Orhan Pamuk and the Turks

I like to tell my students that I wouldn’t have moved to Turkey if Orhan Pamuk hadn’t made me admire it from afar. I say this partly because it’s true, but mostly because it shocks them, and that seems useful for my purposes. Their mouths drop open in disbelief, and they sit slackjawed while I tell them how The Black Book sold me on their city. With misty pictures of decaying opulence and narrow alleyways dotted with minarets, it made the word Bosporus name a strait that I needed to see. The scruffy, Diesel-clad Turks that I teach throw up their hands. Their ongoing perplexity at my decision to leave a good job in the US to teach at their Turkish university grows into something more. How could a novel by Orhan Pamuk make me think this was a good idea?

Their bafflement is partially but not wholly explained by the fact that few of them have read any novels by Orhan Pamuk. They are the products of the nation’s best high schools, and Pamuk is Turkey’s first Nobel Prize winner, but his name has rarely appeared on any syllabus they have received. That they might read him for fun is almost too ludicrous to mention. But I am less interested in his absence from their reading experience than I am in the reasons for it. When the Swedish Academy praised Pamuk as a discoverer of “new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures,” it described a peacemaker who is a stranger here. The Turks I meet in Istanbul know Pamuk neither as a builder of bridges between cultures nor as a kind of literary genius. For most, he’s a traitor, and for the rest, he’s a bit of a sleaze.

The evidence of his misdeeds appears to Turks under the categories of His Perceived Effects on Readers More or Less Like Me. Turks refer frequently to the longstanding public-relations war they are waging—and losing badly—with the rest of the world, and Pamuk seems to be on the wrong side. My students explain the realities of Pamuk’s domestic position in discussions that can best be called “heated.” They are very pleasant people, my students; like their counterparts in American universities, their default mode is a geniality so great that it verges on apathy. But I have seen them fly into genuine rages at the Nobel Laureate who is not in the room, rages replete with fist-clenching, table-pounding, and explosive exits with doors that slam. These are things I’ve never witnessed in any American classroom, certainly not on the subject of a novelist.

In a small measure, it is exciting to see: Here, literature matters. And yet, to a larger degree, it is terrifying to see, and literature doesn’t matter at all.

Evidence that it matters: Orhan Pamuk is Public Enemy no. 1 to ultra-nationalist Turks, now that they have assassinated the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. One of the men arrested in connection with Dink’s murder used his perp walk as a podium from which to terrorize the Nobel Laureate in absentia. “Orhan Pamuk, be smart! Be smart!” he yelled. Few in Turkey have taken these as idle or isolated threats, as a broad consensus emerges that the nation’s golden literary son cannot live in peace among the countrymen he claims to love.

A roiling culture war is underway, with serious consequences. In the wake of Dink’s death, thousands of marchers thronged the streets of Istanbul to honor him on behalf of a multicultural Turkish identity: “We are all Hrant Dink,” they proclaimed. “We are all Armenians.”

These slogans articulated a pluralistic strain in Turkish culture that the West would love to hear more often, but it is wavering here. A recent poll showed that 86 percent of Turks objected to the slogan claiming a shared identity with Armenians; 67 percent objected to the one claiming a more specific identification with Dink. Charges have even been filed against the organizers of Dink’s funeral, alleging that the slogan “We are all Armenians” is “racist” and “insulting” to Turks. And days after Dink’s death, at a soccer match in Trabzon, rowdy fans carried signs celebrating the heroes of Turkish unity. The footballers carried banners that read, “We are all Turks! We are all Mustafa Kemal!”

No wonder Orhan Pamuk is afraid. Speculation abounds even in mainstream media that Dink’s murder was the work of the “deep state” (i.e., a shadowy configuration of military and business elites), and the police chief of Istanbul has been arrested on charges related to the case. This leaves Pamuk an open target for both the criminals and the police. The London Guardian reports that he withdrew most of his money recently from the bank in Turkey before he left on a speaking tour of the US, and he has no return date in sight.

