Who could resist the charms, or doubt the importance, of a liberal, secular, Turkish Muslim writing formally adventurous, learned novels about the passionate collision of East and West? Orhan Pamuk is frequently described as a bridge between two great civilisations, and his major theme – the persistence of memory and tradition in Westernising, secular Turkey – is of a topicality, a significance, that it seems churlish to deny. His eight novels, the most recent of which, The Museum of Innocence, has just appeared in English, perform formal variations on that theme. Though his work fits into a Turkish tradition most closely associated with the mid-20th-century novelist Ahmet Tanpinar, one needn’t know anything about Tanpinar, or even about Turkish literature, to appreciate Pamuk, who writes in the Esperanto of international literary fiction, employing a playful postmodernism that freely mixes genres, from detective fiction to historical romance. Much of Pamuk’s fiction reads like a homage to his Western models: Mann, Faulkner, Borges, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Proust and – in The Museum of Innocence, the tale of a doomed, obsessional love affair between a man in his thirties and an 18-year-old shop girl – Nabokov. Indeed, his affection for the European tradition is as crucial to his appeal as his Turkishness, and his books pay tribute to values deeply embedded in the liberal imagination: romantic love freed from the fetters of tradition; individual creativity; freedom and tolerance; respect for difference.
Pamuk’s career in the English-speaking world was launched in 1990 with the translation of his third novel, the Borgesian fable The White Castle. (His first two novels have never been translated into English.) This slender, ingenious book takes the form of a 17th-century manuscript – discovered, according to a preface, by a scholar called Faruk Darvinoglu (‘son of Darwin’), in a ‘dusty chest stuffed to overflowing with imperial decrees, title deeds, court registers and tax rolls’. The story is told, or seems to be told, by an Italian sailor captured en route from Venice to Naples by the crew of a Turkish ship. Sold on the slave market, the sailor is bought by a Turk who, to his horror, is his lookalike. In theory this man is his hoja, his ‘master’, but it becomes less and less clear who is really the master and who is the slave, as the Italian tutors the Turk in astronomy, engineering and – as the plague begins to ravage Istanbul – disease control. They become inseparable, their personalities merging in a Persona-like moment midway through the novel, when they stare in a mirror together and the Italian realises: ‘The two of us were one person!’ By the end, we’re not sure the sailor ever existed, or whether he is an invention of the Turkish savant, who claims in the final chapter to have written the story. The dialectic of East and West appears as a constantly shifting dreamscape inhabited, and endlessly reconfigured, by a pair of twins, figments of each other’s imagination; as a series of texts whose authorship may never be reliably established.
This short novel caused a big stir. ‘Pamuk in his dispassionate intelligence and arabesques of introspection suggests Proust,’ John Updike wrote in the New Yorker, while the New York Times Book Review announced that ‘a new star has risen in the East.’ Since then, Pamuk has been compared to Joyce and Musil, Kafka and Calvino, and almost never – a further compliment – to the contemporary writers he most resembles, Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, whose amiable postmodern noirs unfold in urban labyrinths and feature cerebral men searching for their own identities, and enigmatic women with an alarming tendency to vanish. He has produced novels with fantastic industry, and the prizes have arrived in diplomatic procession: the Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2003, France’s Prix Médicis and the German book trade’s Peace Prize in 2005, and the Nobel in 2006, the same year Time named him one of the hundred ‘people who shape our world’. Since 9/11, Pamuk’s novels have been treated as oracles: ‘in the week of the American suicide bombings,’ Hywel Williams wrote in a Guardian review of My Name Is Red – an Eco-like murder mystery about a group of miniaturists commissioned by the sultan to produce a book in the Venetian style, in defiance of Islamic strictures against figurative art – ‘this outstanding novel clamours to be heard.’ ‘Essential reading for our time,’ Margaret Atwood proclaimed in a New York Times review of Snow, Pamuk’s grim, Dostoevskian thriller about Islamists and secularists clashing in north-eastern Turkey. (‘Headscarves to Die for’ was the headline.)
