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SOURCE: Marien, Mary Warner. “Catch a Turkish Story Star.” Christian Science Monitor 83, no. 96 (12 April 1991): 13.
[In the following review, Marien examines Pamuk's recurring theme of “the limits of the imaginary” in The White Castle.]
Although he is not yet 40, Orhan Pamuk has emerged as Turkey's leading novelist. Moreover, despite the intimately Turkish nature of his settings and subject, he has come to enjoy an international reputation.
Pamuk's books have been translated and issued by many of Europe's prestigious publishing houses. Last year, Carcanet, the trend-sensitive British publisher, sponsored a translation that has just been released in the United States by Braziller. American readers now have the opportunity to become acquainted with the compass of Pamuk's considerable talents through Victoria Holbrook's sensitive translation of this, his third novel.
The White Castle is more experimental than Pamuk's previous volumes. The first and most formidable of them, Cevdet Bey and Sons, which chronicles the lives of a well-to-do Istanbul family through three generations, has been favorably compared to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. The scope, rich detail, and social awareness of both novels is all the more extraordinary since both authors were but 26 years old when the books were completed.
The more or less smooth storytelling of Cevdet Bey and Sons, reminiscent of the 19th-century novel, gives way in Pamuk's second work, The Silent House. Five narrators recount the action, and the reader is compelled to realize that each of their accounts holds only a slice of a total truth that cannot be fully told. (To date, neither Cevdet Bey and Sons nor The Silent House has been translated into English. Pamuk's fourth novel, Kara kitap (The Dark Book), was published in Turkish last year.
In The White Castle, Pamuk makes storytelling the subject as well as the means of the novel, and he insinuates a slippery perspective. At the end, to quote literary theorist Roland Batthes, to whom this strategy alludes, we are forced to ask, “Who is speaking?”
The philosophical complications begin simply enough when an unnamed Italian is captured by Turkish sailors sometime in the 17th century. He manages to save his neck by pretending to a knowledge of medicine.
Eventually he is made a slave, but his apparent ability to heal brings him under the protection of the pasha, who assigns him to Hoja or “master.” Hoja, an astrologer, has a mean streak and a quick temper, unlike the Italian narrator.
But physically they are virtual twins. Thus, early in the novel, Pamuk introduces the theme of identity played out on a personal and a national scale. Although this story pulses with plot changes, on an important level the Italian and Hoja are emblems of the East and the West.
The text, ostensibly written by the Italian in the first person, makes an explosive dash through almost 50 years to a somewhat surreal and surprising finish. Years melt away in dependent clauses. By the novel's breathless conclusion, the protagonists are in their 70s.
Along the way, the master and the Italian work on a variety of scientific projects, such as fireworks, prediction of plague deaths, and a treatise on the behavior of ants.
In addition, they make passing attempts to write their autobiographies, whose putative objectivity is repeatedly impaired by the authors' subjectivity.
Their last project, a gargantuan weapon, founders in the mud during the Ottoman's European campaign. The Hoja, who has learned the minutiae of the Italian's life through cajoling and coercion, assumes the slave's personality and flees to Italy to escape responsibility for the ineffectual war machine. The Italian resumes life in Turkey as a free man, ultimately taking up the identity of Hoja.
The final transmutation of the protagonists sounds sudden in the retelling, but it is prepared for by a generous sprinkling of hints.
By the middle of the novel, despite their master-slave relationship, the men acknowledge that they are becoming like brothers. The Italian narrator realizes that he must have learned as much from Hoja as the master did from him. This parity becomes a turning point. Readers can mark the beginning of the protagonists' personality conversion, which starts long before circumstances necessitate it.
In fact, the fabrication of identity is interposed early on in the text by a fictional preface, penned by one Faruk Darvinoglu and dedicated to his sister. Slyly, both are characters in Pamuk's contemporary second volume, The Silent House. Darvinoglu, an out-of-work professor turned encyclopedist and tippler, usually in that order, recounts how he found the manuscript and how the story tantalized him to the point that he began to think that he had written it rather than discovered it.
To Roland Barthes's question, “Who is speaking?” there is no easy answer. The White Castle may have been written by Darvinoglu, the Italian, Hoja, or all three of them.
Given the bent of contemporary theory, concerned as it is with the death of the author, The White Castle is arguably “written” not by Orhan Pamuk, but by those who read it. To a significant degree, the novel is about the act of writing. It is as if Pamuk's realist first novel opened on to textual experiments with the limits of the imaginary.
At the same time, though, Pamuk takes up themes that have appeared in his earlier work. The Westernization of Turkey, which has resulted in an absorption with time and especially with self, preoccupy Pamuk. He has used the familiar tension between reality and fiction, which all writers work with, to embody the process of cultural change that has taken place not only in his homeland, but also throughout the world.
It is doubtful that Pamuk's present experimental style will allow him to become as popular with English speakers as is Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. But having deftly recapitulated the history of the novel from Honore Balzac to Thomas Pynchon in just four outings, Pamuk's star is one to watch.
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SOURCE: Berman, Paul. “Young Turk.” New Republic 205, no. 11 (9 September 1991): 36-9.
[In the following review, Berman evaluates the portrayal of East/West conflicts in The White Castle and asserts that Pamuk is an “extravagantly talented” author.]
Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle begins with a preface signed by one Faruk, explaining that the story to come was dug up from a seventeenth-century archive in a village outside Istanbul, has been rendered into modern idiom, and should not be weighed down with too many speculations about contemporary politics and East-West relations—which is, of course, a backhanded invitation to try out precisely those speculations, and indeed speculations of every sort. It is an amusing preface. It is a sort of theater curtain, dangling to arouse anticipation. And if it mystifies the American reader on small points—who is this Faruk, and who is the grandfather he invokes, or the dead sister to whom he dedicates the book?—it also gets out of the way quickly, and we are soon enough in a Venetian galley in the seventeenth century, where we are about to be captured by the Ottoman navy and flung into slavery, and all is well, at least for the reader eager for narrative.
Still, there is more to say about these opening pages. Orhan Pamuk was born in 1952 and has already published four novels in Turkey, making him a celebrated figure, his country's leading postmodern writer. The White Castle is the only one of these novels so far to be translated into English. But one of his other books, a larger and in some respects a more ambitious work, has been translated into French as La maison du silence, or The House of Silence. And from this book we can glean a few additional insights into that little dangling preface. The same Faruk who dug up the archive in The White Castle turns out to be a main character in The House of Silence: a sad sack historian in his mid-30s, an abandoned husband who heads out from Istanbul with his younger brother and sister to spend the summer with their ancient grandmother at her beach-town home. Sometimes Faruk does put in a hard day's research in the Ottoman archives, where eventually he will turn up the story of The White Castle. Mostly, though, he sits in his grandmother's dining room and hides a bottle under the table. The younger people hang out at the beach, carry on flirtations, keep misplacing a beloved Best of Elvis album. They live the kind of modernized life that is marked by drunken car rides, American-style. While American young people, however, might do their driving in a stupor of the eternal present, Faruk and his siblings are shadowed, drenched really, by the Turkish past.
What is this past—for the Turkish intelligentsia, or at least for the characters that Pamuk has chosen to show? It is not, as might be supposed, the dead hand of ancient tradition. The past is a tradition, instead, of anti-tradition: a past that was meant to overcome the past. The grandfather who is invoked in Faruk's preface to The White Castle presides like a ghost over The House of Silence—long dead, still creaking around the house, especially in the unforgiving reveries of his bitter widow, the grandmother. We are meant to see in him a somewhat representative figure of historic Turkish progressivism, a character evocative of Kemal Atatürk, the modernizing dictator from early in the century. (Turkish readers will notice, I am told, that several details of grandfather's life mirror Atatürk's.)
