The only consolation

Editorial Notebook

October 14, 2006|By Will Englund

So I dramatized this clash of different ways of seeing the world, since I love dramatizing the Eastness of East and the Westness of West.

That was Orhan Pamuk, who just won the Nobel Prize for literature, in an interview on PBS four years ago. The Nobel judges, perhaps not for the first time, may have been mindful of politics: Mr. Pamuk recently faced trial in Istanbul for having argued that Armenians and Kurds be allowed to voice their grievances against Turkey. (The charges were eventually dismissed, but not before an international outcry had arisen.) Yet his novels are not about politics; they describe the pulls and tugs of East and West, of tradition and progress, of identity and community. What follows are excerpts from his writing and from two of his interviews.

In My Name is Red, a 16th-century sultan has ordered his Muslim artists, for whom figurative art risks blasphemy, to learn the style of European painters. One muses:

"What attracts us to writing, illustrating and painting is bound up in this fear of retribution. It's not only for money and favor that we kneel before our work from morning to evening, continuing by candlelight through the night to the point of blindness and sacrifice ourselves for pictures and books, it's to escape the prattle of others, to escape the community, but in contrast to this passion to create, we also want those we've forsaken to see and appreciate the inspired pictures we've made - and if they should call us sinners? Oh, the suffering this brings upon the illustrator of genuine talent!"

The Black Book is a mystery set in contemporary Istanbul.

As I was leaving the pudding shop with your chicken-breast pudding wrapped in paper under my arm, I kissed him in the refined Western way I had picked up from the movies, and then I kissed his wife. What strange readers you are, and what a strange country we live in.

In 1999, he told The Irish Times:

I'm a bit worried about this label "dissident author who fights for freedom." I don't want to be seen as a "political" writer. My subject, generally speaking, is the metaphysics of change, and human reactions to what we used to have as our identity, when the whole thing is changed. It doesn't matter whether it's east or west, or traditional or modern; you have a tradition and, for this or that reason, it's changed. I care about that. I care about what is lost.

In Snow, he wrote about a city in eastern Turkey, already politically tense, that is cut off from the rest of the country by a blizzard and descends into a sort of provincial Stalinism. It reflects a point of view he made clear to the PBS audience:

Pay attention to good literature and novels, and do not believe in politicians. ... What matters are not civilizations, but human lives: Little things about daily life; little smells, colors and atmosphere of daily life and little stories that we live.

In The Black Book, a lawyer searching for his wife assumes the identity of a newspaper columnist. Here's an excerpt:

When he was telling the story the second time, he stressed sections he had failed to notice the first time; when he told the story for the third time, it became clear to him that he could be a different person each time he told it. Like the Prince, I tell stories to become myself. Furiously angry at all those who had prevented him from being himself, and certain that it was only by telling stories that he would come to know the mystery of the city and the mystery of life itself, he brought the story to a close for the third and final time, to be met with a white silence that spoke to him of death.

Here's how the novel ends:

Because nothing is as surprising as life. Except for writing. Except for writing. Yes, of course, except for writing, the only consolation.

- compiled by Will Englund

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