Pamuk’s appeal has not been lost on politicians. Daniel Cohn-Bendit has credited Pamuk with helping him to ‘understand the importance of Turkey joining the European Union’. Speaking at a Nato summit in Turkey in June 2004, George Bush hailed Pamuk’s work as ‘a bridge between cultures’, and claimed it showed that ‘people in other continents and civilisations’ are ‘exactly like you’. Praise from Bush couldn’t have pleased Pamuk, but the speechwriters had done their homework. Bush’s language echoed the terms in which Pamuk’s work has been celebrated by his admirers: ‘a plea for tolerance’, Michael McGaha calls it in his reverential study, Autobiographies of Orhan Pamuk,while the Nobel committee praised Pamuk for being ‘committed to a cultural concept entirely based on understanding and respect for others’. Pamuk’s champions at times seem keener to talk about his work’s potential use in conflict resolution than to discuss the experience of reading it.
That experience isn’t necessarily identical in English and Turkish. Pamuk writes long, ornate sentences, and many Turkish readers, according to Azade Seyhan in her informative study of the Turkish novel, Tales of Crossed Destinies, find them difficult to parse.In English, especially in Maureen Freely’s translations (she is herself a novelist), Pamuk’s prose is pared down and simplified, given a pleasingly legible surface that makes it look right at home in the New Yorker. There are difficulties to contend with in the English translations, but they are seldom at the level of the sentence. Critical hostility, however, has been the least of Pamuk’s problems back home. His troubles began in February 2005 when, in an interview with a Swiss newspaper, he spoke bravely about both Turkey’s refusal to confront the Armenian genocide and the massacres carried out by the army in its dirty war with Kurdish separatists. Seven months later, he was charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’, which carries a sentence of up to three years in jail; his books were burned along with the Kurdish flag at nationalist rallies and he was pelted with eggs outside the courtroom. The charges were dropped, but after the Istanbul police arrested a gang of ultra-nationalist assassins reported to have links to the ‘deep state’ – the derin devlet, a cabal of politicians and military officers who have been known to take the law into their own hands – Pamuk’s name was discovered on a hit list; since then he has required the protection of state security. He now spends much of his time in New York, where he teaches at Columbia.
Pamuk’s upper-class background, too, has been held against him in Turkey, where he is viewed as someone who hasn’t ‘sweated enough’. Pamuk, who grew up in a prosperous neighbourhood of Istanbul and attended an elite American private school, is the first Turkish novelist who hasn’t needed a day job. But the family’s wealth has perhaps helped burnish the scion’s image abroad, thanks to its Old World pedigree: the Pamuks made their fortune building railways in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, and lost most of it in bad investments after the collapse; the money that remains thus has an aura of faded splendour, like the city that is the subject of his memoir and the setting of most of his novels.
Istanbul – depicted in novels like The Black Book as a palimpsest, a maze of signs that can never be fully deciphered – accounts for much of the West’s fascination with Pamuk. Symbol and refutation of the clash of civilisations, centre of an empire where the three monotheisms coexisted in relative harmony, Istanbul is the cultural capital of a country bidding to become the EU’s first Muslim member, while conducting a fertile, contentious, closely watched experiment with Islamic government. Among the less noted, but most striking aspects of the current government is its rediscovery of an Ottoman past long maligned by Turkish secularists. One could argue, without too much exaggeration, that the neo-Ottoman revival was anticipated by Pamuk’s novels, with their intricate portraits of a cultural past which Atatürk and his successors, in their drive to turn Turkey into a Western republic, were determined to bury. The building blocks of modern Turkey were denial, erasure and forgetting; with the establishment of a secular monoculture, the Armenian genocide was negated, Kurds were defined as ‘mountain Turks’, the fez was banned and the script was changed to the Roman alphabet. Trained as an architect, Pamuk has worked in reverse, dismantling the house Atatürk built, laying bare its cracks.