But the modernizing zeal, back in the days when grandfather was alive, didn't necessarily lead to glorious triumphs. Grandfather's thinking tilted to the simple side. He tortured himself with a question: Why has the Islamic East lagged behind the West? And all his life he came up with the answers of a village atheist. It was because the West knew that God is dead. It was because Westerners reject the idea of an afterlife and know that death means nothingness. It was because the West knows particular facts and theories that could easily be provided to the East, too, if only someone would apply himself to the task. After which would come, in the East as in the West, the radiant future.
So grandfather devoted his life to compiling precisely the necessary information to enlighten the East, and he set out to write it down in what he projected to be a forty-eight-volume encyclopedia. He was going to be the rationalist messiah: half Quixote, half Casaubon. Even his wife couldn't stand his foreign fanatical Jacobin obsessions. His political agitations got him exiled from Istanbul, which is how the family ended up in the beach town. But life in the provinces only doomed him more. He was a physician by profession, yet building a practice among the peasants of the beach region was nearly impossible, and he ended up with a reputation for being in league with the devil. Like his grandson to come, he took to drink.
In the 1980s world of The House of Silence, on the other hand, grandfather's creaky old-fashioned ideals have willy-nilly been realized, haven't they? His own grandchildren do seem to be the rationalist marvels that he envisioned. Enlightenment is theirs by natural inheritance. They don't have to torture themselves to think secular thoughts. The lonely beach town is nowadays filled with prosperous concrete houses. German tourists throng the hotel wearing fezes and watching belly dancers. Yet what good is this triumphant modernity? Everyone is steeped in problems. The ferocious battles between tradition and change go on as before, except in the useless violent form of rival gangs and killings. Communists versus fascists. Faruk's cousin, a nasty kid from the poor side of town, joins a gang of fascist extortionists: his sister takes up communism.
Such is the radiant future! The conundrums of East and West are not looking good. From the preface to The White Castle we discover that poor old Faruk, the boozy historian, who had quite enough troubles in The House of Silence, seems to have more, and has been expelled from the university. We are reminded that his young sister has died, not from natural causes either, as we know from the other novel, and we bite our fingernails over the fate of modernity and the East—even while we are supposed to be settling down for the story to come. And only four pages have gone by!
And so The White Castle begins, and the modern age disappears, and the naval battles of the seventeenth century are upon us. An Italian university student, seized at sea by a Turkish attack, finds himself enslaved in Istanbul by his own Turkish look-alike, a master called Hoja, whose greatest desire is to learn the wisdom of the West. The Turkish obsession with Western knowledge turns out to antedate the present by hundreds of years. Hoja wants to learn everything the Italian has ever studied, to gorge himself on the several mysterious branches of Western knowledge—on science and engineering, on the information that might lead to military advantages for the Ottoman empire, and even on the deeper psychology of the West.
But how to get at these un-Ottoman things? Master grills slave. They discuss chemistry, the stars, the relative merits of Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. They set out to build various contraptions in a spirit of scientific curiosity: a fireworks display, a model of the universe, a clock, a giant weapon. Only who can predict how knowledge will spread? Hoja is eager to share his new scientific learning with the Turkish masses, but when he sets up school, the students get suspicious, and a warm calf's head turns up on the doorstep, and the teaching must be abandoned. Hoja wants to instruct the boy sultan, but the sultan's curiosity is less than dependable. The Ottoman court craves prognostications, not science.
Gradually Hoja caves in to his own culture, as most people would. He does try out a few prophecies, just for fun, and the prophecies happen to come true. He rises to the office of Imperial Astrologer, which was not exactly his original intention. The prescientific world turns out to be a sponge. The elements of Western knowledge that Hoja wrings out of his slave get sopped up like drops, and knowledge itself disappears.
Even in the sphere of the strictly practical, in the military engineering that Hoja and slave undertake, nothing useful comes from their years of faithful labor. Master and slave build a superengine of war, a sort of manpowered tank, or anyway a contraption that people call a “freak, insect, satan, turtle archer, walking tower, iron heap, red rooster, kettle on wheels, giant, cyclops, monster, swine, gypsy, blue-eyed weirdie.” And with this monstrosity in tow, the Ottoman empire proceeds to the invasion of eastern Europe. The Turkish army besieges a White Castle in the Carpathians, and the contraption is finally brought into play. But it gets caught in the mud.
A single weird product of Western engineering is of no use to the advancing army of the East. Worse: it arouses the superstitions of the soldiers. And like the school and the private tutoring and the effort to go beyond astrology, the invasion collapses in miserable failure. Is this fiasco meant to represent the crucial turning point in the history of Islam and the West, the moment when Islam fell into the stagnation that so much preoccupies Faruk's grandfather, centuries later?
Pamuk's novel brings to mind the view of Bernard Lewis, the historian of Islam, who has argued that the military failures of Ottoman Turkey in its invasion of Europe in the seventeenth century did indeed constitute the decisive catastrophic moment. For up to that fateful invasion. Islam had risen more or less steadily for a thousand years, and Christianity had generally receded, until at last the Ottoman army, having conquered large parts of southeastern Europe, stood at the heart of Europe and laid siege to the gates of Vienna. And the failure was inexplicable. The Westerners had somehow acquired an ability—what was it? science? military organization?—to repel all attacks, and to push the invaders out, and to initiate their own never-ending expansion.
The shock of this unimaginable disaster after a thousand years of success has never entirely disappeared, according to Lewis. It is a primary source of resentment and rage even now, the background to relations between Islam and the West that Westerners themselves never pause to remember. Of course Pamuk says nothing about any of this in his novel. On the contrary, speculations about Turkish history and the rise of the West are precisely what he warns us against in his preface. Yet what can be done? Pamuk brings Hoja, the slave, the sultan, and the army to the gates of an impregnable White Castle in Christian Europe, and the ignominious defeat occurs: and since readers are thinking creatures, interpretations of every sort leap to mind. The sly author has only himself to blame.
Perhaps not everything in Hoja's exploitation of his slave fails so utterly. There is the psychological exploration of the West. Hoja conceives the notion that Western difference from the East consists of something deeper than technical or scientific knowledge—possibly a different sense of identity, a species of self-knowledge that is unknown in the East, possibly a consciousness of sin and shame. So he obliges his slave to reveal his every dream and memory, and while the slave dutifully recalls his childhood and youth in Italy. Hoja responds by recalling his own dreams and memories. The two men sit at a table “like two bachelors telling each other's fortunes to pass the time on endless winter nights,” writing memoirs called “Why I Am What I Am” and sharing them with one another. But identity is memory, in Pamuk's notion. The sharing of memories entails a certain blurring of identities, too. Their conversations, their scientific enterprises, their lives together become a sort of mutual demolition, tearing down what makes each one distinct. This yields very little about the secret inner strength of the West. Yet neither is it another fiasco like the march into the Carpathians.
