This piece was written at the close of 2006, the year of Pamuk’s Nobel Award.
There is an eccentric paradox embedded somewhere in the business of writing. All writing is a function of solitude, a private ramble between writer and daguerreotype, at once alike and apart. Yet writing can seldom hope to achieve its station unless it is able to evoke from its isolations the utterly universal. Aloofness and belonging are like atom and whole to writing, one doesn’t quite make sense without the other. We have no agreed answers on what makes writers out of people. Perhaps the search for contexts is one of them: Where do we fit in, where does anything? Writing is only minimally the physicality of it, it’s never about a set of words strung into grammatically correct sentences, it’s about the ideas they might, or might not, contain.
A procession of donkeys is its own reality, but it is probably in the play of dust and shadows under hoof that the material of writing lies — intangible, awaiting extraction, exploration, explanation. The writer, plumbing solitude in the search of contexts and connections, will poke and probe, lonesome, spiderlike, until he has conjured from the intangibles a weave that seamlessly merges into that complex baroque called the human condition. Of a sudden, a solitary act has turned into everyman’s intimacy. What else is to tether us to Tolstoy’s tale of Ivan Ilyich, slowly dying in a Russian town few can be bothered to locate? What’s it about Flaubert’s Emma Bovary or Camus’s Outsider? Or Updike’s Rabbit or Coetzee’s Lurie? What’s it about Lear and Iago and Hamlet and Macbeth? Why must Bellow’s Herzog twist like a dagger in the tainted soul, or the cuckold jealousies of Llosa’s Don Rigoberto? Why must the skin beat with Anna Karenin’s palpitations as she sets out for a tryst with Vronsky a century and a half after they never were? Why must Orhan Pamuk’s Ka accost you into his distraught compartments on the snow-blinded road from Erzurum to Kars? Erzurum to Kars? What’s the trajectory between those strange locations? West to North? Or the opposite direction? Or another, or another? Does it matter? Ka would accost you even between Udhampur and Tral, or Kohima and Moreh; it’s not about where, it’s about what. About what goes on in the complex sameness of the bewilderment called the human condition, the greatest of our isms and probably the only one worth pursuing because it hasn’t discovered its Marx yet. Surely the human condition springs robust and engaging in the sprawling graveyard of isms because it has been spared a prophet who will undertake to unlock all mystery and kill all art, sweep the scene of dust and shadows and leave us merely the prospect of donkeys.
Orhan Pamuk’s great prize is a moment to ponder such portents. What’s he got it for? For challenging Turkishness? (And who is to certify he is a lesser Turk than any other?) For remarking on two chapters of Turkish excess — the early 20th century massacre of Armenians and the continued oppression of Kurds on the nation’s bereft eastern flanks? For a spoken — outspoken — sentence of politics? Sure. More than freedom, the exercise of freedoms is deserving of accolade, and Pamuk has earned it. He was probably the first Muslim writer to flay the fatwah on Salman Rushdie; it wasn’t a Muslim act but in a world of contexts it will be inevitably be counter as that. It was not an essentially writerly act either. It was higher than all of that, a solitary act employed to universal purposes. Much later, formally charged with insulting Turkishness, he returned home to face a jury that eventually backed off. Another brave act worthy of praise. Is that all though?
The applause for Pamuk has a strange and unjust ring to it, as if it were in appreciation for his footnotes rather than for his script, for a spoken sentence of politics rather than a body of work. Hear! Hear! The man who stood up against it, the man would deliver Turkey to Europe and to the West, purged of its oriental warts. Embrace this Turk as damnation of Turkey. Has Pamuk become recipient of a bouquet of belittlements?
Very often the spur of the Arab Spring — itself plunged in torrid seasons that have belied the promise of spring — has yearned for a Turkishness, Islamist, democratic, liberal, aspirational, stable beyond the tectonic shifts it straddles. Turkey, Exemplar. And yet, within itself, Turkey is a deeply troubled nation. It involves constant negotiation of fractures. It is a frozen rupture, torn between Europe and Asia, between Western aspiration and Eastern sensibility. Here’s a nation whose foundations are formidably secular, buried so deep by Mustafa Kemal Pasha it even stamped out the Persian origins of the Turkish script and replaced it with the Roman. And yet Turkey today is ruled by a formation that avowedly Islamist and a consciousness that is increasingly Islamised. The ruling party is not alone in its advocacy of the return of the veil and the fez, both of which remain banned by statute. In downtown Istanbul and in Ankara, men and women pack bars and discotheques with a passion and vibrancy that would give the Latinos a few pangs of jealously. Yet the Turkish heartland is a flowering of rediscovered prohibitions. Istanbul is an excess of extroversions — the skirts are getting shorter in Taksim, the bars of Istiklal are better stocked and emptied than ever, Shakira is jiggling untrammeled on the Marmara — “Whenever, whatever…” Beyond Istanbul’s spanking exits, Turkey is busy wrapping itself in a cowl. It’s a nation turned on definitions. The radical in it is the Islamist, the secular is the revisionist.
Such are the faultlines that midwife a Pamuk, such are the faultlines that Pamuk explores. Or Ka does too in Snow. Pamuk cannot be extracted from his Turkishness and all that’s good and bad and hazy about it, and yet remain relevant to us, He cannot be congratulated for his un-Turkishness. Or, for that matter, for his Turkishness alone. That will make a donkey of him minus shadow and dust, that will mean isolating him from his essence. Snow is a very political novel but to stop at that would be to do Pamuk huge injustice. Snow is much more than an adventure into confounding politics and much less a facile indictment of it. Just as Istanbul isn’t merely a guidebook to a city or a memoir of childhood, both of which it also is.
Pamuk probably presaged limited judgement someday descending on him. Before launching Ka on his journey in Snow, he inserted a cautionary note from Stendhal: “Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.” Snow doesn’t progress in neglect of the “crude affairs” of politics but it is not limited by them either. It is also, and probably much more, a meditation on the human condition, in particular of melancholy, or the Turkish huzun, which lies closest to Pamuk. You will find it eddying as vitally about the fictional Ka of Snow as around the real life Pamuk of Istanbul. Melancholy, mother of love and other lovely demons, literature among them perhaps. Without ever favouring us with an explanation through 333 pages of Istanbul,Pamuk springs a singular declaration at the end: “I am going to be a writer.” What on earth bit him? Fortunately, we do not know yet. Hellelujas to the missing prophet of the human condition.