Essays and a Story
By Orhan Pamuk
Knopf / 432 pages / $27.95
It would seem self-evident to declare that the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk loves writing. But not all writers do. The famous Algonquin wit, Dorothy Parker, noted wryly, "I hate writing, but love having written."
Many of us writers fall into the Parker camp. For us, the act of writing is never fun, it's always arduous and I, like many other serious and productive writers, need a swift kick to get started. Not Pamuk; he adores the process of writing that so many of us shudder over. This love of the actual pen-to-paper alchemy of writing lies at the core of his latest collection, Other Colors: Essays and a Story.
In his preface, Pamuk explains it succinctly. For him, writing is both magic and science, an algebraic equation -- one of those classic word problems like, if a train is traveling through Istanbul in a snowstorm at a speed comparable to the Orient Express in an Agatha Christie novel and from the fogged-up window a mysterious passenger glimpses a flash of something red just outside his periphery, what will Orhan Pamuk glean from it?
This, actually, is how the majority of the essays, vignettes and tales in Other Colors present themselves to the reader: As amalgams of visual, aural, tactile, political, social, historical and spiritual images and experiences. Flashes and anecdotes here, ruminations and detailed expositions there. Nothing happens in Pamuk's life -- or so it seems -- that is not fodder for him as a writer. Reading these pieces one is infused with the sheer joy that exudes from each tale -- joy in what he's writing about and joy in the act of getting it all down. Reading Pamuk will make writers want to write.
Like a majority of Nobel winners, Pamuk is not as well-known in the U.S. as he is in Europe or his native Turkey. His best-known novel, Snow, the tale of an exiled Turkish poet, mirrors his own story in many respects. Pamuk has spent long periods in exile from Turkey because his personal politics and those of his government have rarely jibed, as Pamuk details in many of these essays.
Most recently Pamuk was under investigation in 2005 and 2006 for stating publicly that the Armenian genocide happened. He was charged with denigrating Turkish identity by saying, "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and the nationalists hate me for that."
According to the Turkish government, no genocide happened.
Politics, like writing itself, is subtextual to all of Pamuk's writing. In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, Pamuk, then in London, wrote a piece for the Guardian newspaper titled "Listen to the Damned" in which he stated that it was neither Islam nor poverty that succors terrorism of the sort that occurred, but "the failure to be heard."
He expands on that piece in an essay titled "The Anger of the Damned" in a section of 12 essays titled "Politics, Europe, and Other Problems of Being Oneself." Among the essays is a piece titled simply "On Trial," about the Armenian genocide debate and his near-imprisonment.
In "The Anger of the Damned," Pamuk reveals the melding of the East and the West in his politics. He explains how America remains deaf to its own domination and in the face of that domination, struggling nations want to strike back to wound the West. He warns that America unwittingly shores up Muslim dictatorships by siding with "closed societies like Saudi Arabia." And he asserts, "Those who give unconditional backing to military attacks to demonstrate America's military strength and teach terrorists 'a lesson,' who cheerfully discuss on television where American planes will bomb as if playing a video game, should know that impulsive decisions to engage in war will aggravate the hostility towards the West felt by millions in Islamic countries and poverty-stricken regions. This gives rise to feelings of humiliation and inferiority. It is neither Islam nor even poverty itself directly that succors terrorists whose ferocity and creativity are unprecedented in human history, but the crushing humiliation that has infected Third World countries like cancer."
Prescient, given that Pamuk wrote this first in late September 2001 and after six years of President Bush's so-called "war on terror," terrorism has indeed exploded in the Middle East and the rationale given by terrorists is consistently the same: American imperialism and the war on Iraq.
In 1969, Robin Morgan coined the phrase "the personal is political" in the feminist treatise Sisterhood is Powerful. Pamuk has made that his mantra: There's no easy expendability or fungibility of integrity in Pamuk's personal world. One can live and work in America as he currently does, and be critical of its politics. One can feel one's native country in one's very soul and yet feel compelled to speak out about its flaws, even if it means risking prison and exile.
Not surprisingly, Pamuk's literary influences, about whom he writes with an almost romantic attachment in the sections "Books and Reading" and "My Books Are My Life," are themselves highly political writers and include Borges, Faulkner, Camus, Tolstoy, Gide and Dostoevsky. Pamuk addresses the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in "The Satanic Verses" and the "Freedom of the Writer" and the impact of magical realism as politics in "Mario Vargas Llosa and Third World Literature." These are pieces written with an insider's voice; they are from a writer to other writers.
Pamuk is Turkey's most important cultural figure -- imagine if Oprah Winfrey were a literary giant instead of a pop icon. That's Pamuk in Turkey. In 1995, his novel New Life, was the fastest-selling book in Turkish history, and his disputes with the government over the treatment of the Kurds and other controversial political positions have only served to endear him further to a public that, like our own, does not really read. There had been vague discussion of banning his work during his trial, but that died with his acquittal.
Fortunately for Americans and for Pamuk, he has a fantastic translator in Maureen Freely, who has devoted herself to translating all his works, his speeches to his novels. Her consummate understanding of Pamuk's idiom makes these essays and stories read smoothly, devoid of the stilted and halting prose that some translations proffer as the author's true work.
Other Colors is part diary, part travelogue, part confession, part writer's guide to the galaxy, part political tract, part spiritual journey, part paean to the beauty of language and the configuration of words.
There's literally and literarily everything including the kitchen sink in this collection; the breadth and variety of the pieces makes it utterly compelling. To read Other Colors is to step inside the life of Pamuk the writer and Pamuk the man. It's a wildly uneven and thoroughly disparate group of writings, yet each is part of the puzzle of the whole and essential to the complicated story that is Pamuk writing about life and writing. Other Colors is an autobiography in essays and tales, a book for writers and readers that is never less than captivating.
As he notes in his Nobel Lecture, "My Father's Suitcase": "A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. ... I believe literature to be the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself."
Other Colors represents that quest and in reading it, we do indeed understand.
Victoria A. Brownworth teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is the author and editor of more than 20 books.