When Pamuk started writing fiction in the mid-1970s the dominant figure in Turkish literature was Yashar Kemal, a left-wing journalist and militant who served numerous stints in prison for his political activities. A Kurd from the Anatolian hills, Kemal made a name for himself with the publication, in 1955, of Memed, My Hawk, the lyrical tale of a rural bandit and avenging angel who wins the hearts of the peasantry. Kemal’s masterpiece, with its folk accents and echoes of ancient storytelling, inspired a whole school of less distinguished fiction about feudal oppression and peasant rebellion, known as ‘village literature’, which became so popular that when Pamuk told his family of his desire to become a novelist, a relative asked: ‘But what do you know about village life?’ Most village novels (Memed, My Hawk was a notable exception) were written by middle-class intellectuals, under the influence of Steinbeck and Russian socialist realism. Pamuk, by contrast, drew inspiration from the canonical figures of European modernism, writing, in his own words, with ‘one eye always on the West’, and has pursued a project explicitly opposed to village literature. The men and women in his books rarely venture to the countryside, and their lives are never disturbed by class conflict; their anxieties are not so much material as civilisational. They experience a more subtle and insidious form of oppression from their own self-critical gaze, constantly measuring themselves against the West (its science, its art, its movies, its soda pop), and invariably coming up short, haunted by what Benedict Anderson has called the ‘spectre of comparison’. On a trip to Venice as the sultan’s ambassador, Enishte Effendi, the uncle of the hero of My Name Is Red, sees a painting of an ‘infidel’ on a palazzo wall and feels as if he’s looking at his own portrait, not because it resembles him personally, but because it looks more like a man, more like an individual, than anything he’s ever seen on canvas. In a flash he grasps how much richer, how much more expressive, Ottoman portraiture would be if it adopted ‘Frankish’ techniques. But something will be lost, too, for these borrowings will inevitably chip away at what makes an old tradition distinctive, and run the risk of mimicry. Not to follow the West is to fall behind; to copy it is to lose one’s soul. To be a Turk, Pamuk suggests, is to feel always already defeated.
His characters, not surprisingly, are often tormented by a sense of doubleness, disoriented by their efforts to remake themselves into Westerners; they feel as if ‘the life we live is someone else’s dream,’ like ‘luckless creatures, staring at the West from a ship headed eastwards’. One woman in The Black Book fears that, having spent half her life trying to be someone else, she is now condemned to spend the next half ‘being someone else who regretted all those years she had not spent being herself’. The hero of that novel, a lawyer called Galip (after the 18th-century mystic poet Sheikh Galip), shaken by the disappearance of his wife, Rüya (‘dream’), manages to piece himself together, but only after assuming the identity of the newspaper columnist his wife seems to have run away with; as he loses himself in the back alleys of Istanbul, he begins to suspect that the journalist, the enigmatic Celâl (after the Sufi poet Jelal ud-Din Rumi), is the secret author of his fate. Galip is one of the luckier characters in Pamuk, transported to the shores of a stable identity by a mystical journey; most are left hanging, swinging between East and West, between the mosque and the mall. To the characters in Snow, Islamism is a powerful, almost erotic temptation, since it promises to eradicate this vertiginous sense of dislocation: it’s no accident that one of the Islamist leaders in that novel is a dashing, charismatic seducer of his female followers, beguiling them with his blue eyes and his fiery vision of a cleansed and virtuous Muslim society.
The Quran, however, is no solution, because for Pamuk, a proper cosmopolitan, ideas of the true self and of cultural authenticity are themselves illusions. When, in The White Castle, the Italian sailor and his Turkish twin finally trade places, the narrator observes: ‘Was it not the best proof that men everywhere were identical with one another that they could take each other’s place?’ Galip, in The Black Book, enters a ‘spider-infested labyrinth of memory’ where the authentic Turkish self is preserved, but this labyrinth is an underground museum displaying dusty mannequins rejected by department stores because ‘Turks no longer wanted to be Turks, they wanted to be something else altogether.’ ‘Nothing is pure,’ a 16th-century multiculturalist declares in My Name Is Red. ‘To God belongs the East and the West. May He protect us from the will of the pure and the unadulterated.’ He says this after a fellow miniaturist, a strict Muslim, warns that, in ‘mingling … our own established traditions with those of the infidels’, he is committing blasphemy. On the contrary, he says, a masterpiece is born when ‘two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous’ – a claim often made for Pamuk’s work.
