‘Be yourself,’ a beautiful woman called Ipek says to Ka, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s newly translated novel, Snow (Kar, 2002), when he asks how to win her heart. Though kindly meant, it’s discouraging advice to give one of Pamuk’s characters, for whom being themselves is difficult. ‘No one can ever be himself in this land,’ says the shadowy figure who may or may not be responsible for the double murder that closes The Black Book (Kara Kitap, 1990; translated in 1994). ‘In the land of the defeated and oppressed, to be is to be someone else. I am someone else; therefore I am.’
The land he’s talking about is Turkey, where, many of Pamuk’s characters believe, an authentic cultural identity is particularly hard to come by. Sometimes the country’s mixed heritage is seen as cause for celebration: Enishte Effendi, the hero’s uncle in My Name Is Red (Benim Adim Kirmizi, 1998; translated in 2001), makes a long speech praising the cross-cultural borrowings of Ottoman miniaturists. ‘“To God belongs the East and the West,”’ he says, quoting the Koran. ‘May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.’ More often, however, Pamuk shows us people who fear that living, as he puts it, ‘in a Westernised fashion in a country that is essentially not Western’ has drained them of selfhood. Doubles and false identities proliferate in his books, and his characters frequently suffer from feelings of inauthenticity. They catch themselves acting like people in movies (‘I don’t know from what film I had pinched this gesture’). On occasion they feel ‘completely empty inside’. ‘It’s futile to search for . . . the original of which we are all mere copies,’ someone says in The New Life (Yeni Hayat, 1994; translated in 1997). Few of the characters find this a comforting thought.
Unlike some of his characters, Pamuk doesn’t worry much about cultural purity. The New Life’s surly narrator says: ‘This newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business,’ but Pamuk takes the opposite view. His books cheerfully plunder a bewildering range of material: stories, ideas and images from Rumi, Attar and the Arabian Nights rub shoulders with borrowings from Dostoevsky, Rilke, Proust and Joyce. Like Borges, whom he also admires, he cultivates spooky parallels between Islamic mysticism and European Modernism. In a less rarefied vein, he writes well about loneliness, nostalgia, cities and weather, and his novels have interesting things to say about politics and culture in Turkey. They even offer the traditional satisfactions of character and plot – although the novels don’t always manage to do all of these things at once.
His first two books, Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari (1982) and Sessiz Ev (1983), haven’t been translated into English. Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari (‘Cevdet Bey and His Sons’) is said to be a naturalistic saga about three generations of a Turkish family: Cevdet Bey, who is based on Pamuk’s grandfather, builds the family fortune between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the Turkish republic. Sessiz Ev, which has been translated into French as La Maison du silence, is said to be more technically ambitious. Set around 1980, at the time of Turkey’s military coup and the vigorous crackdown on leftists and Islamists that followed, it’s narrated in Faulknerian style by five different characters, the descendants of an Atatürk-like patriarch whose high hopes for Westernisation have congealed, in his grandchildren’s generation, into post-Kemalist malaise. One of these characters, a dissolute archivist called Faruk Darvinoglu, returns as the ‘editor’ of Pamuk’s third novel, The White Castle (Beyaz Kale, 1985), his first to be translated into English – in 1990, very readably, by Victoria Holbrook.
The White Castle takes the form of a manuscript that Faruk has uncovered and rewritten in contemporary Turkish. After a short introduction, in which Faruk announces that he’s given up claiming the story has any ‘relevance to . . . East-West relations’, the novel cuts to his rendering of the 17th-century confession of an Italian scholar enslaved by Ottoman Turks. Captured at sea while travelling to Naples, the anonymous narrator ends up as the property of Hoja, an Istanbul scholar who’s curious about ‘Frankish’ ways. The two become collaborators – first on firework displays for the sultan, and then on containing an outbreak of plague that the Ottoman authorities are ill-equipped to cope with.
