Pico Iyer Journeys

Orhan Pamuk

What Other Colors makes most clear, in fact, is how seriously committed to playfulness Pamuk is. Over and over the terms extolled here are “childishness” and “innocence” and “enthusiasm,” both in the context of his alter ego narrators (one of whom writes with a “childish optimism” far from the “pain that makes Naipaul seem so loveless and pessimistic”) and in the context of his much-missed late father, alight with “Peter Pan optimism.” Childhood is the source to which he constantly returns, whether recalling his love of games as a kid or devoting the single piece of fiction here to the story of a small boy exchanging trading cards even as his family falls apart around him. All that a writer needs, for Pamuk, is “paper, a pen, and the optimism of a child looking at the world for the first time.”

For those of us who devour this writer in English, his particular sound of innocence and sophistication–lyrical, vulnerable, deeply human and engaging–has come to us with especial immediacy ever since Maureen Freely began to translate him a few years ago. In the kind of coincidence that Pamuk himself might have devised, the British-based American novelist was a student at the same American school as Pamuk in Istanbul, and at the same time, though they never knew one another then. Now (with the English-fluent Pamuk at her side during revisions), Freely has found a voice for the Turkish writer that seems as close to us as our own.

Because Pamuk remains a passionate pluralist, whose impulses are eagerly inclusive, Other Colors probably has too much in it to make up the single-pointed, honed narrative that its author promises. Like the maximalist Black Book or My Name is Red, it is more a fireworks display than a rounded sculpture (it’s no surprise that a favorite Pamuk character is the “encyclopaedist”). Yet what emerges powerfully, and often movingly, from it is Pamuk’s faith, stated over and over, in writing as a “consolation,” a refuge, “our only defense against life’s cruelties.” When he titles one major section in the book “MY BOOKS ARE MY LIFE,” he seems to be speaking both for the way that he has put almost all his adult life into his work (sitting in his room ten hours every day, and barely leaving Istanbul until he was 31), and for the fact that his shrine is his library of 12000 books (in a culture where “the nonreader is the norm”). Where a writer like Haruki Murakami offers up a cool and somewhat dystopian vision of globalism in which ambient music and drift seem to have superseded the word, Pamuk speaks for the hope that globalism can be made richer and more sustaining through uncompromising literary intelligence.

It’s startling, when falling under Pamuk’s spell, to realize that this Nobel laureate and lover of the great tradition is some years younger than Martin Amis, say, or William Gibson, even as he grew up in a city without television, where the radio was state-controlled. Perhaps he cherishes the grand inheritance of Faulkner, Flaubert and Tolstoy as only one who is far away from it can. Yet whether he’s writing wistfully about Andre Gide as the hero of Turkish intellectuals (though Gide himself wrote scathingly about Turkey), or recalling how he used to collect Coca-Cola cans as a boy, from the trash-cans of expat Americans, Pamuk is taking the world we thought we knew and making it fresh and alive. A rooted cosmopolitan, he has become one of the essential and enduring writers that the East can gratefully claim as its own–as can the West.

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