Few Turks I talk to have finished a novel that Pamuk has written, but they all know about an interview he gave in 2005. In it, he told a Swiss newspaper that he believed the Turkish government massacred its Armenian population in 1915. He didn’t use the word “genocide,” but he acknowledged the reality of the event that the rest of the world knows by that name.

I never mention this when I talk to Turks about Pamuk, primarily because I hope to have a conversation about Pamuk as a writer of literature, and also because what he said about the genocide isn’t controversial anyplace else in the world. Besides, I like to see how they will say it.

The first time a student alludes to these unmentionable events in class, another will typically change the subject. It will be said that there are a multitude of other reasons to dislike and distrust Orhan Pamuk: His sentences are too long; his books are just too hard; he peppers his modern Turkish with Ottoman words; he talked too much about his father in his speech to the Swedish Academy; he smiles too much when he appears on television; he wrote a novel in which a girl wears a headscarf.

“Isn’t it bad for us if American readers find out from this book that some Turkish women wear headscarves?” asked a worried boy, who had told me he learned his excellent American English by chatting on the Megadeth fansite. “Won’t they think we’re…like Iran?”

“That is exactly what Orhan Pamuk wants,” chimed a girl with bright blue mascara and aspirations to become a psychologist. “When he says we committed genocide, he’s obviously just saying it because he knows that’s what the West really wants to believe about us.”

In this scenario, Pamuk’s opportunism makes him a willing accessory to the forces that conspire against Turkey. “That’s the only possible explanation,” the psychology major continued. “Because he’s an educated person, and every educated person knows it’s a fact that the genocide didn’t happen.” She acknowledges that most historians in the world disagree with her, but she sees no apparent contradiction.

My students are the children of the secular elites, the demographic equivalents of the students I taught at Princeton. Wealthy, tousled, likable, and pragmatic, they represent the fondest hopes of their nation, and they in turn hope fervently to fulfill them. They enrolled in this prestigious private university with dreams of the prominent places they will inhabit in the global economy. They conduct all their coursework in English, even reading Pamuk in translation. And the university helps them see a world outside of Turkey by embracing American culture in ways that are large and small. Most of the faculty have taught in the US, and the only décor in the school cafeteria is a set of vintage Coca-Cola posters that establish an ancestry of ladies in ruffly dresses to precede the tank-topped youth that giggle over Coke on posters on the streets. The stone entryway harbors a large inscription from George Bernard Shaw: “Every great truth begins as a blasphemy.”

But this transnational attitude gets an uneven application. My students relish blasphemies against organized religion, although most of them are religious, and they complain about the government in a way that is de rigueur. But they will not accept the slightest suggestion of a blemish on the Republic. They see it as their bulwark against fundamentalism, which always threatens the secularism that separates Turkey from most of the Middle East. With great frequency and anxiety, they tell me of polls in which the majority of Turks claim that their Islamic identity supersedes their identity as Turks. This gives rise to the fear of a religious government “like they have in Iran,” as my students say in the hushed tones that Americans reserve for terrorists and other bogeymen. They entrust the military as their best hope against this disaster and nationalism as the ideology that makes the military work. Their proximity to war-torn nations and repressive regimes naturally renders this threat more palpable, inspiring Turks on both sides of the culture wars to take desperate measures to ensure that the divisions among them won’t tear them apart.

That’s why my students’ love for Western culture and its attendant freedoms doesn’t make them ready to live without the protection of Article 301, which makes it a crime to “insult Turkishness.” They believe that “Turkishness” is simply too fragile. “One of the things I really like about Americans,” one of them told me, “is the strong sense of national identity that you have. Even though Americans come from all over the world, you all know what you mean when you say you’re American. That’s what we need here: a clear idea of what we mean when we say that we’re Turkish.”

Turkey is in good company there, of course. It sees itself as the product of a fallen empire; out of the decadence of the Ottomans emerges the golden age of the Republic, whose honor must rise above question. This is often asserted tautologically, as when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently argued that persuasive evidence of Armenian claims must be false, for, as he put it, “There can hardly be another nation as blameless as the Turkish nation.”

