Pico Iyer Journeys

Orhan Pamuk

Out of such everyday details, he makes parables. For the particular poignancy and power of his writing come from the fact that he, like his neighbors, sits “uncertainly on the edge of Europe with only our books to keep us company.” When James Bond came to Istanbul, he tells us, crowds excitedly applauded as Goldfinger offered the hero Turkish tobacco; mayonnaise, once known in Turkey as Russian dressing, was later “referred to as American dressing because of the Cold War.” Like a character in one of his fairy tales, Pamuk has realized that he can find hidden treasure just by sitting where he is: he looks at New York here with the freshness and eager expectancy of a typical foreigner, even as he remembers reading the Thousand and One Nights, during a trip to Geneva when he was seven, “as a western child would, amazed at the marvels of the East.”

To see how this mix of local and global can draw blood, and even tears, turn to his unforgettable accounts of the earthquakes, in 1999, that rocked the outskirts of Istanbul and left 30,000 people dead (imagine nine consecutive 9/11 attacks rocking the foundations of an enormous old city). Pamuk begins by describing waking up as his bed began “swaying violently like a rowboat caught in a storm at sea”; then, as a dutiful reporter and anxious lover of his city, he goes out to inspect the damage, and to record buildings that are “just a heap of powder, iron, broken furniture, tiny scraps of concrete.” Before long he has made out of the cataclysm a pocket history of Turkey in all its hopefulness and corruption. And when wild rumors begin to fly in the aftermath–The horror was caused by the Americans! No, it was caused by the Kurds!–he shows us what is an all but universal portrait of human fear and grief.

Born into an upper-middle-class family that once sat on great wealth–he grew up in the Pamuk Apartments and his elder brother was sent to Yale–Pamuk began inhaling the essential writers of the West in his teens, yet seeing them always with the special longing and intensity of a boy from the far side of the world. He was moved, as many would be, he writes here, by Dostoevsky’s “impassioned questions,” his struggle to “decipher our own beings,” his furious battles with the center of faith. But what made the Russian writer seem almost a mirror for the young Turk was his position close to Europe yet cut off from it, anxious to see his country grow more Western and modern, yet impatient with those countrymen who felt they should remake themselves entirely in the European style. The reflections on Dostoevsky turn into touching self-portrait when Pamuk writes, “There are very few writers who can personify or dramatize belief, abstract thoughts, and philosophical contraditions as well as Dostoevsky.” For Dostoevsky, he notes, “the world is a place that is in the process of becoming.”

It’s conventional these days to see Pamuk as the man who lives out and thus gives voice to the shifting dance between East and West. But his particular strength is that he never sees things in such abstract terms; the two forces are much too alive for him ever to come to formal resolutions. His books are, really, celebrations of multiplicity (My Name is Red is told in the voice of 19 narrators, The Black Book is a series of brilliant, exploratory riffs), which makes them celebrations of unfinishedness; the mysteries they set up are always more delicious than any attempt to solve them. “Even the most intelligent thinker,” he says here, “will, if he talk too long about cultures and civilizations, begin to spout nonsense.” His refusal to settle into any one simple and simplistic position has, of course, made Pamuk the target of both secularists and religious conservatives.

When he was brought to trial for “public denigration” of Turkish identity, and faced the prospect of up to three years in jail (until his acquittal), Pamuk suddenly became the hero of many in the West, an embattled champion for freedom. Yet Other Colors makes clear (even in its title) that he has always been more at home in the world of the imagination, hanging out with Nabokov or Calvino, than in the doctrinaire position that circumstances pushed him into. He has no shyness about speaking out against censorship, or even about calling his country “a world leader in state-sponsored murder by unknown assailants, not to mention systematic torture, trammels on freedom of expression, and the merciless abuse of human rights.” Yet his heart as a writer lies very much, one feels, in opening up possibilities, rather than closing them off, and in what he calls “allegory and obscurity.” In some ways, all his books are about his sense that two souls are better than one (or, as he told the Paris Review, speaking of cultural mixing, “Schizophrenia makes you intelligent”).

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