I generates somehow a quiet ecstasy. For the exchange of identities, the mutual introduction to a new life, a new way of thinking, a new language—this is, at least it can be, a kind of love. Faruk, in introducing the book, offers what he calls a mistranslation of Proust, to this effect: “To imagine that a person who intrigues us has access to a way of life unknown and all the more attractive for its mystery, to believe that we will begin to live only through the love of that person—what else is this but the birth of great passion?” The love that is generated by hours of writing and talking at the table teeters for a moment on the homoerotic; the men stand in front of a mirror and touch each other, though with some revulsion and fear. Their love is not really sexual, however. But it is passionate. The novel rises to a sort of love aria of open confession—peculiar, narcissistic, confused between self-loathing and love of the other. “I loved Him,” the slave says of Hoja (or is it Hoja of the slave, since separate identities have long been lost?):
I loved Him the way I loved that helpless, wretched ghost of my own self I saw in my dreams, as if choking on the shame, rage, sinfulness, and melancholy of that ghost, as if overcome with shame at the sight of a wild animal dying in pain, or enraged by the selfishness of a spoilt son of my own. And perhaps most of all I loved Him with the stupid revulsion and stupid joy of knowing myself. …
Does this aspect of The White Castle, the story of intimate confused passion, suggest still more complexities of East and West? Can whole cultures, like individuals, fall confusedly in love, believing that the other “has access to a way of life unknown and all the more attractive for its mystery”? Cultures can certainly fall into hatred. Undying animosities have kept Europe and the Islamic Middle East at each other's throats for no less than 1,300 years. But where there is hatred, might not there be also love, mixed in a little here and a little there, like sugar? The mutual fascination between the Christian-dominated West and the Islamic-dominated East is no small or simple thing. It is so powerful that people sometimes do want to abandon their own identity in a fit of self-loathing or desire for the other. Is that kind of fascination different from passionate love, and aren't Hoja, the slave, and Faruk's grandfather all instances of such a love, each displaying the foolishness of a lover, grandly incapable of taking the measure of the object of his inflamed affections?
One of the appeals of Pamuk as a novelist is that he invites this sort of daffy speculation, not explicitly, but by the substance of what he writes. Possible interpretations bubble up spontaneously from his pages. There are novelists who entertain us with their inventiveness and novelists who entertain us with our own inventiveness. Pamuk, with his easy Cartesian cerebralness, manages to do both. Possibly the ratiocination in The White Castle carries on a little too much. The book's characteristic image is not the castle, as suggested by the title, but the table, which is a disappointment, given that hard logical tables are less amusing than impregnable white castles. Still, it must be acknowledged that, when the memoir-writing at the table finally engenders its special passions and the narrator finds himself thinking thoughts of love, the cerebral complexities of memory and identity acquire a surprising warmth and ardor. As a philosophical meditation, The White Castle is curious and engrossing. As a novel of love, however, The White Castle turns suddenly vivid and unpredictable.
The impression that Orhan Pamuk is more than a philosophical novelist is confirmed by The House of Silence. Characters and philosophical themes recur in one book and the other, yet far from being extensions of one another, the two novels seem almost to be manufactured of different materials, as if The White Castle were a statue and The House of Silence a carpet. The latter emphasizes everything that is downplayed in the former. It is a novel of character, not so much of ideas; an interweaving of several stories, not the telling of a single grand tale. The White Castle tends to be coolly recited, except for the declaration of passion at the end, whereas large portions of The House of Silence are written with a Faulknerian warmth and intensity. (Faulkner is an obvious influence on this Turkish writer.) What possibly can Pamuk's other two novels be like—the latest of which, by the way, is currently a best-seller in Turkey and the object of polemics in the newspapers? So in addition to the intrinsic interest in these novels, their entertaining quality, the fascination of their topical themes, and their tendency to excite a certain madly enjoyable spirit of theoretical spritz in the reader, something else attracts attention. That is the author. The man is extravagantly talented. He is prolific. And he's only 38.
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SOURCE: Hitchins, Keith. Review of The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk. World Literature Today 65, no. 4 (autumn 1991): 764.
[In the following review, Hitchins explores how issues of identity and the nature of reality affect the narrative in The White Castle.]
The white castle, a Christian fortress in Poland which is besieged by Muslim Turkish armies, appears briefly toward the end of Orhan Pamuk's novel [The White Castle]. It represents the unattainable at all levels of human endeavor, whether an individual's inner quest for self-understanding or the confrontation between opposing civilizations. In his first work to be translated into English, Pamuk, a leading contemporary Turkish novelist, explores these themes as he allows the relationship between a Muslim intellectual, Hoja, and his Italian Christian slave to run its strange course over several decades. The setting is Istanbul in the latter half of the seventeenth century. An occasional street scene and glimpses of the sultan and his court suggest the nature of Ottoman society, but time and place matter little as the author is absorbed in the encounter between Hoja and the Christian. The translator Victoria Holbrook has done an admirable job of conveying the subtleties of their verbal sparring.
At one level, then, the novel is a search for personal identity. Pamuk probes the psyches of his two main characters as they continually thrust and counterthrust. Hoja never rests. In his boundless energy he turns from one interest to another, and books and his own manuscripts overflow the small dwelling as he scrambles for knowledge and ceaselessly records ideas and impressions. He uses his Christian slave as both a sounding board and a source of information about an alien culture. The interplay between them, which becomes more complex as time passes, constitutes the main action of the novel. Typical of their daily jousts is a question from Hoja, “Why am I what I am?,” and the Christian's response that he should think about why he was what he was; then comes Hoja's sarcastic rejoinder, whether he should look in a mirror, and his slave's retort that it might be a good idea because “they” (i.e., the Europeans) do it. The Christian, however, as he himself admits, also had to gather up the “courage” to work out who he was and then show Hoja how to do it; but even though they come to resemble each other more and more, the problem of identity and, by extension, the nature of reality are left unresolved.
The relationship between Hoja and the Christian may also be read as a commentary on the fundamental cleavage between Muslim and Western mentalities. The contrast is often striking, as in the discussion between the Christian and Hoja over the causes of the plague; the former had heard long ago in Italy that it was spread by germs, but Hoja scoffs at such a notion, insisting that the calamity was God's will. As the years passed and even as they became more like each other, mutual suspicion and an underlying incompatibility could not be erased. In the end Hoja's great war machine built for the sultan's campaign in the West, the product of his attempt to mix European learning and introspection with indigenous tradition, proves impotent against the defenders of the white castle.
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SOURCE: Gün, Güneli. “The Turks are Coming: Deciphering Orhan Pamuk's Black Book.” World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 59-63.
[In the following essay, Gün—the English-language translator of The Black Book—addresses the question of why Pamuk appeals to Western readers more than other contemporary Turkish authors.]
Orhan Pamuk takes his own portrait of the artist very seriously indeed—as he well should. After all, he's being touted as Turkey's new literary prodigy, putting in a timely appearance on the world literature scene. Turkish literature buffs ask one another: how come? After all, there are other Turkish writers who are as good or better but to whom the world pays scant attention. So, why Orhan Pamuk?
Well, for starters, not only does Pamuk's work sell quite briskly at home; it also translates into English like a dream. Educated at the prestigious Robert College (an extension of the American Ivy League in Istanbul), Pamuk can hear his work fall into place abroad. Besides, he has his finger on the pulse of world literature. While his compatriots are still tinkering with the secrets of the well-made modern novel, Pamuk has already graduated into postmodernism. He is part of what might be termed the New International Voice—like Isabel Allende, for example, who too must not be the only good writer in Chile, although she's the one we buy and read, in translation.
Pamuk's achievement is indeed considerable. At thirty-nine, he has four major novels under his belt. The first, Cevdet Bey ve Oğlulari (Cevdet Bey and His Sons; unavailable in translation), is a bildungsroman which tells the three-generation saga of an upper-class Istanbul family. The second, Sezsiz ev (The Quiet House; also not translated), a modernist novel told from five different perspectives, deals with a week spent by four siblings, who represent four distinct generations, at their dying grandmother's country house during a dark period in Turkish political history (1981), when the different generations of Turks were actually at one another's throats. The third, which is enjoying a good run in the West, is the recently translated Beyaz kale (Eng. The White Castle), an intriguing postmodernist novel ostensibly about a seventeenth-century Venetian slave and his Ottoman master, who resemble each other so much that they end up swapping identities.
