Other Colors: Essays and a Story
by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely
Knopf, 433 pp., $27.95
It is an irony that the reputation of Orhan Pamuk should rest as much on his political prominence as on his books. The Turkish Nobel laureate is the most private and recondite of writers. For over thirty years he has occupied a lonely apartment in Istanbul, writing for ten hours a day, in misanthropic love with this most melancholy of cities. He is the poet of the labyrinth of his own thoughts and conceits, of the fabulous and the gently ambiguous. His literary heroes are not Gorky or Solzhenitsyn, but Borges and Calvino.
In Other Colors: Essays and a Story, Pamuk has resurrected a collection first published in Turkey in 1999, and radically reshaped it (with some additions) to create, he says, an oblique autobiography. His preface opens with the ominous admission that the book is made up of fragments that have not yet found their way into any of his novels, but it continues: “I gathered up these pieces to form a totally new book with an autobiographical center.” He ends with a ludic evasion, stating that the book is “set inside a frame to suggest a center that I have tried to hide: I hope that readers will enjoy imagining that center into being.”
But for all his crafted editing, this is an assemblage of very disparate essays, divided into discrete sections. The autobiography they evoke is less a chronology than a re-creation of the author’s sensibility through a gamut of (sometimes chance) experiences, his reflections on his city, his past, his writing, his books, his reflections on his reflections. His essays on Istanbul range from a piece about barbers to a vignette on seagulls. There are glancing portraits of his father and infant daughter, excursions into aesthetics, into politics (a little), into revered novelists (a lot), and meditations on his own works. There are fleeting travel pieces on New York. There are recorded interviews. And the volume ends with the short story referred to in the title, an essay about one of his father’s more drastic flights from home, and his own Nobel Prize acceptance speech, invoking again the father who lightly brackets this whole volume.
By Pamuk’s account, it is writing that is crucial to his own hermetic life. His combined novels, like an autonomous autobiography, pursue the trajectory of twentieth-century fiction from a repudiation of formal realism (and of his didactic Turkish forebears) to the postmodernism released by his encounters with Western literature.
His political ordeal came uninvited. He had already been an active proponent of human rights before 2005, but in his opening essay, “The Implied Author,” he writes that
the political quandaries in which I then found myself, turned me into a far more “political,” “serious,” and “responsible” person than I wanted to be: a sad state of affairs and an even sadder state of mind—let me say it with a smile.
After an interview in February 1995 with the Swiss publication Das Magazin in which he regretted Turkey …