A View of the Bosporus: Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors
Pico Iyer reviews Orhan Pamuk’s new book Other Colors, The New York Times, September 30, 2007
ORHAN PAMUK takes the pundit’s dry talk of a “clash of civilizations” and gives it a human face, turns it on its head and sends it spinning wildly. In his early novel “The White Castle,” a Venetian slave and his Ottoman master swap clothes, exchange ideas and squabble like siblings until you can no longer tell who is who — or who’s on top. “I enjoy sitting at my desk,” Pamuk told The Paris Review, in an interview included in his new book, “like a child playing with his toys.” This gift for taking the urgent issues of the day and presenting them as detective stories that race past like footfalls down an alleyway has made Pamuk the best-selling writer in the history of his native Turkey and the deserving winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, at the unvenerable age of 54. Serving up 16th-century murder stories that investigate shifts in the history of Islamic art and offering us seriously entertaining wild goose tales that ask the deepest questions about identity, Pamuk is that rarest of creatures, a fabulist of ideas.
Each of his seven novels is written in a different style, and even as you hear echoes of Borges and Dostoyevsky and Proust, he makes of the compound something entirely new. Pamuk sits, as every profile-writer notes, at a desk in Istanbul overlooking the bridge that links — and separates — Asia and Europe. And he has taken on the existential riddles that have traditionally preoccupied European literature and wrapped them up in brightly colored fables, Sufi allegories about the quest for the hidden self and arabesques that could have come from “The Thousand and One Nights.” By chance, the pressing questions facing both him and his country — how much to define themselves in terms of an Islamic past, how much in terms of a future in the European Union — have, in some form, become the questions haunting the global village as a whole, as more and more of us find ourselves living within earshot of the mosque even as Hollywood movies play down the street.
In “Other Colors,” his first big assemblage of nonfiction, Pamuk gives us several of his many selves in a centrifugal gathering of memory-pieces, sketches, interviews and unexpected flights. The result is a gallery of Pamuks: here is the author of the haunted, half-lit inquiry into melancholy and neglect, “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” with further glimpses of the “forest of secret stairways” that is his home; here is the man who so loves books that he wrote a whole novel, “The New Life,” about a character whose life is turned around by a book, with essays on the writers who possess him. Here, too, is the author of the fearlessly topical Islamic novel “Snow,” who, two years ago, was brought to trial by his government after telling a Swiss newspaper it was taboo in Turkey to mention the local slaughter of a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds, offering public statements on freedom of expression; and here, round every corner, is the whimsical, endlessly inventive juggler of possibilities writing pieces in the voice of the subjects of a painting, and, in one mischievous chapter, of what he calls “Meaning” itself.
These essays are more an afterword than an introduction to Pamuk’s work — those who haven’t met him before may feel more comfortable beginning with “Snow” or “Istanbul.” And though Pamuk assures us this is a different book from the collection that came out under the same name in Turkey eight years ago, newly shaped to form a “continuous narrative” that is also an autobiography in disguise, it feels more like a rich and suggestive set of explorations than a single story. Yet mostly what this collection gives us, by swiveling the lens from the window out toward the Bosporus to the man taking it in, is a chance to savor one of the inimitable literary storytellers of our time, who — to borrow a phrase from Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Housekeeping” — is set upon a “resurrection of the ordinary.”
Pamuk has two enduring loves: books and Istanbul. Often they converge as his journeys through his hometown come to resemble excursions through memory itself. Like Proust, Pamuk has spent decades of his life — 15,300 days, he calculates — in the same room in his beloved birthplace, alone with his books and thoughts. Yet his window is always open to catch the sound of the sandwich vendors in the street, the men in the teahouse, the metallic whine of the ferries as they dock “at any of the little wooden tire-ringed landing stations .” Turkish writers pride themselves on their long sentences, and Pamuk’s most virtuoso catalogs, some stretching across hundreds of words, take in all the barbershops, the horse-drawn carriages, the winter afternoons and rainy backpassages of old Istanbul until he seems a Turkish Whitman, ready to contain all contrarieties.
Out of such everyday details, he makes parables. When Sean Connery’s James Bond came to Istanbul, Pamuk 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 seems to realize he can find hidden treasure just by sitting where he is: he looks at New York 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 7, “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 that rocked the outskirts of Istanbul in 1999 and left 30,000 people dead. Pamuk begins by describing how 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 of people everywhere, distraught.
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 great writers of the canon in his teens, reading them with the special longing and intensity of a boy from the far side of the world. He was moved by Dostoyevsky’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 Pamuk 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 who felt they should remake themselves entirely in the European style. These reflections turn into touching self-portrait when Pamuk writes, “There are very few writers who can personify or dramatize beliefs, abstract thoughts and philosophical contradictions as well as Dostoyevsky.” For Dostoyevsky, 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 he never sees things in such abstract terms; the two forces are too alive for him to come to formal resolutions. His books are, really, celebrations of multiplicity (“My Name Is Red” is told in the voice of 19 narrators ), 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 talks 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 and faced the prospect of three years in jail (until his acquittal), Pamuk became a hero to many in the West. 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 lies very much, one feels, in opening up possibilities rather than in 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. As he told The Paris Review in the context of cultural eclecticism: “Schizophrenia makes you intelligent.”
What “Other Colors” makes most clear 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 narrators and in the context of his much-missed father, alight with “Peter Pan optimism.” Childhood is the source to which he constantly returns, whether recalling his love of games 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 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 who devour this writer in English, his particular sound of innocence and sophistication — lyrical, vulnerable, deeply human and engaging — has come to us with special immediacy since Maureen Freely began to translate him a few years ago. In the kind of coincidence Pamuk himself might have devised, Freely, an American novelist based in Britain, was a student at the same American school in Istanbul as Pamuk, and at the same time, though they never knew each other then. Now (with Pamuk at her side during revisions), she has found a voice for the Turkish writer that seems as close to us as our own.
“Other Colors” is too eagerly inclusive 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 “encyclopedist ”). Yet what emerges powerfully, and often movingly, from it is Pamuk’s faith in writing as a “consolation” and 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 10 hours every day and barely leaving Istanbul until he was 31 ), and for the fact that his shrine is his library of 12,000 books (in a culture that “views the nonreader as 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 is 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 André 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 both East and West can gratefully claim as their own.
Pico Iyer’s next book, “The Open Road,” about the 14th Dalai Lama and globalism, comes out next spring.