A Turk, a Turk, a Turk

Christopher Tayler

‘Be yourself,’ a beautiful woman called Ipek says to Ka, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s newly translated novel, Snow (Kar, 2002), when he asks how to win her heart. Though kindly meant, it’s discouraging advice to give one of Pamuk’s characters, for whom being themselves is difficult. ‘No one can ever be himself in this land,’ says the shadowy figure who may or may not be responsible for the double murder that closes The Black Book (Kara Kitap, 1990; translated in 1994). ‘In the land of the defeated and oppressed, to be is to be someone else. I am someone else; therefore I am.’

The land he’s talking about is Turkey, where, many of Pamuk’s characters believe, an authentic cultural identity is particularly hard to come by. Sometimes the country’s mixed heritage is seen as cause for celebration: Enishte Effendi, the hero’s uncle in My Name Is Red (Benim Adim Kirmizi, 1998; translated in 2001), makes a long speech praising the cross-cultural borrowings of Ottoman miniaturists. ‘“To God belongs the East and the West,”’ he says, quoting the Koran. ‘May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.’ More often, however, Pamuk shows us people who fear that living, as he puts it, ‘in a Westernised fashion in a country that is essentially not Western’ has drained them of selfhood. Doubles and false identities proliferate in his books, and his characters frequently suffer from feelings of inauthenticity. They catch themselves acting like people in movies (‘I don’t know from what film I had pinched this gesture’). On occasion they feel ‘completely empty inside’. ‘It’s futile to search for . . . the original of which we are all mere copies,’ someone says in The New Life (Yeni Hayat, 1994; translated in 1997). Few of the characters find this a comforting thought.

Unlike some of his characters, Pamuk doesn’t worry much about cultural purity. The New Life’s surly narrator says: ‘This newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business,’ but Pamuk takes the opposite view. His books cheerfully plunder a bewildering range of material: stories, ideas and images from Rumi, Attar and the Arabian Nights rub shoulders with borrowings from Dostoevsky, Rilke, Proust and Joyce. Like Borges, whom he also admires, he cultivates spooky parallels between Islamic mysticism and European Modernism. In a less rarefied vein, he writes well about loneliness, nostalgia, cities and weather, and his novels have interesting things to say about politics and culture in Turkey. They even offer the traditional satisfactions of character and plot – although the novels don’t always manage to do all of these things at once.

His first two books, Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari (1982) and Sessiz Ev (1983), haven’t been translated into English. Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari (‘Cevdet Bey and His Sons’) is said to be a naturalistic saga about three generations of a Turkish family: Cevdet Bey, who is based on Pamuk’s grandfather, builds the family fortune between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the Turkish republic. Sessiz Ev, which has been translated into French as La Maison du silence, is said to be more technically ambitious. Set around 1980, at the time of Turkey’s military coup and the vigorous crackdown on leftists and Islamists that followed, it’s narrated in Faulknerian style by five different characters, the descendants of an Atatürk-like patriarch whose high hopes for Westernisation have congealed, in his grandchildren’s generation, into post-Kemalist malaise. One of these characters, a dissolute archivist called Faruk Darvinoglu, returns as the ‘editor’ of Pamuk’s third novel, The White Castle (Beyaz Kale, 1985), his first to be translated into English – in 1990, very readably, by Victoria Holbrook.

The White Castle takes the form of a manuscript that Faruk has uncovered and rewritten in contemporary Turkish. After a short introduction, in which Faruk announces that he’s given up claiming the story has any ‘relevance to . . . East-West relations’, the novel cuts to his rendering of the 17th-century confession of an Italian scholar enslaved by Ottoman Turks. Captured at sea while travelling to Naples, the anonymous narrator ends up as the property of Hoja, an Istanbul scholar who’s curious about ‘Frankish’ ways. The two become collaborators – first on firework displays for the sultan, and then on containing an outbreak of plague that the Ottoman authorities are ill-equipped to cope with.

Increasingly, Hoja – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the narrator – becomes obsessed with the mysteries of European self-fashioning. Over the course of several years, he and the narrator study one another, gazing into mirrors and writing answers to the question ‘Why am I what I am?’ Hoja decides that the Franks’ successes derive from their greater capacity for self-scrutiny, and takes to interrogating his captive about his sins. When the sultan’s armies cross the Danube, Hoja and the narrator accompany them. Hoja arranges bizarre interrogations of the Christian villagers, who, he feels, are withholding the ‘deeper truth’ he’s looking for. In order ‘to prove what kind of men "they", and furthermore "we", were’, the villagers are lined up and ordered to confess their misdemeanours. The results disappoint him.

Hoja has also used his knowledge of the Frankish sciences to build a primitive tank. When this lumbering vehicle founders in the mud beneath the walls of the castle they’re unsuccessfully besieging, the soldiers accuse Hoja’s infidel slave of conspiring to bring about their defeat. Hoja takes pity on the narrator and the two men swap identities: Hoja escapes to Italy, where he writes books about his adventures among the Turks; the narrator returns to a well-funded retirement in an Ottoman villa. He misses his former master bitterly and, late in life, confesses the truth to Evliya Chelebi, a famous (real-life) traveller. Chelebi is sceptical about his story and questions the propriety of his telling it: ‘To search within, to think so long and hard about our own selves, would only make us unhappy. This is what had happened to the characters in my story: for this reason heroes could never tolerate being themselves, for this reason they always wanted to be someone else.’

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