Pamuk: Prophet or Poseur?

The Globe and Mail, December, 2007

A review of Other Colors: Essays and a Story.

The novels of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most celebrated and controversial man of letters, have been translated into some 20 languages. His novels Snow and My Name is Red are widely considered world-class achievements. The themes of Pamuk's oeuvre include the conflict between the East and the West, the tension between Islam and modernity, and the intense melancholia of his native Istanbul. Admirers find his style complex, multilayered and allegorical; detractors find him faddish and incomprehensible.

On Sept. 11, 2001, writers treating the themes of East contra West and Islam contra modernity hit the literary jackpot. Pamuk -- Eastern enough to write novels about Ottoman calligraphers and Islamic radicals, Western enough to write them in a postmodern, magic-realist style -- became the darling of the Western literary establishment, serially winning the most prestigious and lucrative literary awards in the Western world: the IMPAC Dublin Award, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Prix Médicis étranger, the Premio Grinzane Cavour.

Then, in 2005, Pamuk remarked to a Swiss weekly newsmagazine that "thirty thousand Kurds, and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it." By "these lands" he meant Turkey. By "nobody," it is not quite clear what he meant; as far as I can tell -- and I live in Turkey myself -- nobody here will stop talking about it. But the sentiment in Turkey, generally speaking, is that the Armenians had it coming, and quite a few more Kurds want killing.

Pamuk seemed to be suggesting otherwise. The Turkish government brought criminal charges against him under the infamous Article 301, which forbids citizens from insulting Turkishness. Pamuk was in one stroke elevated from symbolist writer to symbol. The European Union's Enlargement Commissioner called Pamuk's case a "litmus test" of Turkey's commitment to European values; writers around the world rightly denounced the charges as an outrage against free expression. In the end, the case was dropped on a technicality.

Facing death threats at home, Pamuk sensibly decamped for New York. But his prosecution, combined with his status as ambassador at large for the westernized Islamic world, functioned like camembert in a mousetrap to the Nobel committee, which in 2006 awarded him the Nobel Prize for literature. Pamuk is a talented writer, but no one in his right mind believes this was an award based on literary merit.

Pamuk has for the past three decades been filling his notebooks with sketches, half-finished short stories, thoughts about literature and reflections on the travails of life as a writer and a Turk. He has compiled them, loosely edited, into Other Colors, "a book made of ideas, images and fragments of life that have still not found the way into one of my novels." Although it contains previously published works, such as his Nobel acceptance speech and the transcripts of various interviews he has granted over the years, it is mostly comprised of non-fiction essays written some years ago but only now seeing the light of day: literary criticism, reminiscences of his boyhood and particularly of his father, reflections on the challenges of quitting smoking, a discussion of his wristwatches, two short meditations on seagulls and their sad fates, ruminations on the pathos of being a Turk and the Turk's endless, resentful fascination with Europe. There are more descriptions of Istanbul in the melancholy vein of his previous memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City.

But this book is about Pamuk himself, particularly the challenges of being a great writer and a severe depressive. The collection has been received with rapture by many critics, who celebrate this offering as a unique window into Pamuk's interior life. Indeed, it is precisely that. Unfortunately, it seems that Pamuk's interior life is largely that of a lugubrious poseur.

"In order to be happy I must have my daily dose of literature," Pamuk gravely introduces himself. "In this way I am no different from the patient who must take a spoon of medicine each day." If you didn't quite get the point, he repeats it again two sentences later: "For me, literature is medicine. Like the medicine that others take by spoon or injection, my daily dose of literature -- my daily fix, if you will -- must meet certain standards." If he is forced "to go a long stretch without his paper-and-ink cure," he feels "misery setting inside me like cement. My body has difficulty moving, my joints get stiff, my head turns to stone, my perspiration even seems to smell differently."

Is he serious? Yes, he is. For page upon page, Pamuk stresses in these self-enamoured tones that he is a man who really likes to read books. Good ones, too, by famous writers like Dostoyevsky and Borges -- not, you know, easy ones. He's different from other Turks, you see. But he's not like the Europeans, either. He's an outsider, eternally apart, rejected by all, accepted by no one (the Nobel committee aside). Life hurts. A seagull croaks.

There is a fleeting moment of insight when he later remarks that he wants "to say a few things about my library, but I don't wish to praise it in the manner of one who proclaims his love of books only to let you know how exceptional he is, and how much more cultured and refined than you." He negates this half-hearted essay at modesty in the very next sentence: "Still, I live in a country that views the non-reader as the norm and the reader as somehow defective, so I cannot but respect the affectations, obsessions and pretensions of the tiny handful who read and build libraries amid the general tedium and boorishness."

Sentiments such as these may make the reader suspect that Pamuk was prosecuted in Turkey not because he spoke the truth about Armenia and the Kurds but because he is a patronizing pest. But let's not quibble: Pamuk needs to read or he will die. That, surely, is the mark of a particularly excellent reader. And he is, moreover, caught between East and West, which makes his affliction all the more acute.