The assertion of an impossibly perfect innocence provides a welcome refuge for Turks who perceive a hostile cabal swelling in the world around them. It includes among its newest members the American Congress—which is considering a nonbinding resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide—as well as the Swedish Academy and the global literary culture for which it strives. In this context, the Nobel Prize becomes an expression of the solipsism by which the West rewards its own, whether they are born at home or abroad. Pamuk’s honors “came as no surprise,” shrugged the nationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz. “We were expecting it. This prize was not given because of Pamuk’s books, it was given because of his words, because of his Armenian genocide claims. … It was given because he belittled our national values, for his recognition of the genocide.” With a grandiosity that is almost as striking as his paranoia, he predicted that another Turkish novelist who has “insulted” the nation will win the Nobel in 2008. “Believe me,” he continued, “the next prize will be given to Elif Shafak.”

When I observe the ferocity of emotion that my students bring to the subject of this author whose novels they haven’t read, I promise myself to put a novel by Orhan Pamuk on every syllabus I teach here.

“When you go abroad,” I say, because my students need convincing to read the work of a traitor, “you will talk to Americans and Europeans who know the names of two Turks: Hrant Dink and Orhan Pamuk. And if you can’t participate in an intelligent and well-informed conversation about both of them, you will be at a disadvantage.” When I’m in a mood to get closer to what I really think, I say, “You will look stupid.” I don’t say, “You may also look evil,” although I realize that that is a distinct possibility as well. And I worry about this.

Like most people who are young and sheltered, my students believe what the elders they trust have taught them. They differ from young and sheltered Americans not in their level of trust, but in the particular content of their education. They have been taught that their nation will be falsely accused, and that it cannot withstand the admission of big mistakes. So they express concern that Armenians were killed in their country, along with concern that Turks were killed, too. They note the unknowability of the past and express real dismay that the rest of the world misunderstands this complex reality. Every time they voice these thoughts, I shudder at the thought that they will repeat them in London, Paris, and New York, where they hope to go and make friends.

But I was not hired to teach them history, and I don’t know how I would teach it, if I had been. I teach literature, so I start by opening the door for Orhan Pamuk to come in. I say that he is not the author of this message that they don’t want to hear. It was heard and accepted all over the world long before he issued it, making him merely the messenger who happens to live closest to their home. He is the author of novels, and they are good.

So I’m making them read. At the moment, I’m not making them read Pamuk’s most famous novel, Snow, because it is his most overtly political work—the one that purportedly won him the Nobel Prize and lost him the last of his Turkish fans. Invariably, Turks read it as a malevolent gesture that exposes the divide between the secular and the religious among them even as it tears at a series of other old wounds. Even its geography is an affront, since Snow is set in the rural region of Turkey where Armenians once lived. The novel makes no mention of the violence by which they were removed, but Turks still wonder why Pamuk chose to show the rest of the world these particular hills and these particular houses out of all of their nation’s fabulous vistas that come without Armenian strings attached.

Such concerns elude most foreign readers, of course, who read Snow as an illuminating report on the “the clash of civilizations.” Pamuk portrays it less like World War III than like an impassioned fight between estranged neighbors, and he conveys this comparatively good news through a protagonist with whom cosmopolitan audiences can identify: Ka, a Turkish poet, has lived in Germany for years, and he loves it there. He travels back to a remote town in his native country to report for an unnamed publication on a rash of suicides among teenage girls who have been persecuted for refusing to remove their headscarves in school. Ka gets trapped in the provincial burg by an interminable snowstorm, during which his foreignness is alternately dramatized and challenged, and his ability to write is imperiled. Strangers remark continuously on the elegance of the European coat that he wears while he becomes mired in the divisions and loyalties that bury the contours of the town under growing drifts of snow. As Ka struggles to maintain his European cool, he finds, instead of journalistic objectivity, a Muslim God, and falls in love with a local girl. These private upheavals get dwarfed by larger ones in the public sphere, embroiling Ka in a snare of conflicts with a prominent politician, a theater group, some radical Islamists, and the local police.

