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, but picked it up 20 years later, with his Marxists now turned into Islamists. The result was Snow, published in 2004.
“I imposed on myself the job of trying to understand how Islamic fundamentalists would feel,” he said. “And that was not hard—I’m not saying it was easy—because I had friends who had been radical Marxists who converted to Islamic fundamentalism. There was a continuation in the patterns of their thought and behaviour.”
Pamuk’s inspiration was the book he describes as “the greatest political novel,” Dostoevsky’s Devils, with its chilling portrait of a group of political conspirators whose fanaticism triggers suicide and destruction. In Snow, the Dostoevskian theme is pervasive. The eastern city of Kars, where Snow is set, was once a Russian garrison town, and Pamuk endows it with the claustrophobic, conservative atmosphere of one of Dostoevsky’s provincial towns. The earnest, sometimes ecstatic dialogues between the poet-turned-reporter Ka, the radical Islamist students and the secular, provincial secret policemen evoke Dostoevsky’s searing exchanges of ideas.
As Pamuk himself says: “most great writers write against themselves.” In this way, Dostoevsky, a Slavophile Orthodox reactionary, created world literature’s most convincing atheists and revolutionaries, and similarly Pamuk, a westernised Istanbullu, has brought to life both the well-educated, uncompromising Islamist youth of Turkey and their nemeses: the guardians of secularism, who are just as ideologically enslaved. The clash between these two factions has now crystallised: on 5th June, Turkey’s constitutional court struck down a decision made by parliament to allow women students to wear headscarves, on the grounds that it violated the country’s secular constitution. Pamuk anticipated this in a scene of farcical tragedy in Snow, in which a performance of a super-secularist propaganda drama entitled “My Fatherland or my Headscarf” precipitates a military coup.
Read some of the online debates in Turkey on the headscarves issue and you are plunged into the kind of impassioned moral and political argument for the soul of a country that it is impossible to imagine in Britain—but which continues to shape countries like Turkey and Russia. Pamuk the writer is able to articulate this, while expressing entirely different views as an individual. Dostoevsky would have approved.