Every literary work of distinction rises from not one, but two wellsprings: life on the one hand, and literature on the other. If, on the one side, a writer brings to his book all his experience of the world, of his knowledge of family, love and friendship, his sense of time and fate and his view of human nature, then just as surely he brings to it a sense of his literary tradition based on his reading, the ambition of emulating the books he loves best, and the particular stresses and patterns of his language.
For writers, life and literature exist in a symbiotic relationship, each nourishing and clarifying the other. Thus, when Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel laureate for Literature, says in his new book, Other Colours, that “I make the new world (of my novels) from the stuff of the known world”, that “known world” he is referring to is both the distinctive atmosphere of his upper middle class family and his teeming city, as well as the models handed down to him by his favourite writers.
Other Colours, which gathers together more than 70 essays and a story, is a thorough exploration of a writer’s double allegiance to an exterior and an interior world, articulated through a mix of beautiful autobiographical rumination and high-class literary conversation.
The abiding theme of Pamuk’s novels is the relationship of the old Ottoman civilization and the modern nation-state of Turkey to the West, which has for at least four centuries been the centre and animating spirit of the world, breathing out the winds of modernity, secularism and individualism. He is attentive to both the allure of the West and the resentment it provokes in people, sometimes on a subconscious level.
But his books, with the exception of his most recent novel, Snow , do not have an overtly political tone: They cannot be reduced to a political argument (as, say, Mohsin Hamid’s recent best-seller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist , can). Rather, they evoke the predicament of one culture in thrall of another more indirectly. His great novel My Name Is Red— in my opinion, the one contemporary novel that will most surely still be read in 200 years’ time— explores the predicament of a band of 16th century Ottoman court artists who, guided by the Islamic strictures against visual representation, are both captivated and disoriented by the new Western art of portraiture, which seems to elevate the mortal, finite individual almost to the status of a god.
Thus, while Pamuk invites the 21st century reader to see his story as a metaphor for the relationship between East and West, the thing to note is that he makes a larger point about civilizational and political power relations through nothing but his attention to a seemingly obscure artistic predicament. Although the 16th century Ottoman world he depicts subsumes art to religion and politics, Pamuk’s novel subsumes politics to art (and, indeed, My Name Is Red is also a book about the autonomy of art and the sanctity of the artistic life). Reading Pamuk’s novels, we feel the same emotion that he expresses in an essay on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in Other Colours: “Next to the book’s shocking world, my own life and troubles were small and unimportant…life would never be the same.”
Next to Pamuk himself, the strongest presence in Other Colours is that of his father, who also nurtured ambitions of being a writer (there is a resemblance here to the relationship between V.S. Naipaul and his father Seepersad). The senior Pamuk(see box) was a handsome and happy-go-lucky man who never made much of his life, squandered most of the family income, invested in a large library, and often fled from his family to spend time in Paris. He is also the centre, all the more striking because mostly absent, of the one story in Other Colours, To Look Out The Window.
The author’s muse: In Turkey, the 2006 Nobel laureate has more critics than fans.
In this story, we find a boy narrator caught up in his own world. The most urgent of his concerns is to avoid taking the inoculations given at school (he gets his father to write a letter exempting him) and to beat his elder brother to the goal of making a set of 200 card-pictures of famous personalities which come with a local brand of chewing gum. The day the boy avoids the injections and comes home early from school, his father suddenly appears, packs a suitcase, tells him he is going to Paris, and leaves. That night his anxious mother waits for her husband to return, but does not reveal her fears to her boys. The next day, she approaches her in-laws; the day after that, she decides to return to her own mother. Her sons accompany her on her visits, overhearing snippets of adult conversation even as they compete ferociously to trade and win cards.
Pamuk’s beautiful story simultaneously illuminates a child’s world, a mother’s unhappiness dimly perceived, and the houses and streets of Istanbul, a city which has entered world literature through him. Other Colours can be read as a comprehensive record of how he has done so.
Nuggets from the author’s ruminations on his father, the novel form and his city
On his father:
“When he was stretched out on his sofa reading, sometimes his eyes would slip away from the page and his thoughts would wander. That was when I’d know that, inside the man I knew as my father, there was another I could not reach, and guessing he was daydreaming of another life, I’d grow uneasy.”
“To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, more surely binds me to life…I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else.”
“For me the center of the world is Istanbul. This is not just because I have lived there all my life, but because for the last thirty-three years I have been narrating its streets, its bridges, its people, its dogs, its houses, its mosques, its fountains, its strange heroes, its shops, its famous characters, its dark spots, its days, and its nights, making them part of me, embracing them all.”
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