Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 October 2006
Issue No. 817
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The novel of ambiguity

Are the transformations effected in Orhan Pamuk's novels an extension of their author's own positioning, asks Elias Khoury*

Orhan Pamuk

Last year, at the Göteborg Book Fair, where dozens of writers from the four corners of the globe meet at the Swedish dining table that offers a main course called the Nobel Prize, I sat down to breakfast at my hotel with Orhan Pamuk. The Turkish novelist looked distracted, worn down with waiting. The newspapers were full of the news of the legal charges brought against him on account of his statements about the genocide of Armenians and rumours were rife among journalists and other gossips that he was a likely candidate for the Nobel. I jokingly said that anxiety did no good and that waiting for the award may mean that it will never come. I went over the well-known story concerning the prominent Turkish novelist Yashar Kemal who was led to believe that renting a house in Stockholm would place him on the scene and the award jury would, as a consequence, find him hard to overlook. The result was that the prize eluded him; he became a prime example of miscalculation.

Pamuk made no comment and contented himself with a smile. It was the first time his name had been mentioned among possible nominees. I suggested that nomination by the newspapers was not a good sign and that the prize usually goes to a name not bandied about in the media. He asked me about Adonis and I said that in the Arab world we considered that he had long ago won the award and was no longer in any need of it.

I was wrong and Pamuk was right. His anxiety was well-placed: the prize that passed him over last year has now been awarded him, thus consecrating Turkish literature in its modernist and postmodernist modes. Yashar Kemal had written stunning pastoral novels relying on popular heritage and folk tales. Pamuk, on the other hand, has produced modernist novels that border on the Borgesian text, playing with fantasy and rereading the past in the language of the present. The crux of the Pamukian novel is ambiguity: of identity, of styles, of positionality. He is a European writer because, since the Ataturk revolution, Turkey has been stricken by a frenzy of Europeanisation, casting off the Ottoman tarbouche and rushing to embrace secularisation, forgetting that the tarbouche is not indigenous but had come from Austria and that secularisation, albeit one of the hallmarks of the French Revolution, remains riddled with ambiguity in many European countries.

Last Thursday, as I watched an Armenian demonstration in the Place des Martyrs in Beirut against Turkey's participation in UNIFEL, soon after the announcement that Pamuk had won the Nobel, I could not help but think of his novel The White Castle. The story, which centres on the ambiguity of identity, is about a trader from Venice who falls captive to the Turks and becomes the slave of a Turkish scholar who fervently wishes to learn astronomy, manufacture gunpowder and construct a giant cannon. The story is not about the way the Turk employs his European slave in his primitive scientific research but about the resemblance between the two men, a resemblance so close that they look like twins. The novel becomes a space in which memories are exchanged, ending up as the site for the exchange of the present. The Turk becomes a Venetian and the Venetian a Turk.

The game of the novel is pivoted on the personality of its author. The reader wonders which one wrote the book, the Turk or the Italian? It recalls similar ambiguities in the main character in Tayib Saleh's novel Season of Migration to the North. Who is Mustafa Saeed? Did he really exist or is he the exotic facet of the narrator's personality? While The White Castle can be read as variation on Saleh's novel and a rewriting of it, it goes further in sounding out a latent Borgesian inspiration that surfaces in all of Pamuk's novels then disappears behind a truncated detective game in The Black Book, behind questions about the relationship between heritage and imported European Renaissance art in My Name is Red, behind a fierce realism and overwhelming imaginative flow in Snow or behind the labyrinth of a passion occasioned by a book as in The New Life. But what is the relationship between the Armenian demonstration in Beirut and Pamuk's literary texts?

No Armenian writer has won the Nobel Prize, nor has the Armenian genocide entered Turkish literature. Pamuk, whose criticism of the Turkish position that does not admit its responsibility for the Armenian genocide raised hell in his homeland has not written a novel about the Armenians, satisfying himself instead with the position publicised in the media. It was a comment by Nedim Gèrsel about the Nobel Prize being awarded to his colleague that turned the Armenian demonstration in my eyes into an event related to the prize.

Did Pamuk receive the award in his capacity as an alternative to an Armenian writer? Has the game of doppelgangers and the interlocking of identities now overtaken the novelist himself, turning him into the hero of a novel he did not write? The game of the writer's transformation into the hero of a novel he has not penned fascinates me because it is one of the signs of the text's revenge on the writer who considers that his intelligence allows him to pass over the very chalice he has given to the heroes of his novels to drink. Was this not the fate of Salman Rushdie, Kafka and Emile Habiby, among others?

Pamuk's game is played between the poles of popular commercial and high literature. Despite being an experimental writer, his experimentation does not include the breaking of new ground. He has contented himself with a measuring of the pulse of experimentation, constructing modernist narratives that go beyond realism to the fantastic, build literary texts on literature, are enthralled by the book, return to long-forgotten centuries without abandoning their contemporaneity and are pivoted on Istanbul as a point of intersection between memory and imagination. He is a writer whose ability to treat current issues in his country and in the world singles him out for popularity. He measures the pulse of the media then turns it into literature, without lapsing into cliché or triteness.

Within the text it is intelligence that takes precedence over all other aspects. The narrative is vivid, brilliant, and the writer resides in flagrant ambiguity. As Pamuk never tires of saying, he is European by inclination -- Turkey joined Europe when the Italian merchant became a Turkish scientist -- a writer who rebelled against the realism of his literary forefathers and who is a modernist in all things. He does not live outside Istanbul because he has become its author.

* The writer is Editor-in-Chief of the weekly literary supplement of the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar , and distinguished professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He has published 11 novels, of which five have been translated into English : Little Mountain ( 1989 ), Gates of the City ( 1993 ), The Journey of Little Gandhi ( 1994 ), The Kingdom of Strangers ( 1996 ) and Gate of the Sun ( 2006 ).

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