In a recent interview, Pamuk said that he had ‘had enough of big ideas’: these ideas have often been given very literal expression in his novels, in highly stylised set-pieces such as The Black Book’s subterranean museum of mannequins. In Snow a revolution takes place on stage. Ka, a poet returning from a long exile in Frankfurt, has gone to Kars, a city on the north-eastern border, to investigate an epidemic of suicides by young girls who’ve been prevented from wearing the headscarf. While he is there a play is put on, an anti-Islamist polemic called My Fatherland or My Headscarf; its director, the fanatically secular Sunay Zaim, is a former left-wing rebel who has forged an alliance with the military to prevent a fundamentalist takeover, his limp a fitting infirmity for a member of the ancien regime. In the middle of the play, from the stage itself, a group of soldiers launches the ‘little revolution of Kars’, firing live rounds at the audience, who remain frozen in their seats as history unfolds before their eyes. It’s a tidy demonstration of the theatricalisation of politics, underscored, in a rather theatrical monologue, by Zaim, who is one of the organisers of the coup: ‘It was Hegel who first noticed that history and theatre are made of the same materials.’
It makes sense for a left-wing theatre director to talk about Hegel. But it’s surprising when the 16th-century Ottoman in My Name Is Red explains how he came to understand that the ‘underlying tale’ of a picture is not its subject or story, but ‘the picture itself’. The novel is set in the world of Ottoman miniaturists, but its concerns – the subversive power of art, the struggle between creativity and violent dogma – are an easy bridge to the present. Pamuk has admitted as much, saying that he ‘wanted the whole country to read it and each to find himself reflected in it’. Told from a dozen points of view in 59 short chapters, the book is presented as a love story between Black, a man returning to Istanbul after a long exile, and his cousin Shekure, whom he has loved from a distance. (The story of Shirin and Hüsrev by the 12th-century Persian writer Nizami, a favourite of Ottoman miniaturists, is an obvious inspiration, and is discussed at length by the lovers.) It is also a murder mystery. But the central drama, indeed the romance at its core, is the artistry of the miniaturists, who make pictures of exquisite delicacy by candlelight for a book secretly commissioned by the sultan; in their workshop, safe from the punitive gaze of religious fanatics, they allow themselves to dream. One suspects that, for Pamuk, these artists are the ancestors of writers in the Muslim world, who, as he has written, ‘have only our books to keep us company’. One critic compared reading My Name Is Red to ‘being in a magically exotic dream’, but it’s the book’s consoling familiarity, as much as its Orientalised setting, that casts a spell: Pamuk is telling the old, heroic story of art thumbing its nose at censors and prudes, a story that, because it can’t be told about the West any longer, has found new settings, first in the Communist East, now in the Islamic East.
In a novel about taboos, much of the frisson is provided by acts of transgression, relayed in bawdy, self-Orientalising tales of lusty gay miniaturists and their nubile boy models. On occasion, as with the revolution on stage in Snow, one feels that Pamuk is trying too hard, in explicit descriptions of sexual revelries (and violence) which attempt a complementary transgression in prose. My Name Is Red’s 12 narrators are a dog, a miniature representation of a horse, death, the colour red, seven humans (one of them a corpse) and a gold coin. The coin, as he confesses, is a counterfeit, a fake, a representation of a representation, a mere copy of a token of value, subverting the laws of the market just as Western-style portraiture subverts the laws of God. The coin tells us (Pamuk’s narrators often address us directly) that he has ‘changed hands 560 times’, having been passed from Jews to Abkhazians, from Arabs to Mingerians, through synagogues, mosques, bazaars and opium dens: a journey across old Istanbul, high and low, sacred and profane. One day, however, he has the bad luck to end up in the pocket of a preacher who is approached by thieves. The preacher hides him in his anus (‘this spot … smelled worse than the mouth of the garlic lover and was much less comfortable’), but the thieves proceed to take his honour (‘I don’t dare describe the agony we suffered in that cramped hole’). The coin’s story is played for laughs, but it seems more like an experiment in point of view, a diligent illustration – and appropriate enough in a book about the politics of representation – of imaginative freedom taken to its limits.