The plot that joins them all is baroque, but it is narrated in a style that is straightforward—at least for Pamuk. It has few of the self-conscious flourishes that characterize his earlier work, and critics have generally found this a welcome change. They see in his new plainness a claim to moral integrity, knowing that Pamuk has the facility to write fancily, and he chooses not to. John Updike concludes his mixed verdict on Snow with high praise for the man who wrote it: “To produce a major work so frankly troubled and provocatively bemused and, against the grain of the author’s usual antiquarian bent, entirely contemporary in its setting and subjects, took the courage that art sometimes visits upon even its most detached practitioners.”

If Snow provides evidence of Pamuk’s attachment to the problems of the real world, The Black Book exemplifies the detachment that Updike sees implicitly as a fault. I sometimes see it that way, too, but I respect Pamuk’s changing configurations of aesthetics and politics, and I want my students to consider the difference. I intend to use the book in class to make the case for Pamuk as an aesthete: He didn’t spring onto the international scene fully formed, in other words, born from a Western wish for a Turk to talk about the Armenian genocide; rather, he emerged by writing one novel after the next, forging a body of work that holds sway in a global canon for good reason. In the end, my students may dislike The Black Book—and I find things to dislike about it, too—but they cannot dismiss it.

Published in Turkish in 1990 and translated into English in 1995, The Black Book is Pamuk’s fourth novel and his second to gain the widespread attention of Western critics. One part mystery, it narrates a husband’s lovesick quest through hidden pockets of Istanbul for his missing wife; one part pastiche, it interrupts the mystery plot with fictional newspaper columns written by the protagonist’s cousin. These columns provide an elliptical and poetic counterpoint to the mystery, exemplifying, with their intertextual shenanigans, a textbook definition of postmodernism. These wear thin for me at times, and they make the novel controversial among reviewers, but they exhibit a level of craft that commands attention. And even as they give Pamuk a chance to pirouette, they also give him a chance to escape the business of plot and character and address new readers in new ways.

In the column that I remember best, Pamuk’s fictional columnist conjures a place in Istanbul that he calls the Mars Mannequin Atelier. It is a storehouse for mannequins crafted by the current owner’s father, who wanted to populate the city’s store windows with models of real Turkish people rather than copies of foreigners. “Unfortunately,” the son explains, “nobody wanted to buy these ‘authentic Turks’, these real citizens. … Turks nowadays didn’t want to be ‘Turks’ anymore but something else. That’s how come they instigated a code of proper attire, shaved their beards, reformed their tongue and their alphabet.”

This is a critical allusion to the reforms upon which Ataturk founded the republic. He legislated that Turks would no longer wear fezzes, and they would write in a Roman script; by Westernizing, they would become “modern.” I have never heard a Turkish person speak of these reforms with anything other than reverence. But Pamuk suggests that one of the reforms’ effects was to obligate Turks to become imposters who would never live up to the Western originals they imitated. The craftsman “realized he could never compete with those curiously postured mannequins imported from Europe with their constantly modified toothpaste smiles.” So he returned to his workshop and crafted a shadow city under the city, filling the atelier’s enormous basement with “Ottoman seamen, corsairs, scribes, as well as a bunch of peasants sitting cross-legged around a meal on a tablecloth spread out on the floor”:

“My father used to say,” the son of the mannequin maker explained with pride, “that, above all, we must pay attention to the gestures that make us who we are.”

I loved this scene when I read it first, and I like it still. Its central image—of a dusty basement full of plastic people who represent all of the old, forgotten gestures—provides a beautiful metaphor for the way cultural memory works. This is a subject that invites sentimental clichés and high-theory verbiage, but Pamuk frees himself of both. He conveys the complexity of Turkishness, trapped (for so long now) between East and West, and he does so in exactly the way the novel should: by embedding an abstract condition in a human form. When this Turkish man encounters this basement in his native city, he invites his readers—whoever we are—to imagine what it would feel like to be him at this moment in the history of his world, his nation, and himself.