Increasingly, Hoja – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the narrator – becomes obsessed with the mysteries of European self-fashioning. Over the course of several years, he and the narrator study one another, gazing into mirrors and writing answers to the question ‘Why am I what I am?’ Hoja decides that the Franks’ successes derive from their greater capacity for self-scrutiny, and takes to interrogating his captive about his sins. When the sultan’s armies cross the Danube, Hoja and the narrator accompany them. Hoja arranges bizarre interrogations of the Christian villagers, who, he feels, are withholding the ‘deeper truth’ he’s looking for. In order ‘to prove what kind of men "they", and furthermore "we", were’, the villagers are lined up and ordered to confess their misdemeanours. The results disappoint him.
Hoja has also used his knowledge of the Frankish sciences to build a primitive tank. When this lumbering vehicle founders in the mud beneath the walls of the castle they’re unsuccessfully besieging, the soldiers accuse Hoja’s infidel slave of conspiring to bring about their defeat. Hoja takes pity on the narrator and the two men swap identities: Hoja escapes to Italy, where he writes books about his adventures among the Turks; the narrator returns to a well-funded retirement in an Ottoman villa. He misses his former master bitterly and, late in life, confesses the truth to Evliya Chelebi, a famous (real-life) traveller. Chelebi is sceptical about his story and questions the propriety of his telling it: ‘To search within, to think so long and hard about our own selves, would only make us unhappy. This is what had happened to the characters in my story: for this reason heroes could never tolerate being themselves, for this reason they always wanted to be someone else.’
Turkish readers have pointed out that Pamuk’s first two books recapitulate the shift from realism to Modernism. The White Castle equally self-consciously takes the next literary-historical step, and at times reads like an Ottoman version of, say, Calvino’s Our Ancestors. Occasionally the story flags: the characters don’t get out much, and such capitalised concepts as the Gaze and the Other often threaten to lurch onstage. But it’s done with enough brio not to degenerate into an academic exercise, and the question-mark over the narrator’s real identity is skilfully managed. So, too, is the oddly touching relationship that develops between captive and captor, whose curiosity about one another is obliquely compared to Proust’s narrator’s obsession with Albertine. Faruk, the notional editor, opens the book with an epigraph from Proust (in ‘the mistranslation of Y.K. Karaosmanoglu’): ‘To imagine that a person who intrigues us has access to a way of life unknown and all the more attractive for its mystery . . . what else is this but the birth of a great passion?’
Pamuk’s next two novels, The Black Book and The New Life, are more strenuously avant-garde; they also won him enormous fame in Turkey, where The New Life notched up unprecedented sales. Both are metaphysical detective stories revolving around the narrators’ attempts to decipher mysterious texts and track down equally mysterious women. In The Black Book, Galip, an Istanbul lawyer, searches for his wife, who seems to have absconded with her brother, Jelal, an enigmatic columnist; the action takes place during the build-up to the 1980 coup. Jelal’s columns, which resemble prose poems or parables, alternate with chapters following Galip as he travels around the city impersonating Jelal. The New Life is narrated by Osman, a student who starts travelling around Turkey by bus in search of a girl who has given him a mysterious, life-changing book. He adopts a false identity and succeeds in catching up with her, but loses her again after becoming embroiled in a strange conspiracy.
Both books are atmospheric, allusive and densely packed with ideas. The Black Book includes an Ottoman version of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, a fantasia on ‘The Day the Bosphorus Dries Up’, an allegorical excursion into ‘the morbid history of Turkish mannequin making’ and an occult sect based on Hurufism – a Sufi tradition resembling cabbalism. Both books are full of satirical images designed to irritate both ardent Kemalists and devotees of political Islam. In The New Life, Osman visits an exhibition of amazing Turkish inventions, where he sees a cuckoo clock ‘that provides the answer to the problem of the call to prayer’:
This clock automatically settled the Westernisation-versus-Islamisation question through a modern device: instead of the usual cuckoo bird, two other figures had been employed, a tiny imam who appeared on the lower balcony at the proper time for prayer to announce three times that ‘God is great!’ and a minute toy gentleman wearing a tie but no moustache who showed up in the upper balcony on the hour, asserting that ‘Happiness is being a Turk, a Turk, a Turk.’
