The definitive(ish) review I’ve been meaning to write for months will obviously have to wait now that Orhan Pamuk has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here are the AFOE talking points on Pamuk:
Snow is the one book to read if you only have time to read one. Ka, the protagonist, is a Turkish poet who has been living in exile in Frankfurt. (His name is the inverse of the abbreviation of Turkey’s ruling party, AK, which is also the Turkish word for white. The Turkish title of the book, Kar, is also just a letter short of the name of the city where the novel takes place, Kars.) He returns to a provincial city to investigate why a number of local girls have committed suicide after being excluded from school for wearing headscarves. As he begins to make sense of the complexities involved, a blizzard strikes and cuts the city off from the rest of the world for several days. In this pocket world, a local coup takes place, Islamist radicals may or may not be agitating for rule, and reality itself gets much more uncertain in the drifts and blankets of snow. Pamuk juggles many different layers of meaning, many different possibilities of what is real, how peoples’ perceptions and convictions slip and slide, and some specifically Turkish elements of theater, politics and mutability. It is a great book, even if the ending only delivers on about 90 percent of the promise of the middle.
Istanbul: Memories and the City is the other book that’s being widely cited. It, too, is terrific, not least because the publishers have taken advantage of modern techonology and included many pictures from Pamuk’s personal collection in the narrative itself. The book is a memoir of growing up in one of the world’s greatest cities, and it gives you a sense not only of the author’s particularities–a sprawling, occasionally brawling family that’s well-to-do but fading; his interest in painting that becomes a career in writing; a characteristic melancholy; and more, of course–but also of the city’s personalities and how they change over time. People, neighborhoods, periods, moods–Pamuk captures them all.
The Black Book is out in a new translation, which I am led to understand is a big improvement. I was able to put the old one down for several years without much worry before finishing the book, so I think think it likely. In any event, the novel concerns one character’s search for his brother-in-law, a famous Istanbul newspaper columnist, who seems to have disappeared. This story is interspersed with columns, ostensibly written by the brother-in-law, about various peculiar events in Istanbul. As the book progresses, it appears possible that the brother-in-law is a fictional creation of the narrator, who may be a famous newspaper columnist himself; or he may merely have taken on the mantel left by his brother-in-law who actually has disappeared. Things merge into one another in this crossroads city.
Pamuk insists that he isn’t a political novelist, and in my view he’s absolutely right to. Politics is too narrow to contain what he’s up to, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that unnerves authorities used to defining the limits of acceptable. The Black Book was apparently a break with dominant realist writing in Turkey, an early sign that Pamuk was headed for places that a conformist establishment would be uncomfortable in following. And while in this case it’s the secular Kemalist establishment that’s discomfited, an Islamist establishment would be much more unsettled. In both cases, that’s a good thing. Pamuk writes humane books, tells stories too full of ambiguity and uncertainty to support any dogma, too honest about his home city’s past to help partisan mythologizing, too committed to openness to prescribe one true path, and too aware of costs to be fully comforting to modernizers. But for readers, a feast, a delight, a glimpse into many worlds in and around the Bosporus, and beyond.