In his fourth and most complex postmodernist novel, Kara kitap (Black Book), Pamuk capitalizes on the contemporary psychological insight that all we can know of others are the projections of ourselves. With this insight carried into the novel, it stands to reason that all the characters are figments of the basic enigma which is the mind of the author, as enigmatic to the author himself as it is to the reader who is trying to decipher the text. In an effort to clue in (or to psych out) the reader, the novelist/narrator quotes Sheikh Galip, the eighteenth-century Ottoman mystic poet (who, as well as sharing his name with the protagonist, Galip, provides the book with its literary underpinnings), admonishing his readers: “Enigma is sovereign, so treat it carefully.” We will try.
The novel takes the rudimentary form of the detective novel. Being sophisticated readers, however, we know that a detective story is only a setup to lead us through a maze where the entrance and the exit are preordained, strewn with clues and red herrings along the way, its arbitrary coincidences faked by the clever author to beguile, frustrate, and misguide us through a reality that turns out to have been illusion posing as reality—in other words, the fictive world. Of all the novel forms, the detective novel must be the most contrived. The novelist knows at the outset whodunit. With Black Book the convention is nevertheless turned on its ear: whodunit is an enigma. He is a voice on the telephone, perhaps.
Pamuk is not going to provide us with something so cheap as a solution. His protagonist remembers telling his lost wife once that the only kind of detective fiction he might find interesting is a story wherein the author does not know the identity of the murderer.
The plot of Black Book is deliberately simple: a guy is looking for his missing girl. He suspects that she is off with another fellow. He finds her by causing her demise as well as the other fellow's. What is complex about the work is the structure: a chimerical narrative (polyphonic, polyvalent, allusive, obscurantist, unreliable) in which chapters of the story are interspersed with chapters that are in the form of newspaper columns. No less complex is the content: a labyrinthine quest through Istanbul which encompasses an encyclopedia of Turkish life, past and present, with its cultural delights as well as its public shames.
Galip, an Istanbul lawyer, is abandoned by his wife, who also happens to be his first cousin. He guesses that, although she has vanished, she cannot have gone too far. She must be hiding out with her half-brother (and therefore another first cousin) Celâl, a newspaper columnist. And where could they be hiding? Well, at the family compound, of course, the old apartment building where the family intellectual, the newspaper columnist, lives (where else?) on the top floor. Not finding the missing pair there, Galip moves into the flat, sort of, and begins to lead a double life as himself and also as Cousin Celâl, the columnist.
The protagonist suffers from a case of deep hero-worship for his columnist boy-cousin as well as from unrequited love for his girl-cousin wife, who is his Beauty Incarnate. This is the stuff of a heavy-duty family romance, with incestuous implications strewn about like herrings that are strictly of the red variety. The wife's name, Rüya, inasmuch as it means “dream,” clues us that we have here a persona who is not only a Platonic Ideal but an identity closely related to the protagonist's as an Idealized Self: a narcissistic and incestuous anima (or the female double).
Wife-cousin-sister Rüya is a consumer of cheap fiction, especially detective novels, which she devours as she swings her long legs. Galip keeps her craving well supplied with sleazy reading material, but apparently she has other appetites that have gone unsatisfied. Why else would she have absconded? Well, irony of ironies, the heroine as an addict of detective fiction provides this “detective novel” with its mystery.
As the author has named Galip after the Ottoman poet who wrote the long mystical poem in which Love searches for Beauty (Hüsn-ü Ashk), Cousin Celâl's appellation obviously alludes to the great Sufi mystic teacher Mevlana, whose name was Celâl-ed-din Rümi. If the English-speaking reader gets the names of the two characters mixed up, not to worry; so does your Turkish-speaking literary sleuth. The state of confused identities seems to be a deliberate ploy on the part of the author.
The protagonist, the lawyer called Galip, having sneaked into and taken possession of his cousin's flat, clothes, files, and phone calls, takes on the columnist's function as well as his form. He goes through his cousin's mental and physical furniture, producing columns which he passes off as the work of the missing journalist. However, our lawyer-sleuth, unlike Perry Mason, bungles his quest and manages to get both his idols killed (unintentionally?) by an enigmatic assassin whose identity he never discovers.
The key to finding his wife-sister-cousin Rüya (Dream) seems to be not only to be like Cousin Celâl but to be Celâl. Remember, this kind of impersonation is exactly what every novelist, working in the interests of “realism,” wishes to accomplish successfully so that the reader will be fooled into thinking the person he has come to know so intimately is Emma Bovary when in fact he knows only an aspect of Gustave Flaubert (“Mme Bovary, c'est moi”). Remember also, collaterally, in the language of mystical enlightenment, that to become oneself is to be another—a notion that will be explained presently.
There are a couple of threads in Black Book (of the many that are dangled, abandoned, or used as false leads) which wind together into a kind of yarn to take us through the labyrinth, the enigma, or the black hole which will not reflect. Though tongue-in-cheek for the most part, Pamuk drags into his novel Gnostic and mystical texts which, to use his own words, are “all the more convincing because [he himself is] a nonbeliever.” The first involves Mevlana and his passion for a flimflam man called Shams. When Mevlana fell for his dubious love object, he was already the greatest Sufi master ever; but his passion served only to embarrass family, friends, and students, thereby putting Mevlana (one assumes) into a bad light vis-à-vis the expectations of proper behavior from him as the dean of a famous theological seminary. Mevlana had already achieved “enlightenment,” yet, having turned into the Big Cheese, there was nothing else for him to do but dry up. So, he surpassed himself by doing something really cheesy. His most famous catchphrase with which he regaled his students was, “If you wish to increase your perception, then increase your necessity.”
Falling in love inappropriately was one way of increasing his own necessity. He unabashedly told the world that he, the Great Mevlana, wanted “not to be like Shams, but to be Shams.” He could surpass himself only by totally submitting his identity to his lover's. (This is the heart of the mysterious paradox, by the way, that Pamuk lifts from Sheikh Galip: “Mystery is to be Oneself and to be Another”—the same mystery that we are admonished to treat carefully.) Well, Mevlana's submission of his exalted identity, under the identity of the town creep's, must have confused and frustrated his friends, relatives, and adherents. Being Oneself and also Another, indeed! It must have stuck in everybody's craw, and so it was not surprising that, eventually, Shams was thrown down a black well by assassins and killed.
Who had the motive and the opportunity to murder Shams? ponders the postmodern police detective Orhan Pamuk. Who stood most to gain from Shams's death? Mevlana's adherents and sons? Or Mevlana himself? Did Mevlana contrive to get Shams killed? After all, it was Mevlana whose necessity was in fact increased by the death of his lover, thereby increasing his perception. We shall, of course, never know.
Coincidentally, did our lawyer also arrange to get his cousins-idols bumped off (inadvertently on purpose) so that their deaths would illuminate his perceptions? This is the question that Pamuk never seems to tire of begging, obliquely behind his Black Book, but which he never answers. He misses no opportunity to posit another concentric equation: he himself (as the author) fulfills his dream (Rüya) to become the writer (Celâl) by submitting his alter selves to the mystery of art (death). In terms of the mystery in Black Book, who stood the most to gain, after all, by his love objects' (alter egos) deaths? The Author, of course! Did not Dante gain as a poet by Beatrice's death? Petrarch of Laura's? Orpheus of Eurydice's? One is reminded of a line by Margaret Atwood involving power politics between lovers in which the poet wants the upper hand: “Please die I said / so I can write about it.”
