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Locked in the Writer’s Room

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’s silence over the mass killings of Kurds and of Armenians during World War I, a group of nationalist lawyers brought a prosecution case against him for insulting the Turkish republic, under a law whose violation could result in three years’ imprisonment. The affair was politically fraught for another reason—Turkey’s sharpening bid for membership in the European Union—and the case was only dropped after international outcry, on a legal technicality.

Pamuk includes a cursory essay here on his aborted trial. The few other sociopolitical articles bear out his reluctance to enter current politics. They are worthy, perfunctory, occasionally banal. Some, in their labored self-explanation, suggest they are the texts of lectures (and a few certainly are). There are scarcely any explanatory notes or dates.

Pamuk prefers solitary retreat to the intransigence of politics:

To lock myself up in a room to write a new history—a new story with allegories, obscurities, silences, and never-heard sounds—is, of course, better…. To embark on such a journey there is no need to know exactly where you are going; it is enough to know where you do not wish to be.

Even his most overtly political novel, Snow, which foregrounds the conflict between Islam and secularism, tacitly warns against the politicizing of art.

Of formal autobiography in Other Colors, there is almost nothing. A single clause in the essay devoted to “How I Got Rid of Some of My Books” mentions his fear of both attachments and love. Besides his father, a few relatives have walk-on parts. He alludes to estrangement from his mother. His wife (divorced in 2001) features just once, as a disembodied voice. Only his daughter Rüya is remembered in infancy, in a handful of affectionate vignettes first published by a small Turkish magazine in the mid-Nineties.

If there is a heroine in Pamuk’s work it is, of course, the mournful, smirched beauty Istanbul. His sketches here do not have the seamless magic of his full-scale memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City, but there are intermittent passages which perform the same alchemy with city and child. Pamuk was still a boy in the 1960s, when Istanbul’s sophisticated, multicultural populace began to be submerged by immigrants from the Asia Minor heartland. He conjures an urban landscape as it transforms into concrete, a nostalgia for the surviving traffic of the Bosphorus ferries, and the once-sumptuous Princes Islands on the Marmara Sea. His sketches of family picnics, once carefree, now soured by disillusion with the West, are sharp with the closeness of experience.

Two further essays concentrate on the 1999 Istanbul earthquake that took 30,000 lives. Pamuk describes people’s sense of displacement in buildings that had been instantly, drastically rearranged:

Some had awoken to find themselves and their houses lurching surreally from side to side; as the structures began to topple the inhabitants prepared to die, but when the building next door broke its neighbor’s fall these people found themselves clinging to a corner of something…. I heard stories about a grandfather and a grandmother lying in bed awaiting death, of people who walked out onto what they thought was a fourth-floor balcony only to find themselves on a ground-floor terrace….

Characteristically Pamuk focuses not only on the immediate horror but on its long aftermath among the survivors: paranoia, shame, and even curious absolution. There was anger too. People blamed the scale of the disaster on corrupt construction practices and incompetent emergency services. Such intimate, firsthand accounts, where the worldly and personal are fused, are among the most striking and valuable in the book.

But if there is a heart to this maze of essays—the hidden center which its author teasingly promises—it lies in literature. Again and again Pamuk insists on the primacy of the novel—its writing, its reading: how the only happiness to be found is in a closed room, with a fountain pen. He attributes to fiction an almost mystical, redemptive power. “Nothing can be as extraordinary as life,” he wrote in The Black Book. “Except for writing. Yes, of course, except for writing, the sole consolation.” And here:

Above all else, a novel is a vessel that carries inside it a dream world we wish to keep, forever alive and forever ready. Novels are held together by the little pieces of daydreams that help us, from the moment we enter them, forget the tedious world we long to escape. The more we write, the richer these dreams become and the broader, more detailed, more complete seems that second world inside the vessel.

Beside writing, of course, there is his reading. In a rambling, sometimes pedestrian but nonetheless substantial essay, “In Kars and Frankfurt” (the text of a speech given on his receipt of Germany’s Peace Prize), Pamuk stresses its crucial influence:

It is by reading novels, stories, and myths that we come to understand the ideas that govern the world in which we live; it is fiction that gives us access to the truths kept veiled by our families, our schools, and our society; it is the art of the novel that allows us to ask who we really are.

In a fervent sequence of essays he acknowledges his masters. As so often, he is most affecting when least theoretical: when describing his love-hate relationship with The Thousand and One Nights or wittily digressing on the digressions of Tristram Shandy. But his fiercest empathy is kept for Dostoyevsky: for Demons with its marriage of idealism and paranoia, for Notes from Underground whose originality “issues from the dark space between Dostoyevsky’s rational mind and his angry heart.” (Pamuk ignores the novel’s satiric intent.) “For a writer like Dostoyevsky,” he says cogently,

the world is a place that is in the process of becoming; unfinished, it is somehow lacking…. This is why, when we read Dostoyevsky, the things we learn about ourselves make us so fearful: The rules are never quite clear.

