Other Colors

Orhan Pamuk is now world famous as a widely translated novelist, a Nobel laureate, and as the rumpled conscience of Turkey, so it’s easy to imagine that he always had the supreme self-possession he demonstrates in his public appearances.  But as he reveals in Other Colors, his collection of essays and a short story, twenty years ago he was the disheveled bum his mother always feared he would become. At that time he was struggling with The Black Book, his postmodern puzzle narrative, and as the labyrinths of signs and symbols grew more complex and his grooming habits lapsed, the act of writing grew more pleasurable.  During breaks from the work Pamuk would roam Istanbul, a murky, black-and-white world of sodden streetscapes and peeling palaces, while "clutching a mangled plastic bag and wearing a cap, a raincoat that was missing a few buttons, and ancient gym shoes with rotting soles. I’d go into any old restaurant or lunch counter and wolf down my food, casting hostile looks about me." He wore his "air of ruination," proudly, even haughtily, while suffocating in the "small literary world" of insecure, distrustful republican Turkey, infected by a dark mood of resigned despair for the great past.

If Other Colors advances a unifying argument, it’s that Istanbul is the perfect literary city. It boasts a palimpsest of historical narratives, excellent coffee, and an unthreatening literary establishment. Add a heavy-handed judiciary and a pack of tetchy fundamentalists and it’s a few quick steps to establishing an international reputation for high-minded defense of humanist values. American novelists may worry about getting priced out of Williamsburg, but Pamuk had to contend with Article 301. Guess which struggle resonates worldwide.

Born and raised at the border between Europe and the Middle East, Pamuk’s elective affinities are for writers on the fringes of the Western tradition. The most influential figure for Pamuk is Dostoevsky. Pamuk identifies with the Russian’s "familiarity with European thought and his anger against it, his equal and opposite desires to belong to Europe and to shun it."  Pamuk looks on approvingly as Dostoevsky writes of his disgust at Russian intellectuals who "seize upon an idea just arrived from Europe and believe themselves privy to all the secrets of the world." Similarly, in Pamuk’s Turkey European ideas were manna to "half-witted, mediocre, moderately successful, bald, male, degenerate writers." Pamuk devotes an entire chapter of Other Colors to describing his pleasure at throwing away books written by these Euro-identified writers.

But Pamuk is loath to take sides, and he has no more patience for the self-appointed guardians of Turkish identity than Dostoevsky had for the Slavophils of his day. Pamuk’s best-known novel, My Name Is Red, portrays a mighty and fabulously wealthy Ottoman Empire about to be brought to its knees by perspectival painting. The Turkish Republic has always vacillated in its political and cultural relations with Europe, and Pamuk’s great theme is Turkey’s uneasy relationship with Europe: the anti-European, indiscriminate nationalism in Turkey on the one hand, and on the other, Europe’s historical fear of falling under the sword of Islam.

And yet, Pamuk distances himself from these grand cultural and historical themes, even as they animate his novels. (His next novel should be called Disavowal.) In a speech reprinted in Other Colors Pamuk says he has no interest in politics because Turks get so worked up about them.  As he tartly reminds them, "most of us entertain contradictory thoughts simultaneously." Few authors are able to entertain contradictory thoughts as well as Pamuk. Few authors have been as compelled by circumstance to do so.

Reading Pamuk requires some negative capability as well. He’s one of my favorite living writers, but I’ve never read anything by him that wasn’t simultaneously engrossing and a bit exasperating. He can turn a boyhood fondness for hot dogs into a parable for self-fashioning in a repressive society, but there’s an uncharacteristic sense of uncertainty in the narrative voice. In full novelistic voice Pamuk can make the color red speak, but the essayistic hot dog tale shows signs of senescence.  Other Colors is worth reading because Pamuk is a great novelist and a profound thinker about cultural contradictions, but he’s not a great writer of the self. And this is precisely what makes him so important.


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