Another fascinating bit of mystic lore Pamuk digs up concerns a sect called Hurufi. At first glance one might even think the author invented the Hurufi Book of Onomancy in the interests of postmodernist high jinks. But no, Hurufism is for real and subject to serious scholarship, even today, involving divination by the letters “written” in faces. Fazlallah of Astarabad (b. 1339) was the founder of the sect, which drew meaning and conclusions from a combination of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. In Black Book we learn that, according to Fazlallah, sound was the demarcation line between Being and Nothingness, since everything that crossed over from nothingness into the world of materiality produced a sound. The acme of sound was, of course, the “word,” the exalted thing called “speech,” the magic known as “words,” which were made up of Letters. The origin of Being, its Meaning, and the material Aspect of God were distinguishable in Letters that were clearly written in the faces of men. We all had native-born characteristics of two brow lines, four eyelash lines, and one hairline—seven strokes in all. At puberty this figure increased to fourteen, with the late-blooming nose dividing our faces, and with its poetic doubling (reflection) we reached the number twenty-eight, the number of letters in the Arabic alphabet, which brought the Koran into existence. Fazlallah, in an effort to bring the count up to thirty-two, the number of letters in the Persian alphabet (he was, after all, Persian himself), perused the line under the chin and found two, which he then doubled, reaching thirty-two.
Crackpot stuff? Well, you will find references to what is “written” in the rose, for example—or in the spots of the tiger—in the fiction of the Great Borges himself, as well as in that of many other great Gnostic poets, past and present. Fazlallah, who started it all, proclaimed himself Messiah (the twelfth Imam returned to purify Islam) with seven apostles to help him proselytize in Isphahan on the hidden aspect of the Koran. Accused of heresy, he was tried and executed. The belief passed from Iran to Turkey, thanks to Nesimi, a poet and one of Fazlallah's successors, who put all his writings in a green trunk and went around Anatolia, finding followers for his sect. Nesimi himself was later captured in Aleppo, tried endlessly, and flayed; his body was subsequently exhibited in the city, then cut into seven pieces and buried in seven cities where he had adherents. Hurufism spread quickly among Anatolian Bektashis, who talked about kanz-i mahfi, the secret treasury of the universe, which is God's's True Quality. The problem was to decipher the clues in the world in order to achieve the treasury. They set themselves up to decipher this mystery in every thing, every place, every person.
It is all just too much fun for one postmodernist novelist to have by himself, but Pamuk does. He has Galip rifle through his columnist-cousin's treasury of arcane publications to find a weird little book by one F. M. Üçüncü (I still do not know if this Üçüncü is a legitimate commentator), who presumably says in his book Esrar-i Huruf ve Esrarin Kaybi (The Mystery of Huruf and the Loss of Mystery) that Fazlallah was a true Easterner. To think of him as part of any platonistic, pantheistic, cabalistic thought was wrong. According to Pamuk's protagonist, Üçüncü postulates that East and West occupied separate halves of the world and that never the twain shall meet. At times one of the two halves was victorious over the other, making it the master and the other the slave. The historic junctures in the seesaw of ascendancy were not coincidental but logical. Whichever half was at any given time successful in viewing the world as a mysterious, double, and magical place was the half that was the ascendant. Those who saw the world as a simple, single-meaninged, unmysterious place were doomed to fail and to end up as slaves.
The second part of Üçüncü's book (as the lawyer-protagonist registers it) is devoted to a detailed discussion of how Mystery was lost. The loss of Mystery was a loss of “center,” therefore a loss of order. In the Age of Happiness all of us had “meaning” in our faces, but with the loss of Mystery, our faces lost that “meaning.” The fact that faces looked so much like one another was because of the “emptiness” they all showed.
Galip, like the author himself, is also engaged in looking for clues to put together a meaning. None is forthcoming, however. All the clues are red herrings, coincidences that he contrives himself. The object of the search (Platonic Ideal, Beauty, Reality, Identity) is Dead on Arrival—in other words, a setup, the dead duck the author props up in order to shoot several hundred pages later. Art is all illusion, sleight-of-hand, trickery, impersonation, ventriloquism, the creating of mannequins or wax dummies by a master craftsman (which abound in Black Book in the subterranean passages of Istanbul). Art is a dark mirror, a black mirror: art does not reflect Life. So what's new?
Well, Black Book is very engaging. When it first fell into my hands, I read it with a quivering excitement, filled with both envy and recognition, much like Anton Salieri taking down Mozart's dictation of the Requiem at the end of the movie Amadeus: “Yes! Of course, yes! Ahh, yes!” I stopped friends on the street to narrate for them whole sections of the novel. No other book had spoken to me so completely, hitting my concerns on the head, grabbing the themes I myself pursued, beating me to the punch line. Granted, Pamuk and I share backgrounds, yet why all the excitement?
I had a hunch, as a watcher of the world literary scene, that here was a Turkish writer who was going to Make It. The Nobel, for example: for years the names of Yashar Kemal and Nazim Hikmet have been submitted, only to be turned down, as the Nobel Committee, one suspects, scratched its illustrious collective head and wondered what Turks see in those two writers; but here was Orhan Pamuk, a kid who was doing the right thing at the right time. I could already hear Black Book in English. All it needed was the right translator.
To speak more generally, Black Book is made of the stuff that grabs us all. Aside from being pertinent to our times, there is something appealing in Pamuk's unrequited quest for meaning, an innocence in his sophistication, and truth in his trickery. Here is a wide-eyed devourer of books, Pamuk himself, who is heartbroken at the fact that, seductive as literature is, it cannot deliver on its promises, let alone guarantee a good time in bed.
Pamuk, in his fourth and most ambitious novel, seems determined to reposit in this book a revolving index of a culture, high and low, that produces a Turkish intellectual: everything that delights and instructs the Turkish heart, including an obsession with history, beauty, mystical philosophy. The book derives from the world of the Haves (as opposed to the Have-Nots). Not only is Pamuk the bookish son of a well-heeled family who has inherited the pursuit of happiness as a natural right; he is also an obsessive researcher into odd historical quirks, which come out of the past in recognizable embroidered satin tatters that he works into the crazy quilt called the postmodernist novel.
The modern trend in Turkish “realism” had been the so-called Village Novel, in which 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) and to produce a national conscience as well as consciousness: the Writer posing as Teacher, as Pamuk never tires of pointing out. It is perhaps this educator's mask worn by the Turkish novelist that has turned off New York Publishing, which has no taste for teachers. And we all know that what doesn't play in New York doesn't get to play on the rest of the world's playgrounds.
Pamuk, who has deliberately set out to become a world-class writer, has borrowed the attitudes and strategies of Third World authors writing for the consumption of the First World. Not only does he know all the tricks; he never misses one. His work translates like a charm precisely for the same reason Isabel Allende's work travels easily into English: English is, in fact, the common language behind the various languages out of which the new world-voice is being created—like world rock music—the destination of which is also the United States.
As John Updike somewhat biliously points out in his New Yorker essay on Pamuk and the Czech Ivan Klíma (2 September 1991), it might be the Iowa International Writing Program that fosters a global voice. True, Pamuk has put in an almost obligatory stint at Iowa; but the global voice is more likely to be tied to world economics, I suspect, than to Midwestern schools playing host to world writers. Updike, as a master of the modern novel, justifiably feels left out of the fun and games perpetrated by the slew of international writers and foisted on him to review. “Fantasy and cleverness,” he says; “exotic visions,” he says; “effortless gymnastics,” he says. He is not entirely sure if the new kids on the block are For Real. How does one know if they are any good if one does not have the proper critical tools with which to measure them against the likes of himself, John Updike, or (heaven forbid) Master Hemingway?