Throughout these essays the reader will be hunting for clues to the genesis of those mysterious novels—The Black Book or My Name Is Red—and seeking allusions to the process of creation. They will, in part, be rewarded. Pamuk recounts his use of research and of literary forebears in The White Castle, his lonely, five-year odyssey in writing The Black Book, his obsession with painting styles in My Name Is Red, his nervous journeys for Snow to the Anatolian hinterland.

Yet on literature in general—and on the creative process itself—Pamuk’s writing can be bafflingly opaque, and sometimes naively grandiose, even in the fluent translation of Maureen Freely. In one passage he may be delicately alluding to the dangers implicit in too-easy composition, and the need for elasticity of experiment. In the next he is capable of intoning:

The meaning of life is intimately linked with happiness, as are all great novels…. In the end a wondrous novel becomes an integral part of our lives and the world around us, bringing us closer to the meaning of life….

Pamuk’s best pieces exemplify his art rather than discuss it. The penultimate, solitary story is confessedly autobiographical, and achieved with beautiful restraint. In the essay “Black Pen” he gives voice to the fourteenth-century painted figures of nomads (notionally by Muhammad Siyah Qalam) that have so bemused art historians. (“We are troubled by the abundance of rumors about where we come from, who we are, where we’re going, and who drew us….”) A mysterious little conceit named “No Entry”—a meditation on a forbidden door—might, by its juxtaposition here, be a reflection on Turkey’s exclusion, so far, from the European Union. Or perhaps it is just about a door. In the essay “Meaning,” words become animate, taking on both body and soul; they grow self-consciously confused about their status between material signs and transparent signifiers, and comically distraught.

The animation of inanimate or speechless things has always attracted Pamuk. Just as in his novels he has given speech to dogs, trees, and the dead, so in the swift vignettes of Other Colors a fish-shaped ashtray waits out the night in pain, the shape of a child’s tricycle suggests resignation, the furniture speaks. These pieces are saved from whimsy by their spare, matter-of-fact language and the intensity of their author’s attention.

The quest for some childlike purity surfaces again and again. Pamuk sees this not as regressive longing but as a condition of his art. The word “innocence” rings like a leitmotiv. The writer, he believes, needs “the optimism of a child looking at the world for the first time,” then he “breaks the bones of language to find his own voice”:

An imaginative novelist’s greatest virtue is his ability to forget the world in the way a child does, to be irresponsible and delight in it, to play around with the rules of the known world—but at the same time to see past his freewheeling flights of fancy to the deep responsibility of later allowing readers to lose themselves in the story. A novelist might spend the whole day playing, but at the same time he carries the deepest conviction of being more serious than others. This is because he can look directly into the center of things the way that only children can.

Whatever this suggests, it unchains Pamuk’s imagination and sets him playing creative games. The return to boyhood is at once a writerly technique and a nostalgic compulsion. Even My Name Is Red, he tells us, is about the sorrow and pain of lost history.

For all the meticulous architecture of his novels, Pamuk describes how in mental fatigue he would lose his way (while writing The Black Book) in the “mysterious core” which was at times closed even to him. This elusiveness haunts his work:

I pay most attention to the shadowy patches and moments of fragility in my books, as miniaturists do in their paintings, and in much the same way I want readers to notice where I am troubled….

He is exploring, he feels elsewhere, “the wounds so secret that we ourselves are barely aware of them.”

Yet shafts of humor fall through even these essays, plus a little vitriol. He is delighted when an earthquake helps him empty his modern Turkish literature shelves of the novels of his critics: “half-witted, mediocre, moderately successful, bald, male, degenerate writers between the ages of fifty and seventy.” And at the end of an essay on filmgoing he remarks on the old-fashioned habit (derided by movie buffs) of punctuating every program with an intermission. He is grateful for this custom, he says drolly, because it was during such a break that his parents first met. Without this philistine interval, he would not exist.

In one of Pamuk’s richest essays, “SA,irin’s Surprise,” he recounts the legend of the Armenian princess who falls in love with the picture of a prince, Hüsrev, and her confusion at meeting the real man. This is a classic subject of Persian miniatures. Pamuk writes:

What I can identify with most easily here is SA,irin’s surprise, the way she wavers between image and reality. I see her innocence—her susceptibility to a painting, the way she lets an image give rise to desire…. Like SA,irin, we ask ourselves, Is it in reality that the truth lies, or in the image? Which one affects us more deeply, handsome Hüsrev’s picture or the man himself?

This psychic shimmer fascinates Pamuk. So does the way that the inhabitants of Persian miniatures appear subtly aware of being watched from outside. Like the characters in his own stories, they simultaneously seem to address each other and the viewer. In the same way Pamuk’s authorial voice can swing constantly, knowingly, between intimacy and alienation. In fact the full panoply of postmodern techniques—intertexts, codes, metafictions—seems natural to his sensibility.

