Lit­er­ary de­fender of two worlds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

WITH the ex­cep­tion of Salman Rushdie, it is hard to think of a writer since the gen­er­a­tion of Jean- Paul Sartre and Al­bert Ca­mus who has been obliged to as­sume re­spon­si­bil­i­ties farther be­yond the usual re­mit than Orhan Pa­muk. The events of Septem­ber 11 and the rise in geopo­lit­i­cal heat gen­er­ated by the US and its al­lies ’ sub­se­quent mil­i­tary ad­ven­tures in Iraq have led to the nov­el­ist be­ing em­braced by many read­ers as a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual: a lone em­i­nence de­fend­ing plu­ral­ism and tol­er­ance against fun­da­men­tal­ism, and his own cul­ture against First World xeno­pho­bia.

Pa­muk ’ s pub­lic state­ments have of­ten ac­corded with this sense of writerly no­blesse oblige. And the fact that his home is Is­tan­bul, an­cient hinge be­tween Is­lamic East and Chris­tian West, only lends a sym­bolic apt­ness to the role. How­ever, the truth, as the ideas, images,

‘‘ and frag­ments of life ’’ that make up

Other Colours show, is that Pa­muk chafes against th­ese larger ex­pec­ta­tions even as he shoul­ders them.

Not only do the po­lit­i­cal pieces in­cluded in this col­lec­tion, which draws on Pa­muk ’ s non­fic­tion writ­ings across two decades, ex­press a greater am­biva­lence to­wards Europe and the US than might be ex­pected, but its ac­com­pa­ny­ing lit­er­ary es­says and au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sketches give the im­pres­sion that, had his­tory not chivvied Pa­muk out of his book- lined bur­row, he would have been hap­pi­est to re­main a purely lit­er­ary fig­ure.

Other Colours is the work­bench shav­ings of an au­thor whose in­vest­ment in the private world of the imag­i­na­tion re­mains at odds with the de­mands of the pub­lic realm. We need only turn

Other Colours: Es­says and a Story By Orhan Pa­muk Faber and faber, 433pp, $ 45

to the es­says deal­ing with Pa­muk ’ s lit­er­ary idols, Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges in par­tic­u­lar, to ap­pre­ci­ate the rea­sons for his ret­i­cence. Pa­muk ap­prov­ingly notes that both th­ese ear­lier writ­ers were pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in what Nabokov called aes­thetic bliss: an approach

less con­cerned with the rules of life and the ‘‘ world than with its sur­faces and tex­tures ’’ . Both were wary of the in­tru­sion of pol­i­tics into the private play­ground of art.

Like them, Pa­muk hails from a once il­lus­tri­ous fam­ily whose for­tunes have faded over time. Un­sur­pris­ingly, then, he shares with Nabokov and Borges a vi­sion of lit­er­a­ture as a pride­ful refuge against the su­per­fi­cial dra­mas of the so­cial realm. In an es­say de­fend­ing Lolita s au­thor

’ against the charge of cru­elty, Pa­muk writes of the

proud Naboko­vian stance ’’ he used as a shield ‘‘ dur­ing his early years of writ­ing, when he, too, was at­tacked for re­fus­ing to write in an overtly po­lit­i­cal mode.

Even when Pa­muk ex­am­ines the more en­gaged fig­ure of Dos­to­evsky ( whose Demons he con­sid­ers the great­est po­lit­i­cal novel of all

‘‘ time ’’ ), his con­cern is with the para­dox of a lit­er­ary achieve­ment won in spite of pol­i­tics. How, he won­ders, could a writer who hated

‘‘ West­ern lib­er­als and ma­te­ri­al­ists ’’ none­the­less ac­cept their rea­son­ing. And how could an ar­dent Rus­sophile turn out to be one of the finest ex­po­nents of the par­tic­u­lar art form, the novel, that is the sig­na­ture achieve­ment of the West?

If the strength of Pa­muk ’s crit­i­cal approach lies here, in in­ter­ro­gat­ing texts that speak to his own sense of cul­tural frac­ture, the weak­ness of Other Colours emerges from the same source. Am­biva­lence about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cul­ture and pol­i­tics seems to re­flect sim­ple per­plex­ity as of­ten as it does nu­anced cri­tique. Writ­ing on the fall from do­mes­tic favour of Euro­pean books about Turkey, Pa­muk asks:

Have we ( Turks) come to see Europe as far too ‘‘ trou­bling and prob­lem­atic in ways un­dreamt of be­fore? ’’ His an­swer, I can­not say ’’ , i s re­peated

‘‘ through th­ese pages like a men­tal shrug.

This sense of dis­com­fort ex­tends to sub­jects be­yond lit­er­ary es­says on his own books and those of oth­ers. Whether writ­ing about his

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der fam­ily, Is­tan­bul life, trav­els to the US and Europe, his private life or pub­lic ut­ter­ances, the fi­nal pic­ture that emerges is of a fig­ure who is vic­tim and ben­e­fi­ciary of his unique back­ground.

Trapped be­tween the shrill in­vec­tive of pro­vin­cial Is­lamists in his own coun­try and the damn­ing hypocrisies of the post- Septem­ber 11 West, Pa­muk has moved — of­ten bravely, al­ways dili­gently, but ul­ti­mately with deep un­ease — be­tween two un­sat­is­fac­tory worlds.

In the face of the crum­bling re­la­tions traced in Other Colours , i t i s un­der­stand­able that Pa­muk should pre­fer to re­treat to his study, where he may plug his con­fu­sions with the beau­ti­ful

sur­faces and tex­tures ’’ of lit­er­a­ture. ‘‘

Noth­ing, ’’ as he ex­plains, can pen­e­trate ‘‘ ‘‘ into the cracks, holes, and in­vis­i­ble gaps of life as fast or as thor­oughly as words can. ’’ Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is lit­er­ary critic based in Syd­ney.

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