True, fantasy and cleverness have taken the place of the restraint and symmetry of the modern novel, apparently because that is the form in which the material from the Third World sells over here. And why not? Vis-à-vis Turkish literature, the English-speaking world has been looking high and low for a Turkish writer with whom to identify. If fantasy or cleverness is the only vehicle on which Turkish literature can arrive upon the world scene, well then, all the more power to Orhan Pamuk.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2021
SOURCE: Pamuk, Orhan, and Judy Stone. “Orhan Pamuk: ‘Enigma Is Sovereign.’” Publishers Weekly 241, no. 51 (19 December 1994): 36-7.
[In the following interview, Pamuk discusses his writing career, the critical reception of his novels in Turkey, and his views on Turkish politics.]
Orhan Pamuk is nothing if not ambitious. All he wanted to do in his new novel, The Black Book, he says, was to write a huge, richly textured narrative that would capture the schizophrenic angst of Istanbul, a city in a country straddling two continents. He thus joined the search for an answer to the perennial Turkish question he defines as: “Are we European? Or are we Asian?”
Earlier in his career, with his third novel, The White Castle (Braziller, 1991) Pamuk had merged two themes: a culture in the mysterious process of change; and men in the mysterious process of changing identity. These themes emerge again in The Black Book, out next month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
What better way to explore such mysteries than with a mystery? In The Black Book, a lawyer, Galip (“victorious”) searches for his missing wife, Rüya (“dream”), and her half-brother, Jelal (a reference to the famous Sufi poet, Jelaleddin Rumi), a famous newspaper columnist and Galip's idol. The chapters alternate between Galip's third-person “investigation” and Jelal's first-person meditations, with each chapter preceded by quotations ranging from Sufi mystics to Lewis Carroll and Isak Dinesen. Two assassinations—and 300-odd pages later—we are no closer to a solution of whodunit or why, but Galip has taken on Jelal's persona, churning out words of wisdom for the next day's fishwrapper. And the reader is left with a Golden Horn-ful of literary puzzles to ponder.
At the age of 30, Pamuk began to earn a formidable reputation in Turkey with the publication of his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), which traced the lives of a wealthy Istanbul family over three generations in this century. Pamuk refuses to let his debut effort be translated, but a pirated edition exists—in Syria. His second book, The Silent House (1983), is a modernist novel about three unhappy siblings living with their dying grandmother after the 1980 military coup. The story is sifted through the consciousness of five narrators and has been compared by some critics to the multiple-perspective works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. It has been translated for French, Greek and Italian readers.
In the New York Times review of The White Castle, Jay Parini hailed Pamuk as a “new star risen in the east … worthy of comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino … a storyteller with as much gumption and narrative zip as Scheherazade.” In the novel, a 17th-century Venetian scholar is enslaved by Turkish pirates and given to a Muslim master. They resemble each other as closely as twins, and they eventually swap identities while inventing a superweapon, a putatively fantastic war engine designed to destroy the enemy's white castle and fulfill the Ottoman dream of conquest.
Pamuk's latest work, The New Life, a “visionary road novel,” has just been published in Turkey in an unprecedented first edition of 50,000 copies; 35,000 sold in the first 10 days. The book is a bow to Dante's La Vita Nuova and, Pamuk says, “has affinities to German romanticism.” The protagonist is a 22-year-old youth who reads a book that changes his life.
The Black Book sold 70,000 copies, an “unbelievable” response in Turkey, Pamuk tells PW when we meet at his book-lined study in the old cosmopolitan Istanbul neighborhood of Nisantasi, whose sights, sounds and smells are vividly rendered in the novel.
“Initially, there were huge media attacks on me. The controversy went on for months, and I enjoyed it!” the tall, lean Pamuk declares in lightly accented English, with an impish look that his spectacles can't hide. “They criticized my long sentences and my style. Then they moved to another level, talking about postmodernism. Then there was a political response from leftists and fundamentalists. The fundamentalists claimed that since I use some basic Sufi material, I'm mocking it. I don't take that seriously. Then, I've been criticized for not being a proper Kemalist.” (The reference is to Kemal Ataturk, who established the secular Turkish republic in 1924, changed the alphabet from Ottoman Arabic to Latin, founded a system of public education, outlawed the fez, gave voting rights to women.)
Pamuk doesn't take that charge seriously either, but he believes that it's necessary to know a little Turkish history in order to understand the complaint.
“The Turkish left has a very Kemalist tradition,” Pamuk notes. “In a way, they want to protect the state because the state has been a progressive westernizer, but in a way it's an antidemocratic force in Turkish history. All the westernization attempts have been made by the state itself, not by the civil society. So the Turkish left found itself in a dilemma. If you want westernization, you should defend the state, while on the other hand, leftism is meant to be anti-state. Politically, I'm on the left, but that doesn't mean much. I'm anti-fundamentalist. That's the main danger here now.”
Pamuk points out that he was the first person in Turkey to defend Salman Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on the author. Most Turkish intellectuals, explains Pamuk, whether conservative or leftist, hesitate to become involved in the controversy. “It's not because they are afraid,” he says. “They think if the issue accelerates, we [writers] will lose. I don't agree, but I see their point.”
At any rate, Pamuk has never been an outspokenly political writer. “I'm a literary person,” he says. “Ten years ago, my friends used to criticize me for not being political enough. During the military coup in 1980, I was sitting here feeling guilty. Years before that, fascists and communists were killing each other in the streets. I stayed at home and wrote books. I always felt guilty because my friends were putting themselves in danger.”
Pamuk grew up in a wealthy secular household, headed by his grandfather, an engineer who ran a factory and made a fortune building railways. “My father and uncles—they were all civil engineers—spent 20 years wasting that money. Then my father got involved in politics and taught at the university.” Theirs was a typical Ottoman home with relatives on every floor. The atmosphere gave Pamuk a feeling of freedom and the opportunity to indulge his bookish and artistic interests.
REVENGE OF THE POOR
Pamuk's grandmother taught him to read before he started school. She also recited “almost atheistic” poems to him. “In my childhood, religion was something that belonged to the poor and to servants. My grandmother—who was educated to be a teacher—used to mock them. Now with the rise of the fundamentalist movement, it's the revenge of the poor against the educated, westernized Turks and their consumer-society life.”
For the last 20 years, Pamuk adds, the Turkish economy has grown immensely, “but the division of this wealth has been unjust. The poor are very poor and the two or three percent of Turks are very rich. Now the ruling elite has lost the culture that once held everyone together. The identity of the ultra-elite is now so westernized that they're not Turks anymore in that [cultural] sense. Their TV, their shows, the way they openly enjoy their life, paved the way for the rise of ultra-fundamentalism.”
The White Castle may have been a reaction to the omnipresent question of identity. “What I'm trying to do here is to make a game of it and to show that it doesn't matter whether you are an easterner or a westerner. The worst way of reading—or misreading—the book would be to take very seriously the ideologies, the false consciousness, the stupidities that one has about these notions. The problem of east or west has been a huge weight for Turkish intellectuals.”
In embroidering on that theme, Pamuk's basic goal was to invent a literary language that would correspond to the texture of life in Istanbul. “I wanted to make you feel the terrors of living in this city, but not to describe it realistically. Imagine yourself walking in the streets of Istanbul, or crossing the Golden Horn on one of the bridges. Think about the images you see. All these sad faces, the huge traffic, the sense of history—more than 2000 years of history—with Byzantine buildings converted into factories next to kitsch billboards. All this shabbiness. The book takes place just before the 1980 coup, when people were dying in the streets. I wanted to convey the idea of hopelessness, the idea of despair.”
