Friday, 22 July 2011

Orhan Pamuk: A profile


Perhaps it would be unjust to introduce the man against a backdrop of misguided nationalism, but Orhan Pamuk, by calling to attention Turkey’s guilt in orchestrating the Armenian genocide, had finally become the sort of activist that politicians despise: informed, romantic, and pre-approved. “Nobody else talks about it, so I do”, he says in a 2005 interview. After spending a year in self-imposed exile, in 2006, he was acquitted on a technicality. The international outcry following this episode did not quite focus on Turkey’s issues with the freedom of expression but on the country’s widest-read author having completed his rite of passage.
Born into a large bourgeoisie family in Istanbul’s Nisantasi sector, Pamuk was afforded a secular, Western-style education at the elite Robert College, going on to enrol with a technical university in architecture simply because “it had anything to do with [his] dream career: painting.”  He dropped out three years later to become a full-time writer, and graduated from the Institute of Journalism at the Istanbul University. By this time, the pages of his creative products were already piling up; in fact, before the completion of his education, Pamuk had co-won the Milliyet Press Novel Contest in 1979 for his debut, Darkness and Light, written by 1974.
In 1984 came The Silent House, followed by The White Castle (1985), The Black Book (1990) – which brought him popular success – and New Life (1995). All four books concerned themselves with storytelling as a tool with which to construct identities. Given that they were published across a decade, the books constitute a period of some separate literary significance. In 2000, he struck the killing blow with My Name Is Red, a scandalous love story set in 16th-century Constantinople that brought together Byzantine art and philosophical questions to birth a novel of enduring popularity amongst both critics and students. In fact, most authors before Pamuk who influenced him find representation – in style, subject, and exposition – including Mann, Joyce and Nabokov.
My Name Is Red has many characters,” said Pamuk in an interview with the Paris Review in 2005, “and to each character I assigned a certain number of chapters. When I was writing, sometimes I wanted to continue ‘being’ one of the characters,” an espousal he used to reflect on the unsettling attitude of cultural clashes he was beginning to see, and the discovery of one’s identity in a world where the East had just discovered the West. In fact, a marked difference became evident between New Life and My Name...: as his foundations deepened, so did his style move away from the security of naturalism to the whimsicality of postmodernism. "[Pamuk's] master here is Dostoevsky,” says John Buchan of The Guardian , “but amid the desperate students, caf├ęs, small shopkeepers, gunshots and inky comedy are the trickeries familiar from modern continental fiction.” Orhan Pamuk, drawing upon the reserves of his rich Persian heritage, was now dictating terms in the English-speaking world.
In the books that followed after, a paradigmatic shift of genres could be noted: Pamuk, with the quelling of his gathering nationalistic opponents, finally was falling back to easier exercises, quite possibly to what was closest to his heart. Snow, published in the English in 2004, Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005), and then The Museum of Innocence (2006) – the first dwelling on the obsessive and unrequited love of a man and the last a semi-autobiographical, self-emancipatory endeavour – were all the voice of a man who seems to have found the world around him which he’d been seeking all this while, a world not quite extant in the stream-of-consciousness indulgence of Murakami, a world not yet falling apart under the weight of its own Rushdie-style promiscuity, but somewhere in between, a cautious Kafkaesque recreation. It is for this uniqueness of representation, bearing its own layers of certainty, that Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.
Many will remember his Banquet Speech at the Nobel Institute: “Literature is about happiness, I wanted to say, about preserving your childishness all your life, keeping the child in you alive,” a confession pregnant with some regret, some unhappiness, but much hope. I can still remember his face light up at the mention of these lines in an interview with Sarah Rainsford in 2005, a little jump of the eyebrows, a lighting up of his eyes, the small annotations of genuine naivety, the selfsame lack of hesitation in being lost just to find oneself... Orhan Pamuk is the summa of such pleasurable imperfections. As has been the case with every Nobel laureate, Pamuk’s day is now set to get busier, more packed with appointments, but it isn’t hard to imagine him clutching at a couple of books, walking down the streets of Istanbul in his tweed jacket, plotting his next adventure with words.

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