At the same time, however, both novels are uncompromisingly difficult to read. This is only partly Pamuk’s fault. It’s true that the characters are cut-outs, and that it’s not easy to keep track of all the wilderness-of-mirrors effects: when it turns out that many of Jelal’s back numbers, as studied by Galip, are esoteric commentaries on Jalal al-Din Rumi’s Mathnawi – a 13th-century work which Robert Irwin has described as ‘a great sprawling series of stories within stories’ in which ‘the inner stories . . . indicate the mystical meanings of the outer stories’ – the reader’s head starts to throb. It’s also true that Borges-style novels are usually more enticing in Borges-style summary than they are in reality. But none of this would be so much of a problem – for Anglophone readers, at least – if it weren’t for the tortured writing of Güneli Gün, who translated both novels. Gün has a wayward sense of register and her English sentences are often hard to decode. Her translations read very awkwardly in a way that all the other translations of Pamuk do not.
Pamuk was luckier with Erdag Göknar, who translated My Name Is Red, the novel that found the large international readership he deserves. The English text is elegant and clear, and this is easily Pamuk’s most accessible book, as well as his most straightforwardly entertaining. An art-historical murder mystery that takes place in 1591 among the illustrators employed by the Ottoman Sultan Murat III, it’s narrated in soliloquies by the major and minor characters, with many sudden, suspenseful shifts of point of view. The Black Book’s worries about distinguishing between ‘pure images’ and ‘the second-hand’ become much less inscrutable when transferred to a team of painters, and the frequent bouts of elaborate storytelling also seem more plausible when they’re being held in the late 16th century. Most of all, the mysterious paradoxes about identity and Westernisation work well in an intellectual thriller. The murderer, when he’s finally unmasked, turns out to be not a fanatical chauvinist (as you’re led to expect by the occasional echoes of The Name of the Rose) but a painter who has killed to protect his experiment in the Frankish art of portraiture – an experiment whose failure seems to unhinge him. Meanwhile, a vigilante mob of proto-fundamentalists lays waste the artistic redoubts of Istanbul.
Despite this gloomy ending – which may gesture towards the violence employed by Turkish Westernisers as well as their opponents since Atatürk’s day – it’s clear that Pamuk is firmly on the side of such non-violent admirers of Frankish arts as Enishte Effendi and the novel’s hero, Black. Göknar’s translation of My Name Is Red was published in 2001; after 11 September, Pamuk was in demand as a commentator. In November, he published an article in the New York Review of Books describing the likely results of an ill-judged response to the terrorist attacks. Giving vent to ‘self-righteous Western nationalism’, he said, would ‘drive the rest of the world into defiantly contending that two plus two equals five, like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man’. He also tried to explain the ‘overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population’:
Today an ordinary citizen of a poor, undemocratic Muslim country, or a civil servant in a third-world country or in a former socialist republic . . . is aware of how insubstantial is his share of the world’s wealth; he knows that he lives under conditions that are much harsher and more devastating than those of a ‘Westerner’ and that he is condemned to a much shorter life. At the same time, however, he senses in a corner of his mind that his poverty is to some considerable degree the fault of his own folly and inadequacy . . . This is the grim, troubled private sphere that neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom. And it is while living in this private sphere that most people in the world today are afflicted by spiritual misery.
His new novel, Snow, is in part a ‘Dostoevskian political novel’ addressing the tangled problems of this ‘private sphere’. But it also retreats from the rather lofty attitude implied by Pamuk’s talk of ‘folly and inadequacy’. In his fiction, Pamuk has always been at pains to distance himself from the Turkish tradition of the ‘village novel’, in which – in Güneli Gün’s dismissive summary – ‘the author, more often than not a member of the middle-class intelligentsia, depicts the trials and tribulations of godforsaken peasants in an effort to "educate” the reading public (also composed of the middle class)’. Many of the characters in Snow come in for fairly withering scrutiny, but – as Maureen Freely, the novel’s translator, put it in her review of the Turkish edition – those who come out worst are the ‘bourgeois intellectuals who are just passing through’. These include the book’s narrator, a novelist called ‘Orhan’ who, during his infrequent appearances onstage, repeatedly expresses his puzzlement when people don’t pay sufficient attention to his literary fame. He also drinks quite a lot.