To weave that texture, Pamuk drew upon obscure stories he unearthed from traditional Sufi literature—largely unknown to the Turkish public; from the Arabian Nights, folktales, anecdotes and murders from old newspapers, “believe it or not” columns and scenes from American and Turkish movies.
“The book has an encyclopedic side,” he says, “with all kinds of trivial knowledge about the past put together in a way that's not realistic but gives a sense that Mr. Pamuk is doing what Joyce has done for Dublin.” He insists, however, that he was not “literally” inspired by Joyce.
As for the persistent theme of the doppelgänger, he insists “that's not hardcore Pamuk.” Language comes before theme on his agenda, but he admires others who have played with that idea. He has read Freud and Jung on the doppelgänger themes “for fun,” but he's never been in analysis himself. “I'm a straight Turk” he grins.
Did he ever want to be someone else? “That's a good question and I take it very seriously. Yes, I have. I think writing is trying to be someone else. All the 19th-century classical realists in effect impersonated the characters they invented. Let's say that creating a character is to be in the position of a double: to put oneself in another person's place.”
As a youngster, he painted, then decided he would apply his artistic skills to architecture. But he dropped out of engineering school to start writing. Later, he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Istanbul. Living at home with no need for an outside income, he wrote diligently from age 22 to 30. With the success of his first book he married, although his rigorous schedule doesn't seem to offer much time with his wife, Aylin, and their three-year-old daughter, Rüya (yes, named after the shadowy character in his book). He writes every day from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., sleeps until noon, and resumes work from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
A NORMAL PURSUIT
Pamuk says that when he began writing he felt very unsure of himself. Four months at the Iowa Writers Workshop, however, convinced him that “being a writer was a very normal thing in America. So I got rid of some of my tension.” He wrote most of The Black Book in Manhattan, while his wife worked on her Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia.
There were no American takers for The White Castle. Carcanet, a small but prestigious British firm, published it with Victoria Holbrook's translation, and after it was a success in England, Braziller snapped it up. The arrangements for both books were made by agent Anne Dubuisson of the Ellen Levine Agency.
Holbrook didn't have time to cope with the 450 “dense and complex” pages of The Black Book, so Pamuk turned to Güneli Gün, an Ohio-based Turkish-American novelist. The translation took her two years. Since Turkish is an inflected language with the verb at the end of a sentence, Gün had to change the order of Pamuk's clauses and put them in logical and colloquial English while retaining his intricate effects. She says she would occasionally spend an entire day translating one of Pamuk's half-page-long sentences, working “until there was snap and style and sense to it.” She also acknowledges the “scrupulous editing” of FSG editors John Glusman and Robert Hemenway. And, she says, “Orhan doesn't worry about his holy word.”
But Pamuk does like the “holy” words of a mystic poet: “Enigma is sovereign, so treat it carefully.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Quest.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 December 1994): 3.
[In the following review, Eder compliments Pamuk's examination of personal and national identity in The Black Book.]
[In The Black Book,] Orhan Pamuk's braided mysteries coil around the story of a plodding husband who searches for his restless wife through Istanbul's serpentine streets and historical memory. Once it was the Ottoman Empire's Constantinople and before that, the Byzantine Empire's, and long before that, the ancient Greek Byzantium.
For Pamuk, author of the warmly praised The White Castle, the city is a suffocating midden of 2,000 years of temporary victories and permanent defeat. Pamuk writes of the defeat. His philosophical detective story is, in fact, an evocation of the crippled consciousness and destructive reflexes of his fellow Turks: heirs of a traditional Eastern society, and engaged for three quarters of a century in a Westernizing project that still has not taken root.
“In the land of the defeated and oppressed, to be is to be someone else,” asserts one of the many figures—at once enigmatic and hysterically overwrought—whom the husband, Galip, encounters on his week-long quest. It is the underlying theme of a book of disguises and transformations. Personal identity is unattainable when a nation's identity has been lost, and in neither case—so goes Pamuk's menacing comedy—can it be recovered.
Elaborated with a dizzying wealth of discursiveness, distraction and literary baiting and switching, it often bogs down under its own abundance. It will dazzle and then, with an effect akin to snow-blindness, it goes indistinct. It disappears into its own virtuosity and reappears. It remains distant from the reader like someone who talks fast and well and doesn't look you in the eye, and suddenly, with disconcerting effect, looks you in the eye. It is a trying book and worth trying.
Galip's quest is partly human and mostly allegorical. He is an undistinguished lawyer desperately in love with Ruya, his longhaired, long-legged cousin and wife, who spends the day reading detective novels. We never see her and yet—an example of Pamuk's gifted elusiveness—she is vivid and oddly lovable.
She vanishes suddenly, leaving a 19-word note in green ink. We are only told nine of the words—an example of Pamuk's exasperating elusiveness—but we are made to understand that she has gone off with her half brother Jelal, to whom she has always been attracted. Galip comically hides the disappearance from his family. When his aunt phones he makes footstep noises to signal that he has gone to fetch her and found her asleep; then he sets off to try to track the pair down.
So much for the humanity, though it will return, movingly, at the end. In the quest, Ruya is all but lost sight of; the real quarry is Jelal. He is as brilliant as Galip is obscure: Istanbul's most celebrated and controversial newspaper columnist. Galip has always worshiped and envied him and lived in his shadow. Even as children, when Galip and Ruya played hide-and-seek Ruya would never try to find him but go off instead to meet Jelal.
The book proceeds by alternate chapters. One set tells of Galip's search; the other contains Jelal's writings. Gradually the two converge; finally Galip and Jelal will also converge. Eventually Galip will be living in Jelal's apartment, wearing his pajamas, writing his columns and taking over his lovers' calls and his death threats. By this time the actual fate of Jelal and Ruya has dwindled. Eventually we will learn it and be touched when Galip momentarily comes down to earth, as it were, and lets himself grieve.
The Galip-Jelal quest is a wild, varied and sometimes stupefyingly arcane trip through Turkish history and culture, political battles, themes of individual and national alienation, portraits of extravagant and emblematic characters and beliefs, and Galip's own obsessions. He tramps the streets and neighborhoods of Istanbul as thoroughly as Leopold Bloom tramped Dublin; stopping frequently to eat. Eating—he buys from street stands and cafes and sticks to the cheap traditional dishes—is a way to assure himself that there is, in fact, a Turkish identity.
There is a bravura chapter in which Jelal writes of the Bosporus drained, and sedimentary layers of history turning up in the pestilential muck. There are the skeletons of galley slaves chained to their boats, the skeletons of crusaders atop their skeleton horses, sackfuls of the Sultan's courtiers fallen out of favor, strangled and ditched, an entire German battleship and a white Cadillac belonging to a rich gangster. The gangster's skull and his girlfriend's are glued together in a kiss. Galip thinks for a moment of Ruya before returning to his intoxicating existential quest.
Wandering through the city he visits two of Jelal's colleagues, each with his own mania. They question him fiercely, intrusively and outlandishly; Galip is like Lewis Carroll's Alice undergoing impertinent questions from the likes of the Caterpillar and the Red Queen.
He visits Ruya's first husband, an intellectual who has set himself against all foreign cultural influences and makes a point of living like a provincial middle-class Turk, with a doily over the TV and a dusty tray of cordials brought out for visitors. He visits the premises of a failed mannequin artist who had insisted on portraying authentically Turkish figures—bow-legged, short, mustached—instead of the blond anonymous elegance required by Westernized commerce. He is shown wax models of those the artist despised—writers and translators who import alien culture—and those he admired—police torturers whose careers suffered because they insisted on using traditional Turkish methods instead of newfangled methods brought in from abroad.