Pamuk lived and wrote in Cihangir, a lovely neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul. This happens to be where I now live and write. From Cihangir, if your window faces the Bosphorus, on a clear day you can see Asia. So I'm caught between East and West myself, not to mention caught between north and south, and caught, at least twice a day, between daytime and nighttime. (By the way, you would not know it from reading Pamuk, but it is usually a clear day here. Istanbul is a bright, vibrant, cheerful city.) It is physically impossible not to be caught between East and West, actually. We all are. So may I take this opportunity to beg Pamuk, everyone who writes about Pamuk, and indeed, everyone who writes about Istanbul, to retire forever the phrase "caught between East and West"?

Yes, Istanbul is located geographically between Asia and Europe. Yes, Turks tend to be rather aware of this. Turkey, as Pamuk observes-- and if you think about it for even a second, it should not come as a surprise -- exhibits both Oriental and Occidental qualities. But this "caught between East and West" business -- how much more literary mileage does he plan to get out of it? First time: a fair observation. Thousandth time: 999 times too many. (Next up: New York is a melting pot; Paris is the City of Lights; there's nothing in Texas but steers and queers.)

Even the hamburgers of his youth were, for Pamuk, "like so much else in Istanbul, a synthesis of East and West." So were the frankfurters, in fact. And like everything in Istanbul, they made him feel gloomy. "I would look at myself standing there, eating my hamburger and drinking my ayran, and see that I was not handsome, and I would feel alone and guilty and lost in the city's great crowds."

For this is his ultimate subject: his very sad mood. Forget for a moment the literary accolades and imagine what it would be like to go on a date with this melancholy egomaniac. He shows up at the café wearing a black turtleneck, brandishing his annotated copy of Notes from Underground, making sure the title faces out. Within minutes he tells you that, unlike everyone else in Turkey, he reads. "Books are what keep me going," he says.

"Really? I like books too," you say politely.

"Let me explain what I feel on a day when I've not written well, am unable to lose myself in a book," he adds gravely. "First, the world changes before my eyes; it becomes unbearable, abominable."

"Oh," you say. "That sounds very painful."

"I feel as if there is no line between life and death," he continues. "It's worse than depression. I want to disappear. I don't care if I live or die. Or if the world comes to an end, even. In fact, if it ended right this minute, so much the better."

It is a bright spring day in Istanbul. He tells you that he hates the springtime.

Pamuk is a creature of Istanbul's haute bourgeoisie, a class of Turks much given to examining their own misery and alienation and finding them intensely significant, much in the way the 19th-century romantics admired their own tuberculosis. The Turkish elite is, as Pamuk is painfully aware, a parvenu class.

What seems to escape him is that in stressing how much he reads and the quality of his taste, he does not display his distance from the social cohort from which he emerged. Rather, he marks himself as its caricature. Young women from this social class dye their hair purple and weep a lot. The older women complain of migraines. The young men are sent by their parents to psychiatrists who trained in the United States; they wear black trench coats, rarely shave and tell everyone who will listen that no one in Turkey understands them.

"Time passes," Pamuk scribbles in his notebook. "There's nothing. It's already nighttime. Doom and defeat. ... I am hopelessly miserable. ... I could find nothing in these books that remotely resembled my mounting misery." I suppose sentiments like these are not uniquely Turkish; teenagers around the world fill their diaries with this kind of drivel. But usually they read those diaries when they grow up, cringe, then throw them out along with their old Morrissey albums.

Mind you, Pamuk is not all gloom; he is immensely cheered by the thought of his own moral gravity: "A novelist might spend the whole day playing, but at the same time he carries the deepest conviction of being more serious than others." He brightens up when he considers his own accomplishments, too: "Having published seven novels, I can safely say that, even if it takes some effort, I am reliably able to become the author who can write the books of my dreams." Sometimes he works, he tells us, "with the incandescence of a mystic trying to leave his body."

And did he mention that he really, really likes books? -- although I do have to wonder, occasionally, just how carefully he is reading them; in his discussion of Nabokov, for example, he describes Humbert Humbert as a man who "searches for timeless beauty with all the innocence of a small child." Beg pardon? Humbert searches for timeless beauty by molesting an innocent small child. There is quite a difference.

There are, here and there, flashes of the gloomy talent for which he is rightly admired. Reading the vignette A Seagull Lies Dying on the Shore, I felt quite bad for the seagull (although I am pleased to report that those same seagulls, which I see from my window, look perfectly healthy).

And there is one excellent section, quite chilling for those of us who live here, about the great earthquake of 1999. Pamuk recalls wondering whether, come the next big quake, the minarets of the Cihangir mosque would fall on his roof. I live next door to that very mosque. I had not thought of that. His comment prompted me to step outside and contemplate those minarets with a certain unease. Discussing the aftermath of the earthquake, Pamuk for a brief moment removes his gaze from the mirror and observes his surroundings with interest and even a hint of irony: "One rumour had it that the earthquake was the work of Kurdish separatist guerrillas, another that it was caused by Americans who were now coming to our aid with a huge military hospital ship. ('How do you suppose they made it here so fast?' the conspiracy theory went.)" Yes, there at last is an honest line; it will certainly sound familiar to anyone living in Turkey these days.

But the rest of the book is the kind of thing you can only publish if you have won a Nobel Prize and feel entirely confident that no matter what you say, everyone will buy it and the critics will be too afraid to point out the obvious: Sometimes it is best to keep your interior life to yourself.