In Snow, Pamuk writes in a more restrained, almost journalistic mode; yet even here he can’t resist inserting his story into a bigger, historical frame, as if he were afraid that in a smaller one it wouldn’t be understood, or even noticed. Consider the chapter in which Pamuk, the narrator, travels to Frankfurt to retrace the steps of his friend, Ka, after he has been murdered. In spare, reportorial prose, Pamuk tells us about Ka’s life in Germany, where he held a string of low-end jobs, and became a loner, even among his fellow Turkish exiles, who found him ‘too remote, and too bourgeois’. Walking through the ‘small, dark, low-ceilinged rooms in which Ka had spent his last eight years’, Pamuk smells something that reminds him of his childhood, probably ‘a Turkish brand of soap I’d never known by name’. He stumbles on a pile of letters Ka never sent to the woman he loved in Turkey, and a stash of porn tapes featuring ‘an American star called Melinda’. Leafing through his friend’s unsent letters, and watching Melinda on tape, he wonders how much he can really understand of Ka’s life. It’s one of the most affecting scenes in Pamuk’s fiction, conveying an exile’s desolation and sexual hunger; the sorrow (and, a nice, creepy touch, the voyeurism) of his friend, the author; and the unknowability of another person’s despair. Yet Pamuk quickly zooms away from this image of Ka’s last days with a generalising voiceover: ‘in the cinemas around New York’s 42nd Street, Frankfurt’s Kaiserstrasse and the backstreets of Beyoğlu, the lonely, lost men who watch the films with shame and self-loathing, struggling to avoid one another’s eye at the intermissions, and in defiance of all national stereotypes and anthropological distinctions, all look exactly the same.’
Like Galip in The Black Book, like Ka in Snow, Kemal, the narrator of The Museum of Innocence, is in love with an elusive woman, and afflicted with a kind of end-of-empire sorrow, a sense that he was born too late and that happiness can never be his, except in memory. Though he has never lived anywhere but Istanbul, history has left him feeling homesick, and somehow estranged from other people. Formally Pamuk’s most conventional novel, The Museum of Innocence has a modest bag of framing devices, but they’re not too cumbersome; only towards the end do we learn that Kemal has hired his old acquaintance, the ‘esteemed Orhan Pamuk’, to tell this story. Kemal, a businessman from a wealthy family in Istanbul, is a typical Pamuk hero: a slacker, modern in outlook but incapable of rebellion, a dreamer and a bit of a liar, oblivious to the world outside his door even when civil war erupts in the streets. When the book begins, he’s recalling the happiest moment of his life, some years before, when he was in bed with his 18-year-old distant relation, a former beauty contestant called Füsun, days before his engagement to another woman, the age and class-appropriate Sibel. The affair with Füsun is enthralling, but he’s too cowardly to leave Sibel. He has already slept with his fiancée, and in Istanbul in 1975, a woman who commits this daring transgression is either rewarded with a ring or condemned to dishonour. When Füsun disappears, however, Kemal is so distraught he becomes impotent, and Sibel finally breaks off their engagement. Holed up in his mother’s spare flat where the affair with Füsun took place, he surrounds himself with things she has touched – spoons, half-eaten ice-cream cones, soda bottles, olive pits, a blue bikini, socks and sneakers, cigarette stubs – and caresses himself with them like a ‘nurse salving a wound’. This fetishistic shrine would later inspire the ‘museum of innocence’ Kemal established in the house of Füsun’s family; the novel occasionally lingers, as in a museum catalogue, to describe the objects on display.
Füsun, it turns out, has been married off by her family to protect her honour. But Kemal will do anything to be close to her, showing up at her family’s home for dinner almost every night for the next eight years, a total of 1593 times; his presence is tolerated by her parents only because his love for their daughter is so taboo as to be unthinkable, and is therefore well concealed by ‘exquisite customs and prescriptions’. Kemal is so convinced that their destiny is to be together that he plots to wrest her from her husband, an aspiring film director; he even becomes a film producer, promising to finance a movie that would make her a star. Before long it becomes clear there is something not just pathological, but destructive, about Kemal’s love. When Füsun catches the eye of men in the Istanbul film world – the slightly louche ambience is nicely captured – he conspires to ruin her chances of landing a part, terrified he might lose her, all the while telling himself he’s only defending her honour. And Füsun, we discover late in the novel, is more aware than anyone of the price she has paid for Kemal’s love, and is determined to resist the destiny he wants to foist on her.
