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Saturday, October 14, 2006

My Name is Pamuk

Great fiction is a beautiful thing and I have been in love with the novel ever since I began reading at the age of four.

When I taught myself to read the Turkish language at age six, I began to search Turkish novels for a similar affair. However, I was quick to discover that Turkish literature, vast and plentiful as it is, verses easily in the style of folk literature from troubadour poets and Ottoman poetry, which takes a lifetime to absorb, but stutters when it comes to the novel.

At age ten I had worked out that this type of writing is a completely Western concept, which Turkish writers have been struggling to come to terms with ever since secularisation hit the Ottoman Empire.

That's not to say there are no great novelists in Turkey. Of course there are, but are there life-changing novelists in Turkey?

I thought not.

Then one day I read a book and my whole life was changed.

So wrote Orhan Pamuk in the opening line of his book Yeni Hayat (The New Life), and so it was true of me.

When I first read a Pamuk book, there came a growing realisation with each page that I had found what I'd been searching for so long. With an original sense of poetry to his writing that mesmerises, I'd finally discovered a writer in Turkey who not only understood the concept of the novel, but had the talent to change it.

Of course he is still struggling with the concept of the post-modern novel and I do have criticisms of his method. Pamuk is not to be read in a distracted state of mind. He demands complete attention and can be hard to read. Like Turkish coffee, he is an acquired taste. He most definitely prefers to take the reader via the scenic route when at all possible, avoiding the plain or direct paths to understanding. He is a studious writer, a researcher, but he doesn't have a writer's impulse or improvisation so far, he is a teller of complicated tales, but not of truly courageous ones - yet.

But, nevertheless, he has got the potential and a difference that sets him apart from his counterparts.

To use an analogy, it is the difference between those that know the game of football and play it and those that make the game their own.

In detailing the sometimes beautiful, oftentimes agonised game between Turks and the West, he encases wistful commentary in diamond constructions that sparkle upon closer scrutiny. In its original language, the wording recalls the hypnotic chant of Ottoman Turkish, in English it is Proust on opium. Each of his books is a human player - startlingly human - multi-layered, allegorical, sometimes fanciful, with close attention to detail and frustrating in complexity, and all sharing a deep preoccupation with the complications of identity.

My favourite book is one of his best-known works My Name Is Red, published in Turkey in 1998 and subsequently translated into 24 languages. Set over nine winter days in 16th-century Constantinople, it is at once a mystery, an intellectual puzzle and a romance with a range of narrators, including a murder victim who opens the novel by saying, "I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well".

Pamuk, who sees writing as more astounding than life and the sole consolation, often speaks of his deep connection to his native city, "I consider myself Istanbul's storyteller," he said in a recent interview. "My subject matter is my town. I consider it my job to explore the hidden patterns of my city's clandestine corners, its shady, mysterious places, the things I love." He does this so well in Red, that you are forever lost in the city.

Renowned literary critic Margaret Atwood said the Turkish public read Pamuk's work "as if taking its own pulse," and that he was helping to shape "part of the modern literary landscape".

This novelist has shaped my landscape, and I am forever grateful to him.

Pamuk Wins Nobel Prize

Orhan Pamuk, New York TimesOn Thursday, Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. Though this isn't his first literary award, in literary circles the Nobel is widely regarded as the prize of prizes.

Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy said Pamuk's "quest for the melancholic soul of his native city," Istanbul, helped discover "new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

Nobel Academy head Horace Engdahl explained Pamuk was selected because he had "enlarged the roots of the contemporary novel" through his links to both Western and Eastern culture.

"This means that he has stolen the novel, one can say, from us Westerners and has transformed it to something different from what we have ever seen before," Engdahl said.

In response, Pamuk told reporters that he was overjoyed by the award and believes it is not "just a personal honour, but as an honour bestowed upon the Turkish literature and culture I represent."

Pamuk Against Political Piety

As most of Nobel's prize winners, Pamuk is a controversial person, and some have criticised his "win" for having ulterior motives.

Like last year's winner, the British playwright Harold Pinter, who is a prominent critic of the British and American governments, some suggest there were political implications again in the choice of Pamuk. Indications are the committee was in a deadlock over Pamuk and Pinter in 2005, too.

A group of ultranationalist lawyers initiated a criminal case against Pamuk in Turkey last year after he told a Swiss newspaper in February 2005 that the Turkish state was unwilling to deal with two of the most painful episodes in recent Ottoman and Turkish history: the massacre of Armenians during World War I, which the political line insists was not a planned genocide, and guerrilla fighting in the 1980s in Turkey's Kurdish southeast.

The charges were dropped on a technicality in January.

On Thursday, though, coinciding with the Nobel prize, the lower house of French Parliament passed a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the plight of Ottoman Armenians from 1915 to 1917 constituted genocide - a law that has been criticised by the EU, but more notably contradicts Turkey's view.

