his novelist's desk. He did in fact begin writing twenty-five years ago with a definite bias against "social realism" and didacticism. He found the generation of Turkish writers who preceded him, which included the giants Nazim Hikmet and Yashar Kemal, to be excessively concerned with putting across political and moral doctrines. The emphasis on "social commentary" hurt their art. His idols were Henry James, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and Proust. He sojourned at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and eventually adopted an approach to the novel that fluently mixed the modern and the post modern.

In a word, he was not going to be an early Dos Passos, populist Steinbeck, or the Malraux of La Condition humaine. From his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982, but finished eight years before, unpublished in translation) his perspective is clear. Turkey is ever on the move from East to West. It will probably never complete the voyage, but blotting out the starting point won't help. "That Turkey has two souls is not a sickness." This saga of three generations of an Istanbul bourgeois family much like his own will be Pamuk's only novel in the classical mode.

The Silent House (1983, unpublished in translation) is a novel in five voices reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. In the 1970s-'80s, three siblings spend a summer at their dying grandmother's home outside Istanbul while leftists and rightists join battle in the city's streets. One tale within the novel goes back to the reign of the last Ottoman Sultan. A scholar-physician prepared an encyclopedia in forty-eight volumes that would at a stroke bring the ignorant peasant nation in line with the West. But the abrupt suppression of Ottoman script in 1928 -- "the Alphabet Revolution" -- rendered his work useless. Artist-scholars working on the edges where cultures meet risk futility.

The White Castle (1985, translation 1990) plunged into the history of Turkish westernizing in a freewheeling postmodern way. Two 17th-century scholars, one an Ottoman Hoja or master, the other a captured Venetian, strive to prove the superiority of their respective civilizations. Both are ominously concerned with the science of warfare. But instead of East and West looming up as distinct realities, a gradual intermingling takes place in the characters of the two men. At the end, one has become the other.

The Black Book (1990, a poor translation came out in 1994, but a new one will appear in the course of 2006) has only an intermittent story line. A young lawyer searches for his wife who has run off with a renowned journalist he idolized as a boy. The runaway couple perishes in an accident and the lawyer assumes the journalist's identity, his youthful dream realized. We read insertions of his writing and contributions by innumerable others. A fantastic Istanbul takes over as the lawyer questions who exactly he is and what it means to be a writer.

The New Life (1995, translation 1997) tells how a student observes a girl engrossed in reading and falls in love with the reader and her book. It's that singular, momentous volume that when read changes both a life and the world. The two embark on a random tour of their country, everywhere scared by a gimcrack modernity and uprooted tradition. The young man ends by embracing the novel as an artistic form, "the greatest invention of Western culture," and will seek the New Life in the past of his country, which is "suffering from amnesia."

My Name is Red (1998, translation 2001), for many the author's masterpiece, sees him enter into a larger dimension, and yet continue to portray the march toward the West. At the Sultan's Court in the 16th century the introduction of Renaissance painting threatens the thriving miniaturist tradition come from Persia. The Italian painters bring perspective, realism, and personality, all of which challenge the role of Allah as unique creator. The traditionalists, validated by religion, do not yield easily and this is a story of murder, lust and, once more, the intense life of Istanbul.

Snow (2002, translation 2004) for the first time looks closely at present day domestic politics. The scene is remote Kars, a city between two empires that the Russians occupied for forty years till 1918. That may be why Pamuk here recalls Dostoyevski. Conflict rages between the secular nationalists and political Islam. A visiting poet, who has taken on a Western veneer, finds that a Turkish artist may feel a deep connection to both sides, but can give allegiance to neither. As Richard Eder (New York Times, September 2, 2001) has said of Pamuk: "He is not an ideologue or a politician or a journalist. He is a novelist and a great one. . . . . His job is not to denounce reality but to be haunted by it, as a medium is haunted."

Turkey's greatest living writer can be said to be so close to the reality of his country that both bickering adversaries who claim to own it must denounce him. For one side he blasphemes against Ataturk and the authoritarian state in refusing to throw six centuries of Ottoman culture on the scrap heap. For the other he dares to speak without solemnity of religion, respecting it mainly as a social and cultural fact. Islamist intellectuals also accuse him of exploiting Turkish history and tradition for purely literary ends of a western stripe. For both sides he's "self-absorbed" and "obscure" because he doesn't peddle their doctrines or mouth their witless slogans. No wonder that harassed by government lawyers and the wagging fingers of the pious, Pamuk stopped writing fiction for a while to reassure himself he still had Turkish ground to stand on. In Istanbul: Memories and the City (2003, translation 2005) he tells us all about himself and his affection for his native place. It's as if he's shooing off the bluebottles of state and religion to be alone with his beloved.

The post-modern stagger through Pamuk's novels furnishes breathless twists, turns and sudden startling vistas. But the reader can't be blamed for feeling relief that this book of very personal memories unfolds as straightforward and replete as a Sunday dinner down home. The numerous atmospheric black and white photographs encourage time travel and a contemplative mood. In Pamuk's boyhood, Istanbul was at its crumbling worst, and he had to scramble to find consolations. The stone mansions built by the pashas were derelict. When the distinctive old wooden houses of the city, or the magnificent yalis along the Bosphorus went up in flames, people stood stolidly by as if they were being relieved of shame. They seemed more concerned to cast off past failure than to welcome something in its place.

