Literary defender of two worlds
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.