Though the novelist has said that he is "essentially a literary man who has fallen into a political situation", he is seen as a champion of free speech. He has spoken up for other writers in peril. He was the first Muslim writer to defend Salman Rushdie when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned Rushdie to death because of The Satanic Verses and publicly defended fellow Turkish writer Perihan Mağden in her skirmishes with the Turkish military.

Praising Pamuk?

It is obvious that despite the Swedish Academy never offering non-literary reasons for its choices and presenting itself as uninfluenced by politics, as a symbol of the relationship between Europe and Turkey, they couldn't have overlooked this when they made their choice.

Yet, is it fair to taint this talented writer, who has a confessed addiction for American culture and The Simpsons, with controversy and politics that is pulling his nation in so many directions at once?

Accepting a literary award in Germany in 2005, Pamuk had warned: "The fuelling of anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe is resulting in an anti-European, indiscriminate nationalism in Turkey."

Unfortunately, a writer's talent can be hijacked for anti-Turkish sentiment, as that German prize so obviously was attempting to do, but to believe this of the Nobel prize would be accepting corruption at an unrealistic level. Of course I'd be completely naive not to see motivations as slightly political, but this event should not be used as fodder to feed nationalistic fervour on any side of a derelict fence and used to raise or quote anti-Turkish sentiment.

Some papers report that this very issue had divided the Swedish Academy and may have held up the award because of internal bickering. They knew too well that Pamuk's award would most probably divide opinion in literary circles, too. For any suggestion of a mix of politics and art is doomed to failure, because the result is always politics, and politics by its very nature compromises art. However, reaction from Pamuk's domestic peers have been congratulatory to say the least.

In the way anything can be certain, it was certain Pamuk would one day win this award, and possibly the timing more than anything is the most open to criticism. I would have preferred it to have been awarded when he was much older - as traditionally the Nobel is given to reward a life's work - so there could have been no ambiguity the prize was to mark his talent and not the times. Unfortunately, now there is the possibility that Pamuk's works will be misconstrued as political, when they are anything but that. His 2005 outing Snow has been his most political work to date and even there he sees the author's job not to denounce reality but to be haunted by it, as a medium is haunted by ghosts of the past.

Even though Pamuk's books can also be construed as speaking to Europe's growing skittishness about its Muslim population and to the preoccupation with the question of whether Islam is by nature compatible with secular European values on issues like criminal justice and women's rights, the novelist has also warned against "the confusion about political Islam and religious Islam" stressing that, "Political Islam abuses religious Islam in a totally scandalous way, employing terrorism. Religious Islam, like other great civilizing religions, is a peaceful thing."

Trust and Integrity

For my part, I am very pleased that Pamuk has been awarded another prestigious prize.

I am not pleased because he is Turkish, but because he is Pamuk and I'm an admirer of his works.

That people may talk about other issues more than his works is unfortunate, because it is not the world as much as Turkey that needs to open dialogue on these matters. There is a danger that the award will stifle dialogue in Turkey because some quarters will say - and not without justification if taken with the unfortunate coincidence of events in France - that it stinks of a ploy to raise anti-Turkish sentiment.

Turkey and the majority of its public, whom have faced homegrown terrorism attacks inside its borders for decades, is sensitive to certain issues and where others could not appreciate this until 9/11, I do see it in context.

People from outside the region may be hard pushed to appreciate that the forced decline of the 19th century Ottoman regime by the West caused the whole divided region to subsequently expel populations. Populations committed atrocities against populations, and diversity was lost through nationalism and compartmentalisation.

Today, the existence of minorities in Greece and Armenia is barely acknowledged and fraught with politics; the ideal is the homogeneous Hellenic and Armenian people, the Ottoman culture despised and demonised. Turkish and Greek culture has become more monotone, too, just like a loss of biodiversity in an ecosystem. But in the wake of 9/11, America and even the UK are now opting for greater cultural homogenisation for national stability and it is not surprising that Turks become confused and angry when they are seemingly asked by the world to do the opposite.

But Turks, as I do, should see Pamuk's win in a different light. They should view the Nobel as gone not to the man or his politics but to his words, his characters, and his ideas in his books. They should remember that this is a man that not only challenges official Turkish history when he thinks it right to do so, he challenges Islamophobia and ultranationalism in the West, too. And now with this prize, more people will listen to him.

If you read his works and trust his talent, then you can trust his integrity and allow his laureate status to become an instant symbol of the new Turkey, one that embodies both Western and Islamic cultural and political values.

And for a new Turkey to edge closer to becoming part of the European Union, and have others trust its integrity, it, too, needs to have open dialogue at home. Though not out of deference to a European Union with an emerging dubious two-tier membership or because it has been pressured into it, but because it is the right thing to do morally. And because Turkey will need an open arena where there are no dark corners, to fight for its own place in a democratic and humane world.

First president and founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk said "Peace at home, peace in the world". For its own good and for the good of the world - as the West has seen fit to do with Pamuk's books - Turkey must put these words first and take the lead in this, so that neighbouring countries might follow.

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