The author points out that his differs from other worse-for-wear cities, like Delhi or São Paulo, in that the remains of a glorious past are everywhere amid the degradation. For him the history of the city after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire is the key to its mystery and the core of his book. For one thing, it begins to explain huzun, the peculiar melancholy of Istanbul, a communal black mood not only "conveying worldly failure, listlessness and spiritual suffering" but also "a state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating."

The boy Orhan was not immune to huzun or insensitive to the civic shambles around him. It couldn't have helped that his family was in no better shape than the city. His grandfather made a fortune in the first years of the Republic and afterwards his descendants worked full-time at frittering it away. His father's bankruptcies occurred as regularly as the family's stay each summer on an island in the Marmara Sea. His parents' marriage was a series of memorable battles with the belligerents regularly disappearing on their own, doubtless to replenish their forces. The five stories of the Pamuk Apartments, inhabited exclusively by family members, shook constantly with squabbles over property and nervous breakdowns induced by diminishing income.

Orhan early found consolation in the Bosphorus. Looking out on it, he would one day write his novels. It was Istanbul's inbuilt aid to shouldering the weight of the ambient gloom. "If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy, and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness." The thrill of this strip of open sea running through the middle of the city has never left him. He would soon be working hard to make himself into a painter, his early choice of vocation that would render all his writing arrestingly visual. For the moment he was passionate to know what other artists had made of Istanbul. This led him to the work of Antoine-Ignace Melling, an 18th century German artist "who saw the city like an Istanbullu, but painted it like a clear-eyed Westerner." It also led him to a discovery. Ottoman artists had neither the technique nor interest in depicting their city.

In a similar way, when he turned to writing, Pamuk would search for forerunners that shared his obsession with the city. Four earlier Turkish writers had been entranced by Istanbul life: Yahya Kemal, Koçu, Tanpinar, and A.S. Hisar. They had lived through the demise of empire and been left with a strong sense of the transitory nature of all civilizations. "What unites these four writers is the poetry they made of this knowledge and the melancholy attending to it."

But when he looked closer it was the Melling phenomenon all over again. The four had taken their idea of literature from French writers. Their belief in pure poetry came from Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Valéry. Gautier taught them how to do verbal cityscapes. Though aware that this foreign view of Istanbul was not enough to make them original Turkish writers, the four found no other available at home. The contradiction hurt. But living in "a city littered with the ruins of the great fall" they had to settle for making its expression by western means their parcel of authenticity. "They are the ones who taught me how to reconcile my love for modern art and Western literature with the culture of the city in which I lived."

One wonders how the late Edward Said would have sorted out this tangled episode of Orientalism. Had the natives of Istanbul waited for one of theirs, untainted by foreignness, to portray the city, they might still be waiting. (The technique in painting they possessed had come from Persia in compass-reversing Orientalism.) Republican France stepped in to help put imperial values in relief. Surely Said would have had to admit that each situation of cultural creation has its own rules and that these defy facile theorizing.

Early 20th century Istanbul at the time Pamuk's four precursors wrote was a singular place. Tradition encountered Western culture, long established ethnic groups had their separate quarters and immigrants poured in from all sides. Orthodox Christians went undisturbed and there was a presence of their Roman brethren. Foreign Protestants pioneered higher education. Synagogues abounded. Sufi lodges dotted the city and the imperial mosques held sway over all. The variety was such that Pamuk finds "for the past hundred and fifty years, no one has been able to feel completely at home." But he wasn't complaining. The great joy of his boyhood was to accompany his mother to the shoe stores and pastry shops of Beyoglu still run by the descendants of the Byzantines who had lost out in the conquest of 1453 but were still hanging around. To see Istanbul from the different viewpoints of the variegated humanity who had contemplated it -- even the Orientalists -- was for Pamuk to keep his connection to the place vital and vibrant.

The book proceeds like an old-time provincial museum or, rather, cabinet de curiosités. The exhibits are short quick chapters. We might confront the author's grandmother who smoked ferociously and played afternoon poker with her cronies, one of whom had been a resident of the last sultan's harem. Or we could suddenly come up against Gustave Flaubert writing letters from the Bosphorus to his mother about the sorry state of his penis, syphilitic after five weeks in Beirut. A pile of old newspapers gets in the way and lets us guess at the contribution of columnists to smooth the city's manners. One of them counsels: "Don't walk down the street with your mouth open."

And all the time the post-modernist on sabbatical gazes inward at his young self in rapture before the coming and going of the world's great ships that pass, as it were, at the bottom of his garden. He ransacks the past. If the republican regime has claimed the right to erase pre-1922 Turkey, why shouldn't a novelist have the right to recreate it? After all, to mention the deaths of Armenians and Kurds only writes in again what's been rubbed out. A friendly word of advice to the Humpty Dumpties on the high wall: Sic your regime book reviewers on a novelist if you like, but don't demean yourselves with threats of courts and prison.


· · · · · ·


Starting its eleventh year of free publication, Swans is rich in friends,
but poor in cash. If you've enjoyed being a Swans reader, please help us out
with a small donation. Thank you.

· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

Arts & Culture


About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Peter Byrne 2006. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

"Lemon Head" - Hank Bunker

Swift Boating The Media - Deck Deckert

Singing Off Key In The Choir - Philip Greenspan

A Day In The Life - Michael Doliner

The Insurgent Word: Apocalypse - Gerard Donnelly Smith

Endangered Species Fantasy - Martin Murie

My Buddha - Milo Clark

Demise Of The Bard - Charles Marowitz

Three Thousand Worlds - Poem by Guido Monte and Vittorio Cozzo

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/pbyrne07.html
Published July 3, 2006