The protagonist, Ka (a pseudonym – his real name is Kerim Alakusoglu), has more conventional problems with his identity than most of Pamuk’s leading men. He is a poet and a deracinated bourgeois intellectual; he has only once visited a mosque, during his childhood – when his parents’ maid took him. He has read a lot of European literature, knows nothing of serious poverty and was peripherally involved with the student left during the late 1970s. This led to 12 years of political exile in Frankfurt after the 1980 coup, and has left him disillusioned with politics. The novel begins in the early 1990s. Ka has returned to Turkey to attend his mother’s funeral. A friend who writes for the Republican has sent him to Kars, a run-down city near the Armenian border, to report on the local elections and the recent ‘suicide epidemic’ among the city’s young women. The narrator – who doesn’t reveal his identity until much later – says that he’s an old friend of Ka’s and hints that ‘our traveller’ is going to have a bad time.
Ka checks in at the Snow Palace Hotel and introduces himself to the local police chief. Kars is not a tranquil place. The Islamists are poised to win the municipal elections, Kurdish guerrillas are operating in the area, and the secret police apparently employ most of the local population as informers. Ka trudges through the snow and begins to interview the families of the ‘suicide girls’, some of whom, it seems, were associated with the ‘headscarf girls’ – a loose band of young Islamists who have come into conflict with the authorities over the government’s ban on headscarves being worn in secular institutions. Ka finds the ‘headscarf girls’ difficult to spot, since he has ‘not yet acquired the secular intellectual’s knack for detecting a political motive every time he saw a covered woman in the street’. But, even when he sees the town’s education director being murdered for enforcing the headscarf ban, Ka doesn’t seem especially worried that he might be getting out of his depth: he’s not all that interested in his journalistic mission, and his real purpose in Kars is to woo Ipek, the hotel owner’s daughter – an old acquaintance from his left-wing student days.
Snow continues to fall until Kars is entirely cut off from the outside world. Ka walks the frozen streets. Contact with Ipek, who seems to reciprocate his interest (‘I, too, want to make love, but . . .’), lifts his spirits: for the first time in years he begins to write new poems. Enduring frequent power cuts and drinking endless cups of tea, he meets the town’s notable characters. First comes Muhtar, Ipek’s ex-husband, another old acquaintance; a former leftist, he’s now running in the local election as a moderate Islamist. Muhtar, a failed poet, speaks about the cultural shortcomings of the sheikh who converted him: ‘He knew nothing of Modernist poetry, René Char, the broken sentence.’ His disappointment in his sheikh led him to join the less fiery Prosperity Party, for which ‘my Marxist years prepared me well.’ Ka also runs into Necip and Fazil, a pair of students from the religious high school, both of whom are in love with Ipek’s sister Kadife, the leader of the ‘headscarf girls’. (Necip also wants to be the ‘world’s first Islamist science-fiction writer’.) Then, in utmost secrecy, Ka is summoned to a meeting with Blue – ‘a political Islamist of some notoriety’. Blue is on the run, accused of arranging the murder of an ‘exhibitionist’ quiz show host who ‘uttered an inappropriate remark about the Prophet’ on live TV. He is also darkly handsome and, despite his anti-Western views, contentedly addicted to Marlboro Reds.
There’s something theatrical about these discontented people. Blue, in particular, revels in his own mystique. When he first went on TV, ‘he was such a hit as the "wild-eyed, scimitar-wielding Islamist” that he was invited to repeat his performance on other channels.’ Leading Ka to Blue’s hideout, Necip strikes ‘a pose straight out of a comic-book’; Kadife, ‘a pose from a second-rate Turkish film’. But the forces of muscular secularism, headed up by Sunay Zaim, are even more histrionic, making Ka feel like an actor in a ‘dated play’. Sunay, an ageing hero of 1970s theatre, was once admired for his stirring portrayals of people who ‘would and could bring happiness to the people through the exercise of merciless violence’ – Lenin, Robespierre and so on. His fortunes declined after the 1980 coup, when he over-exuberantly suggested that he might be the man to play both Atatürk and the Prophet. He’s spent the last few years playing low-rent dives, perfecting his own brand of ‘Brechtian and Bakhtinian’ theatre. This involves enlivening antiquated republican plays with topical skits and belly-dancing interludes.
