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

Seeing through the snow

Azade Seyhan* examines the achievements of Orhan Pamuk, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature

Yashar Kemal, one of the most prolific names in modern Turkish literature, had been a perpetual contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kemal had taken the Turkish novel beyond Istanbul's metropolitan centre, interwoven its texture with Anatolian ballads, legends, songs and colours and developed a poetic prose of epic grandeur. Yet the coveted prize eluded him. After a lot of speculation on part of the Turkish literati and press it was Orhan Pamuk who finally became the first Turkish Nobel laureate. Pamuk is also the first writer to be recognised from a predominantly Muslim country since 1988, when Egypt's Naguib Mahfouz, who died on 30 August, 2006, was awarded the Noble Prize by the Swedish Academy for his richly nuanced work that lent Arabic narrative a revolutionary energy.

In recent years, Pamuk's name had begun to circulate in the rumour mill as a sure winner. He had garnered major international prizes and had become a celebrity on the European literary circuit. Furthermore, Pamuk, buoyed by fame and riches (and certainly by a good dose of conviction), stood up to what is known as the "derin devlet" (literally the "deep state"), the powerful cadre of high-ranking officials and members of the military who see themselves as guardians of the secular state, making public statements that were deemed highly offensive to "Turkishness". In an interview in 2005 in the Swiss daily Tages Anzeiger, Pamuk was quoted as saying that thousands of Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkish territories and he was the only one to openly talk about it. Pamuk ended up facing charges of insulting the state; the "affair Pamuk" became a huge cause célèbre, and the charges were eventually dropped on a technicality. The high profile incident cast a shadow on Turkey's hopes to join the European Union.

In its citation, the Swedish Academy commended the Istanbul-born Pamuk as a writer who "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures". While critics have questioned the timing and political bias of the Swedish Academy's choice, the Academy head Horace Engdahl has stated that political issues did not affect the decision. Ironically, very little of Pamuk's work is explicitly or even covertly political. His novels defy categorisation, and their complexity is not reducible to the endlessly repeated comments about "the clash of civilizations" that have appeared in the media since the announcement of the award. There is no doubt, however, that Istanbul's amalgam of geographies, histories and cultures holds great fascination for Pamuk and has imprinted its signature on his works.

Born in 1952 in Istanbul to a wealthy upper-class family, Pamuk has rarely left his hometown for long, except for a stint at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa between 1985 and '88. He graduated from the American High School, Robert Kolej of Istanbul, studied architecture for a while but ultimately chose to devote himself to writing full time. His first novel, Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari ( Cevdet Bey and His Sons ; 1982), a multigenerational novel of an Istanbul family, was an instant literary success in Turkey. With the translation of The White Castle (1985) into English, French, and German and the translations into major languages of his subsequent novels -- The Black Book (1990), The New Life (1994), My Name is Red (1998), Snow (2002), and the memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City (2003) -- Pamuk became an internationally recognised name.

Pamuk's political sensibilities are couched in philosophical terms and estranged from "real" life settings. He often displaces events and concepts by situating them in a distant past and brings the critical vision that historical distance sanctions to bear on the present moment. Engdahl also cited Pamuk's ability to expand the purview of the novel through his intimacy with Western and Eastern cultures, adding that he had, in some ways, stolen the novel from Westerners and transformed it into something never seen before. Indeed, Pamuk's novels are informed by modernist and postmodernist literary strategies, such as framing stories in a chain of other stories, a metafictional stance where the narration reflects on its own construction, and the incorporation of other aesthetic forms and texts.

The question of cultural identity threads through all of Pamuk's work, and he tests its claims through the registers of language, memory and representation. In The White Castle, which presents a slice of Ottoman life in 17th-century Istanbul, Pamuk relates the story of a Venetian sailor captured by the Turks and sold into slavery to a Pasha who presents him as a gift to a Hodja. The relationship between these two men, who look like identical twins, becomes a story of the fragility and shifting nature of identity, as the two appropriate each other's memories and exchange places.

The question of heritage and its claim on identity assumes the form of a cultural sea change in My Name is Red, a treatise on the lost art of Ottoman miniature painting that becomes a portrait of how different forms of representing -- divine vs human; truthful or real vs stylised -- signify the struggle for cultural hegemony. Pamuk's "postmodern" signature under this novel bears the fusions and revisions of the binaries present-past, word-image and life- fiction. In The Black Book, the reader is treated to a mini history of Ottoman Islamic culture through a circuitous trip in Istanbul's labyrinthine spaces. What ultimately separates Pamuk's work from the many modernist/postmodernist novels that address questions of identity, representation and memory is its easy merger of two different reserves of cultural capital. Pamuk uses the techniques and thematics of the modern novel in the text, texture and guise of a culturally specific Ottoman Turkish life and history.