Other Colors is steeped in personal schism. A reclusive outsider, Pamuk writes that community kills his spirit: “I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work.” And once his consciousness becomes different from that of others, he is, indeed, alone. Pamuk imagines the novel as a path to becoming other selves. In childhood he was convinced that somewhere, in a house resembling his own, there lived another, identical Pamuk. As a schoolboy he was obsessed by the comic-book hero and shape-changer “Onethousandandone faces.” Years later, as a former smoker, he yet yearns to be his old, his other self. (“If I smoked, I would again feel the intensity of the night, the terrors of the man I once thought I was.”) Such passages verge on the melting identities of Fernando Pessoa and his The Book of Disquiet.

But in Pamuk the sense of being a borrowed person is not only intrinsic but cultural:

I acquired my taste for history from countries whose histories do not resemble our own. I have gone through life convinced that the buildings in which I have lived and the streets I have walked are bad imitations of streets and buildings somewhere in the West. The chairs and tables at which I sat were copies of originals in American films…. I cannot say how much of my joy or my seriousness of purpose, my way of standing or speaking, is innate and how much I have unwittingly copied from other examples. Nor do I know how many of those examples are themselves copies of another original or copy. The same can be said of my own words.

As a Turkish author he is poised—geographically and culturally—between the two specious concepts East and West. In youth he emerged from Istanbul’s cinemas to mimic Western speech and dress, noting the way the hero folded his handkerchief or lit the heroine’s cigarette. As an adult he is obsessed by the challenge of stylistic authenticity. His essays are threaded with anxieties about remoteness from the centers of world literature. Even if a writer emigrates (this in an essay on Mario Vargas Llosa) he will be in exile, a foreigner.

The brooding sense of a lost center comes and goes. In his childhood, again, Pamuk was convinced that he was peripheral. Istanbul—the flagship of the Western world for a thousand years as Constantinople—was now, he sensed, a backwater. The world’s heart had migrated elsewhere. (In another essay, close to Proust, he remembers an alleyway of trees, ideally beautiful, which he never finds again.) To Pamuk, the works of Balzac or Flaubert in his bilingual father’s library were as exotic as those of Firdausi or Hafiz would have been to a Frenchman.

Years later, in 1986, this sense of a mislaid center returns—more measured—when he reaches New York:

It was as if I believed that, somewhere among the shadows of these giant silhouettes, I might find the key to not just everything on the face of the earth but to the originals of the dreams of all my years. Perhaps all great cities stir this sort of illusion.

But his essays on the city record a newcomer’s alienation. This is a place of flavorless imitations, of insincerity. He gets mugged. He meets a former Turkish acquaintance, an immigrant now, who is belligerently abusive of Turkey. He records a restaurant conversation between a young Turkish couple: a chauvinistic man and a half-liberated woman. He departs.

Pamuk has returned now, of course, lionized, as a visiting professor at Columbia University, and there are rumors that he has left Turkey for good, in self-exile. But of this he has not written.

He has been widely hailed as an exemplar of East–West rapprochement. Sometimes he seems to support this, sometimes not. During an interview with The Paris Review, republished here, he speaks disarmingly on how he came to exploit Islamic literature’s wealth of “games, gimmicks, and parables,” and recast them in a Western, postmodern mold. A fusion of Western and Islamic traditions is celebrated in his The White Castle, a novel whose two protagonists—Ottoman and Venetian—each attempt to prove his culture’s superiority. Gradually, as they probe themselves, the dichotomies break down, and they merge into a single identity.

In the Nobel Prize speech with which this volume ends, Pamuk introduces a further triumph. “What I feel now is the opposite of what I felt as a child and a young man: For me the center of the world is Istanbul.” This, coming from Pamuk, is no nationalistic cry. Rather, he is greeting the Istanbul that he himself has created, in thirty years of writing it into being. Yet ironically it is the city where he may now fear to live. Since the murder in January of his friend the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, death threats could be driving Pamuk out.

Now Pamuk claims to feel at home in the traditions of both East and West. But the claim sounds anxious, impermanent, and it may be better so. In the Paris Review interview he concludes:

Turkey should not worry about having two spirits, belonging to two different cultures, having two souls. Schizophrenia makes you intelligent. You may lose your relation with reality—I’m a fiction writer, so I don’t think that’s such a bad thing—but you shouldn’t worry about your schizophrenia. If you worry too much about one part of you killing the other, you’ll be left with a single spirit. That is worse than having the sickness.

Turkey itself, he feels, should accept its dual nature, and throw off the lurking shame that inhibits the admission of its crimes. Shame, he says, is the problem, and its mirror-image, vociferous pride. “My novels,” he writes,

are made from these dark materials, from this shame, this pride, this anger, and this sense of defeat. Because I come from a nation that is knocking on Europe’s door, I am only too well aware of how easily these emotions of fragility can, from time to time, take flame and rage unchecked. What I am trying to do here is to speak of this shame as a whispered secret, as I first heard it in Dostoyevsky’s novels. For it is by sharing our secret shames that we bring about our liberation: This is what the art of the novel has taught me.

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