“Pamuk’s Nobel: Deciphering the Code of Silence in Ankara,” read the headline in the Turkish tabloid Hurriyet–a title that could refer equally to a postmodernist reading of Orhan Pamuk’s work, an account of intrigues among Ottoman pashas or a news story about the Turkish president’s failure to congratulate the laureate. Since the Turkish novelist won the Nobel Prize for Literature, life has strangely come to resemble one of his fictions. On the day the prize was announced the French national assembly passed a bill making it an offense to deny the Armenian genocide, so that a person can now be prosecuted in France for denying something that it is a crime to assert in Turkey. In Snow, Pamuk’s most recent novel, a woman tells the hero about a museum in the eastern town of Kars meant to commemorate “the Armenian massacre”: “Naturally, she said, some tourists came expecting to learn of a Turkish massacre of Armenians, so it was always a jolt for them to discover that in this museum the story was the other way around.”
Pamuk was indicted in Turkey last year for telling a Swiss newspaper that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands,” and although the charges were dropped, he is seen by many Turkish nationalists as an opportunistic traitor who has sold out his country to win the Nobel Prize. The indictment was part of a broader, ongoing crackdown on writers, intellectuals and political activists, which is itself related to the right’s reaction against Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. By attacking an internationally known writer, Turkish conservatives hoped to score a double victory: to frighten dissenters at home and to undermine the accession talks by offending Europe’s liberal elite. Unfortunately, the new French law–which also reflects France’s failure to integrate its large Muslim minority–plays directly into their hands.
And so, like one of the heroes of his intricate novels, Pamuk finds himself caught up in events whose causes lie mysteriously both outside and inside his own work. Applauded in Europe for the way his work combines “Eastern” and “Western” culture, reviled by some in Turkey for using Western literary forms, he seems impaled on the horns of a dilemma whose very existence his books question and undermine. Pamuk has been praised for exploring “the clash of civilizations,” for building in his novels a bridge between East and West. But he describes his work differently. In his memoir Istanbul, he writes about four older Turkish writers “who drew their strength from the tensions between the past and the present, or between what Westerners like to call the East and the West.” It’s a subtle distinction but an important one: the interpenetrating layers of history lived from within, warped and curved like the strata of sedimentary rock, against the stand-off of geography as seen from the outside.
Many of Pamuk’s characters talk at length about the differences between Turkish and European culture–the Istanbul scholar Hoja and his captured Italian counterpart in The White Castle, the Sultan’s court painters in My Name Is Red, the poet Ka and the local Islamist leader in Snow–but their conversations are circular, hermetic, always bracketed by the ironies of Pamuk’s formal games. These games themselves give the lie to crude East-West distinctions, combining the techniques of classical Persian poetry with the literary discoveries of Kafka, Borges, Eco and Calvino, the flat perspectives and enameled detail of Ottoman court painting with modernism’s refusal of a single point of view. Pamuk delights in such parallels, coincidences, mirror images: In The Black Book a character suggests that “the black-and-white fairytale world of little left-wing splinter groups” is really a cover for banned Bektasi mysticism, with its similarly convoluted habits of interpretation. “Life” and “art,” too, interpenetrate, so that the hero of The New Life finds himself literally transformed by a book, and the narrator of Snow, who has gone to the city of Kars to retrace the journey of a poet friend, turns out to be a novelist called Orhan.
Although Pamuk has often written about the ways in which works of art acquire political meanings and about the systems of thought people invent to make sense of their lives, he is no dissident; until his interview with the Swiss newspaper, he was not known for expressing political opinions. Indeed, one could describe him as a patriot. Born into an affluent, liberal Istanbul family, he claims his first allegiance is to the city where he has spent his life, and which contains in miniature the many cultures that make up his country, from the coast of the Aegean to the border of Iraq. In Istanbul he describes the “black-and-white haze,” the “chiaroscuro of twilight” that for him defines the particular melancholy quality of his home. He sees it in “the dilapidated little neighbourhood shops packed with despondent unemployed men, the crumbling city walls like so many upended cobblestone streets, the entrances to cinemas that begin, after a while, to look identical, the pudding shops, the newspaper hawkers on the pavement, the drunks that roam in the middle of the night, the pale streetlamps, the ferries going up and down the Bosphorus and the smoke rising from their chimneys, the city blanketed in snow…. To see the city in black and white,” he writes, “is to see it through the tarnish of history, the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world.”
If Pamuk is a “political” writer, it is by virtue of that sympathy for what is old and faded, for what no longer matters, or what never did. After September 11 he published a piece in The New York Review of Books in which he tried to explain the rage against America that he heard expressed around him. It’s worth recalling now, not only for its prescience and sensitivity but for the light it sheds on those in Turkey who refuse to acknowledge his achievement, for himself, for his language and for his culture:
“Today an ordinary citizen of a poor, undemocratic Muslim country, or a civil servant in a third-world country or in a former socialist republic struggling to make ends meet, is aware of how insubstantial is his share of the world’s wealth…. At the same time, however, he senses in a corner of his mind that his poverty is to some considerable degree the fault of his own folly and inadequacy, or those of his father and grandfather. The Western world is scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population…. The members of the wealthy, pro-modernist class that founded the Turkish Republic reacted to resistance from the poor and backward sectors of society not by attempting to understand them, but by law enforcement measures, prohibitions on personal behavior, and repression by the army…. Now, as we hear people calling for a war between East and West, I am afraid that much of the world will turn into a place like Turkey, governed almost permanently by martial law.”