Kar ( Snow ), a postmodernist allegory of the sociocultural imbroglio in which contemporary Turkish society is caught up, is Pamuk's first self- consciously political novel and arguably his most conceptually sophisticated work. This is the novel that Western readers and critics welcomed as a source of insight into the alarming confrontations between the West and the Islamic world and between political cultures and ethnic communities within and without nation-states. Although Pamuk had started writing the novel before the extremist arm of political Islam struck the United States in the form of hijacked commercial airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, with the release of the novel in English translation he became the unofficial interpreter of Islam for the American public. In 2005 the German Book Trade chose to award its prestigious Peace Prize (Der Friedenpreis des deutschen Buchhandels) to Pamuk, honouring him as an author committed to a concept of culture based on knowledge and respect for others, writing from a space where Europe and Islamic Turkey can coexist. Yashar Kemal was the first Turkish writer to be honoured with the same prize.

Ironically, many secular Turkish intellectuals are irritated by Pamuk's oppositional stance from his very privileged position to what he sees as an intolerant secularist state and its Jacobin advocates. In Snow, however, Pamuk gives no credence to those who see him as a champion of modern Islam or who condemn him as an agent provocateur against the Kemalist reforms of the Republic. In fact, Pamuk marshals his impressive erudition and literary skill to craft a historically informed and aesthetically astute commentary on the fortunes of a land entangled in the thorny ramifications of its past and the pressures of conforming to the dictates of modernity. Like most of Pamuk's previous novels, Snow is a metafiction, a text that reflects on the act of (re)constructing a story from fragments of other stories, evidentiary documents, eyewitness accounts, tapes, videos, notebooks and other traces of memory. At the level of thematics and symbolism, Snow becomes a fictional vehicle in pursuit of a people's identity in the complex web of history and modernity and an allegorical account of a fateful search -- for one's self, for a sense of belonging or community and for love.

The story takes place in the small provincial city of Kars. This is Pamuk's first novel in which the setting has moved away from Istanbul, in this case to the Northern province on the Russian border. The protagonist Ka is a 42-year-old secular writer from Istanbul who has just returned from a 12-year political exile in Germany. Upon his return to Turkey he goes to Kars on a temporary assignment to report on the upcoming municipal elections and a wave of mysterious suicides among young women. These women, forced into marriages that they did not want, or else terrorised by fathers and husbands, kill themselves in spates. Islamists, however, claim women kill themselves because they cannot wear headscarves to school. Pamuk's narrator, who in the end turns out to be Pamuk's double, does not take sides and neither censures nor censors. Nevertheless, in Snow, the real culprit that reveals itself in the undertone and the subtext of the text is the state.

When Ka accepts the assignment to report from Kars he also has a private agenda: to see Ipek, his university classmate, for whom he still holds a torch. He has learned that Ipek is separated from her husband Muhtar, also a former acquaintance. Muhtar is running for mayor. This election is one of the many threads in the narrative that forms part of the "Islamist-Secularist" debate. Ipek leaves Muhtar, a secularist turned Islamist, because he wants her to cover herself and become the dutiful Muslim wife. As a visiting journalist, Ka has the opportunity to listen to the divergent and contentious views of many citizens of this historical border town, a place desolate and broken, replete with memories of glory and atrocity, with remnants of Armenian and Russian occupation and the early remnants of the nation's efforts at Westernisation. The seemingly harmonious co-existence of multiple cultures, languages, religions and ethnicities in the Ottoman state is now transformed, as Ka experiences firsthand, into irreducible differences whose terms are no longer negotiable, as conflicting groups proliferate (secular Turks, Islamist Turks, Kurd nationalists, Marxist Kurds, Islamist Kurds) and move to ever more distant poles.

Ka tries to understand each viewpoint and the reasons that drive people to acts of self-destruction and violence and enters into lengthy conversations with young Islamists. Most of these young people bear no resemblance to stereotypical images of young Muslim fanatics. Blue, a charismatic and handsome Islamist, is a walking paradox in that he identifies with terrorist Islam though he has never killed a soul. He shares some of Pamuk's publicly stated views but takes them to an extreme where they buckle under the weight of their illogic. The reflective and poetic Ka confronts more questions at every turn; his tolerance and compassion paralyse him in his search for answers. He tries to negotiate between the Islamists and the government officials. Ka's self-guilt as a middle class citizen who saw in Islam the dope of the duped and who missed his chance as a young man to understand his people leads him to flirt with the notion that Islam is the answer, the memory that has to be captured and pressed into the service of a nation's salvation. In the end, after a bloody military coup staged in the form of a play, Ka is forced to return to Germany without Ipek, only to be killed, execution-style, presumably by Islamists, who suspect him of betrayal. His only sin was trying to understand it all.

The resonance of Pamuk's books with the burning political and cultural issues of the day should not detract from the literary achievement of his work. Pamuk understands how political forces and oppression control human lives but also believes that individuals have the capacity to understand their fate and to imagine in the midst of an abject present the possibility of a different future.

* The writer is Fairbank Professor in the humanities and professor of German and comparative literature at Bryn Mawr College. The author of Representation and Its Discontents: The Critical Legacy of German Romanticism (1992 ) and Writing Outside the Nation ( 2001 ) , she has just completed a book on the modern Turkish novel entitled Tales of Crossed Destinies .

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