Taking advantage of the closed roads and the absence of the city’s senior military officers, Sunay and his troupe put on an evening of entertainment. Local bigwigs and boys from the religious high school attend. So does Ka, who reads a poem, but the main attraction is a Kemalist period-piece called My Fatherland or My Headscarf, which doesn’t impress the religious part of the crowd. Heroic republican troops storm the stage to rescue the bareheaded heroine from the play’s ‘bearded, prayer-bead-clutching’ villains. The schoolboys in the audience start to jeer, and the troops open fire on them with live rounds. Necip is killed, as are several others. Sunay takes control of the city, and a ‘special operations team’, led by the sinister Z Demirkol, starts rounding up Kurds and Islamists. Ka finds himself acting as an intermediary between the city’s political factions – chiefly, it seems, in order to persuade Ipek’s Communist father to go to a meeting, thereby giving Ka a chance to lure Ipek into bed. But Ka’s low aims and misplaced self-confidence soon lead him into trouble. There are aspects of Ipek’s romantic history he hasn’t yet found out about, and though he likes to imagine himself as ‘the sad romantic hero of a Turgenev novel’, one of the book’s epigraphs, more ominously, comes from Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.
Snow also has an epigraph from Dostoevsky’s notebooks: ‘Well, then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent. Because the European Enlightenment is more important than people.’ And it’s not hard to see the attraction, for Pamuk, of the Russian novelists as models: if the paired protagonists of The White Castle make unlikely avatars of Proust’s narrator and Albertine, there’s no such problem when the characters in Snow start pursuing the local version of the Slavophile v. Westerniser debate. ‘Ka loved Turgenev and his elegant novels; and, just like the Russian writer, Ka had tired of his own country’s eternal troubles and had come to despise its backwardness, only to find himself gazing back with love and longing after he’d left for Europe.’ But, caught between the likes of Blue and Z Demirkol, his gentleness finds its limits. Blue, the terrorist, who ‘will never manage to do anything in life but generate more wrath’ – and who contends, in his own way, that two plus two equals five – is allowed to score points off him: ‘Perhaps from time to time you say a word or two reproaching the tyrannies visited on the Islamists and the Kurds, but in your heart of hearts you don’t mind at all when the military takes charge.’ In Ka’s case, at least, Blue turns out to be right, and by the end of the story the enlightened cosmopolitan has made a lethal bargain with the powers that be.
Pamuk does more than unwrap his protagonist’s bad faith, however. He is sardonic about the way the Islamists took over from the Turkish left as the party of the country’s many have-nots. He also has some uncomfortable fun at the expense of the education director’s pious assassin, who tells his victim that ‘the celebrated film star Elizabeth Taylor . . . might have known some happiness’ if she’d taken the veil. (‘Why are you laughing, sir?’) Kars is haunted by its Armenian history, and Pamuk has Ipek discuss a local museum commemorating ‘the Armenian Massacre. Naturally, she said, some tourists came expecting to learn of a Turkish massacre of Armenians, so it was always a jolt for them to discover that in this museum the story was the other way around.’ The first half of the novel is enjoyably Gogol-like: conversations are interrupted by blackouts, like the mist that obscures the first section of ‘The Nose’; low-level secret policemen complain about their comically futile missions, and no one fails to comment on Ka’s luxurious overcoat. As for his original mission, investigating the causes of the high female suicide rate: it turns out that the Islamists and the secular government are united in not wanting the issue discussed.
After Sunay’s ‘coup de théâtre’, the city’s underground factions get together to thrash out a statement of protest for the Western papers. Ipek’s father causes some confusion by asking: ‘If a big German newspaper gave each of you personally two lines of space, what would you say to the West?’ Only Blue has any idea what he’d say, but eventually a Kurdish youth pipes up: ‘We’re not stupid! We’re just poor! And we have a right to insist on this distinction.’ No one is very impressed by this but, later, when Orhan-the-narrator hits town, he runs into Fazil, Necip’s friend, who’s now working as a hotel receptionist. ‘I can tell from your face,’ Fazil says,
‘that you want to tell the people who read your novels how poor we are, and how different we are from them . . . If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.’
‘But no one believes everything they read in a novel,’ I said.
‘Oh, yes, they do believe it,’ he cried. ‘If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathise with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I’ve just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds.’
Orhan promises to put what he’s heard in his novel.