He may deny it, but Orhan Pamuk is Turkey's most important political voice. Even Dostoevsky would have agreedby Thomas de Waal / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
In a list of global intellectuals dominated by names from Turkey and the Islamic world, one Turkish name stands out.
Orhan Pamuk evidently feels uncomfortable with the notion that he is a world intellectual and political oracle. His remarks about Turkey’s historical responsibilities towards Armenians and Kurds have made his life difficult and distracted attention from his novels. But his country is experiencing a profound existential crisis, one he has illuminated more profoundly than anyone.
When I interviewed Pamuk for the BBC World Service last year, he said: “I was harshly criticised by the previous generation of Turkish writers, my elders, who criticised me for being too apolitical, too bourgeois, too self-obsessed with rich upper-class culture to understand my country’s problems.
“Now, ironically, here I am defending myself saying, ‘Yes, I am too bourgeois, too egoist, I only care about the beauty of fiction, I am outside the country, please don’t ask me political questions.'”
But Pamuk’s novels are politically resonant, even when they don’t have a contemporary setting. My Name is Red (2001), set in 16th-century Istanbul, tells of how Ottoman miniaturists come up against the sharp end of an early globalisation (or what Pamuk calls “westernisation”), as western styles in art and technology threaten to outmode the skills the Ottomans have fought for and shaped over generations.
Perhaps an even closer point of reference for Pamuk is 19th-century Russia. The literary model here is Fyodor Dostoevsky. Although very different in their core beliefs, the two writers share a fascination with the corrupting and liberating power of Europe and a brilliant imaginative capacity for putting themselves inside the skins of others.
“I feel an intense identification with Dostoevsky because I am also nervous,” Pamuk told me. (Pamuk is, like his mentor, prickly and awkward in public, and unpopular with many in his own country.)
“The psychologically and culturally damning consequences of losing one’s past and identity, versus the attractions of modernity, freedom and trust in the uniqueness of human personality—that’s what the non-westerners learn from the west, or what we imagine the west is,” Pamuk said. “The Russians have lived through these problems and, with this old troubled spiritual material, they produced great works of fiction.”
In the late 1970s, Pamuk embarked on a novel whose main characters were revolutionary upper-class Marxists, many of whom had been his friends. He abandoned it after Turkey’s military coup of 1980,…