Pamuk has repeatedly declared his faith that the novel has a unique capacity to build this kind of encounter, which he places at the foundation of a global culture. Well-schooled in the tradition of the European novel, he perceives no clash of civilizations in his adaptation of the form to suit his needs. He takes it as self-evident that this is a useful endeavor—for him as well as for literature. “It has often been said that Buddenbrooks is an excessively autobiographical novel,” he says. “But when I first picked up this book as a boy of seventeen, I read it not as the author’s account of his own family—for at the time I knew very little about him; for me it was a book about a universal family with which I could easily identify. The wondrous mechanisms of the novel allow us to take our own stories and present them to all humanity as stories about someone else.” The novel in Pamuk’s hands works generically against any narrow nationalisms, creating a community of readers that is global.

This kind of globalism is sometimes described as a province of people who belong to Pamuk’s class—who can afford to travel to London and Beijing, and to gain the kind of education that makes the novels of Nobel Laureates legible. But it could not have seemed traitorous to me before I came to Turkey, nor would I have guessed that Pamuk’s fellow citizens would find anything objectionable in his image of the basement full of mannequins. I read it as one of his declarations of love for the culture he inherits, and it still reads that way to me. But now I understand more clearly how the desire to see universality in the particular can assume a threatening cast. And I see that Pamuk’s love for Turkey exposes the Ottoman roots that his fellow countrymen want to bury forever. As wholeheartedly as they share his desire to preserve the gestures that make Turks who they are, they disagree over which gestures are the essential ones.

Among other things, they wax nostalgic for a day when Turkish novels were intelligible to people who have not read Buddenbrooks. If the Nobel committee wanted to award a Turk, they ask suspiciously, why didn’t they give the prize to Yashar Kemal? A social realist from midcentury, he is perceived by Turks to be a better writer than Pamuk, except he didn’t say anything about the genocide.

Conversely, international critics describe Pamuk as a global citizen, writing for a global audience. They deem The Black Book “Borgesian” and place it next to the other great novels written from exotic places in postmodern styles: Most notably, it is compared to the best works by Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like Pamuk, these novelists have received considerable domestic criticism, sometimes to the point of violence, even as they accepted a warm embrace from a global readership. The comparison to Marquez is perhaps inevitable, but only in the way that all African-American actors must inevitably be measured by their likeness to Denzel Washington. When more novelists writing outside of Europe and North America make inroads in those cultures, Pamuk and Marquez will look like the very distant relations they are; humans can’t fly in Pamuk’s novels, and they don’t wrestle with their secularity in Marquez’s. Pamuk’s detractors might liken him more credibly to Rushdie, whose enthusiasm for shiny objects increasingly overwhelms his creative energies—which wane in proportion to his growing distance from his homeland. I would argue against this comparison as well, noting that Pamuk has grown into a writer whose craft serves his view of the world rather than the inverse. His commercial success comes as an effect rather than a cause of his evolution as a writer—and his commercial success is considerable. In this last he is indeed like Rushdie, who also became beloved abroad by sharing his ambivalence about the local traditions he inherited, and garnering domestic infamy for the piles of money he amassed in the process.

“In recent years,” Pamuk recently wrote in the New Yorker, “we have witnessed the astounding economic rise of India and China, and in both these countries we have also seen the rapid expansion of the middle class, though I do not think we shall truly understand the people who have been part of this transformation until we have seen their private lives reflected in novels.” Though Turkey carries less economic sway than these giants of the developing world, it has this similarity with them: A burgeoning economy, which yields a growing demographic of nouveau riche. Pamuk alludes to that similarity here, as he notes the absence of novels written about this new literate class, made up of people like my students. Certainly, their novels have yet to be written; just as certainly, I would love to read them; but I don’t know who will write them, since I see so few people in this generation who show much interest in the novel at all.

When they read The Black Book, as they do under duress, they say that it’s boring, irrelevant, and hard—but they say this about almost every other novel that I assign them, too. This is more than the usual classroom grumbling; my students do not like to read literature, and they rarely have to, since few Turks are required to take courses like the ones I teach. So The Black Book becomes what its detractors call it: a story for foreigners. The East-West identity crisis that preoccupies Pamuk and his international public rings false to my students, whose belief in the global economy generates faint interest in a global literature. On the contrary, their attachment to the kind of “Turkishness” that dictates their antipathy to Pamuk grows increasingly vehement and violent as they use it to distinguish themselves from all of the other people, all over the world, who share their taste for Abercrombie and Fitch.

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