The Museum of Innocence is, apart from anything else, a wry, perceptive novel of manners about the Turkish bourgeoisie. Pamuk grew up among these people in Nisantasi, the neighbourhood where much of the action takes place, and he describes its inhabitants with anthropological precision, as they shop for handbags, go on trips to Paris and nose around each other’s business. They fancy themselves free and modern, but they mostly adhere to the patriarchal codes that govern their incestuous world, if only for fear of exposure and disgrace, lacking – as Pamuk has written of his own family – ‘the courage to make the final break’. Men, in this world, are the romantics; the women know better. As Kemal’s mother warns him, ‘In a country where men and women can’t be together socially, where they can’t see each other or have a conversation, there’s no such thing as love … Don’t deceive yourself.’
But Pamuk is as much a romantic as an ironist, and curiously indulgent of Kemal, whose ruminations on love, desire and loss run on for pages. Like most of Pamuk’s heroes, he’s so neurotically aware of the life he isn’t leading that he has scarcely any life at all, taking refuge in memories of an idyllic past that will remain forever out of reach. Füsun, another of Pamuk’s beautiful, fickle, inscrutable heroines, makes only the faintest impression: she is not so much a woman as an object of beguilement, a promesse de bonheur, a fantasy that Pamuk seems to share with Kemal. Kemal’s dreamy soft-core flashbacks – ‘As our kisses grew ever longer, a honeyed pool of warm saliva gathered in the great cave that was our mouths combined, sometimes leaking a little down our chins, while before our eyes the sort of dreamscape that is the preserve of childish hope began to take form’ – are, of course, a symptom of his self-absorption, his childish attachment to the museum of innocence that nostalgia fashions from the past. Yet Pamuk seems to embrace this nostalgia: he turns up late in the novel to offer his own breathless memories of dancing with Füsun at Kemal’s disastrous engagement party to Sibel. (Pamuk appears in almost all his novels, sometimes as the narrator, sometimes under cheeky pseudonyms such as ‘Orphan Panic’, and occasionally as the anonymous writer of Pamukian novels.) And Füsun bears a resemblance to other significant women in Pamuk, such as the girl he describes in the memoir Istanbul, who sat for him when he was an aspiring painter (‘my sad and beautiful model’, ‘my almond-scented love’); like Füsun, she is a stand-in, an aide-mémoire for the loss of youth, even for Istanbul itself, a city where, in Pamuk’s depiction, happiness is always a thing of the past.
The memoir is a book about the city and a book about Pamuk: they share a fate, and that is to be melancholy. It is a sad yet enviable fate, for melancholy (a word that appears on almost every page of Istanbul) is described as ‘delicious’ and ‘poetic’, a sign of superior intelligence. (The ‘first aim of an intelligent person’, he writes in Other Colours, is to be unhappy ‘where everyone else is happy’.) Istanbul, he claims, is enveloped in hüzün, a collective melancholy he traces to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and in which he seems to take a morbid delight. Everywhere he looks – the ‘dark surfaces of neglected, painted, fallen-down wooden mansions’, the ‘shameful poverty of our city’, ‘the cobblestone views, their loneliness’ – he is reminded of ‘the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past’. Istanbul seems bizarrely desolate: most of the people mentioned, apart from Pamuk and his relatives, are dead writers, and though the poor are repeatedly and moodily invoked, they are little more than a picturesque backdrop for the gloomy flâneur and his city, massaging their shared hüzün. This ‘mysterious haze’ is Istanbul’s fate, he claims, and once he accepted it as his own, he grew to love it, and to draw on it in his novels.
It’s as though Pamuk has become the bearer of the entire city’s history, the privileged keeper of its secret sorrows and burdens. If this seems melodramatic – this leap from his own life to the fate of the Ottoman Empire – it should come as no surprise. Pamuk’s characters are constantly making the same leap, scrambling to make sense of their lives among the empire’s ruins. As Sunay Zaim reminds us in Snow, history is made up of the same materials as theatre, and in the recent history of East-West relations Pamuk, in his office overlooking the Bosphorus, has been handed the role of interpreter in the ‘dialogue of civilisations’. It’s a big part, but it’s not the one he wanted: his paramount concerns, he insists, are aesthetic not political, and one can imagine him feeling defeated by some of the praise he receives as a messenger from an enchanting, troubled world in which he himself is increasingly an outsider. It’s a predicament he shares with his characters, who can never quite set foot in their own lives because they’re living someone else’s dream.