To be oneself, to reject outside influences: a national obsession that, for Pamuk, leads nowhere. He writes an allegory of a prince who sets his people an example by excluding anything that might dilute his own authenticity. He gets rid of his books (though then, finding his mind empty, he brings a few back). He gets rid of paintings, furniture, his wife. Not wishing to be influenced by memories, he banishes smells and music. Finally he dies in a room painted white; its only furniture a white piano. His last words are: “Nothing at all.”
Galip, however, illustrates an opposite national obsession. He wants only to be someone else: he wants only to be the powerful and glamorous Jelal, free of narrow Turkish prejudices and sought out by foreign journalists and television teams as their sophisticated interlocutor. He wants above all to have the power that Jelal wields: to control the universe by writing about it. By the end, he has to all intents and purposes become Jelal. As for the real Jelal before a mysterious ambush that claims his and Ruya's lives, he has shown signs of abdicating his power and seeking something more authentic.
What that will be, this intriguing, overnourished and maddeningly private attempt at a public novel, doesn't say. It is neither retreat into national solipsism nor dilution in a homogeneous world culture. All we have to hold on to, at the end, is Galip remembering Ruya and the game they once played. They would try to describe what a day would be like when they reached the age of 73. Now, alone, Galip lives out that day in his imagination.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
SOURCE: Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Review of The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk. Atlantic Monthly 275, no. 2 (February 1995): 113-14.
[In the following review, Adams lauds Pamuk's accomplishment with The Black Book, calling the novel exciting, imaginative, and intelligent.]
On a winter day in Istanbul, Galip comes home from his languid law practice to find that Rüya, his wife and also his cousin, has run away. He assumes that she has taken refuge with her half-brother Jelâl, a widely read newspaper columnist, but Jelâl is also missing, from both the paper and his formal address. Galip goes sloshing through slush and grime in search of the errant pair. The novel [The Black Book] is constructed in alternating chapters—one describing Galip's wanderings and the strange and garrulous people he meets, who all tell him strange stories; the next reproducing one of Jelâl's old columns, which also contain stories and which Galip studies in the hope of finding a clue to the writer's whereabouts. The flow of seemingly unrelated tales suggests a Thousand and One Nights kaleidoscope, but there is a single concern underlying the shifting surface, and that is the question of identity—What is it, what is its value, what stability does it have? Jelâl's name derives from that of a medieval mystic and poet who advised, “Appear as you are, be as you appear. You are not this body, but a spiritual eye—what the eye of man contemplates it becomes.” Jelâl describes, and Galip experiences, a state in which each is watched by a disembodied eye that is also what it watches. Jelâl refers frequently to historical figures and to Hurufi, a mystical sect practicing a method of divination based upon numbers assigned to letters of the alphabet. Galip tries the method on Jelâl's columns without success. It is likely that only a Muslim or an Islamic specialist can grasp all the implications that the author has embedded in his brilliantly shifting text, but one of them must be Turkey's difficulty in maintaining national identity in its Janus-faced position as the western fringe of the Middle East and the eastern fringe of Europe. With the questions it raises and the author's satirical jabs at literary critics, imported fads, civic authorities, and “small towns where they're big on their religion and their graveyards,” Mr. Pamuk's novel is exciting. It gives both the imagination and the intelligence thorough exercise.
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SOURCE: Mannes-Abbott, Guy. “Ancient and Modern.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 360 (7 July 1995): 41.
[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott applauds Pamuk's writing style and his success in representing “the texture and complexity of life in contemporary Istanbul” in The Black Book.]
The Borgesian style is the literary equivalent of the Duchampian in visual art: an identifiable set of formal assumptions, which still remain curiously dissident. When The White Castle, the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk's only other novel in English appeared in the US, it was properly compared to Borges and Calvino. The Black Book is like a 400-page extravaganza by the Argentinian master—which is almost inconceivable, and will guarantee Pamuk's international reputation.
Carcanet Press bravely translated The White Castle in 1990, before its American hurrah, and Faber published the paperback. It was preceded by two novels in the 1980s and Pamuk's fifth, The New Life, was recently published in Turkey. It should not be this hard to read him: Pamuk confirms here, with lovely intellectual bristle and narrative vigour, that he is one of the world's finest writers.
The White Castle was an exquisitely lucid fable about a telling of tales and exchange of identities between an Italian slave and his Turkish master. Together they seduce and are seduced by an Ottoman sultan who offers power for the scientific knowledge brought by the slave. Pamuk had found a way of reflecting directly on the nature of Turkishness and the self, partly to advocate “the strange and surprising”.
The Black Book expands these concerns and works through the gamut of post-modernity; from ontological games and paradox through the city, the panopticon and on to the faces of ethical otherness. It is all of these things, and yet significantly more. It is full of stories, as well as stories about stories and stories about the form of the story, but Pamuk is much too clever a writer to settle for mere cleverness.
His intention is to embody the texture and complexity of life in contemporary Istanbul. The novel charts a week in the life of a lawyer called Galip whose wife Ruya has left him. He guesses that she is with her older half-brother Jelal, a famous columnist who has also vanished. Like a metaphysical detective, Galip reads his way through Istanbul's labyrinth of late 20th-century signs and ancient stories. The novel alternates this narrative with Jelal's meditative columns, which at their best are 'nazires—versions of other stories, or of Galip's narration.
Pamuk's novel ends with the 1980 military coup and is fraught with its own time. As such, it also plays with chronology. For example, in seeking “writing degree zero”, Pamuk writes of Hurufism, a mystical sect which sought the Divine signature in human faces, where they read hidden letters. This becomes a device to write about movie stars and about Jelal's melancholic prophecies. This is typical of Pamuk's charge through centuries of narrative forms.
Turkey, as a threshold of east and west where tradition and modernity are contested, is Pamuk's focus. Jelal's columns obsess over losing “the garden of memory”, and when Galip discovers that Jelal has restored a childhood home for a library and museum he starts work on acquiring Jelal's memory. By the time Jelal and Ruya are killed by an ex-believer of Jelal's, Galip's garden has bloomed sufficiently for him to be writing Jelal's column. He describes his “newly found work” as “retelling these old, very old—ancient—tales.” This is Pamuk's story too, as he insists on the possibility of building a path from the past into the future. His writing is astonishing, for its scale and sentences, its depth and weave. The Black Book is what writing is for.
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SOURCE: Irwin, Robert. “Tales of the City.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4814 (7 July 1995): 2.
[In the following review, Irwin describes The Black Book as a “metaphysical parable” about cultural and individual identity.]
According to Turkish folklore, the Simurgh is a bird with a name but no body. In the thirteenth-century Conference of the Birds by the Persian poet Farid al-Din al-Attar, the Simurgh, which nests on the equally legendary Mount Kaf, becomes the object of a mystical quest—a quest which ends in self-discovery for its participants. The Black Book, the second of Orhan Pamuk's books to be translated into English (it was originally reviewed in the TLS of October 12, 1990), takes a similar form, as Galip, a rather colourless lawyer, searches for his missing wife Ruya. (Ruya is Turkish for “dream”, though it also happens to be the name of a cinema in the insalubrious Beyoglu quarter of Istanbul; Pamuk's book is saturated with references to dreams, of both the physiological and the celluloid kind.) The hunt for Ruya develops into a search for her half-brother Jelal, a flamboyant and mysterious newspaper columnist, for Galip is possessed by the notion that his wife has gone into hiding with him. As he follows the tracks of Jelal, Galip comes to identify with his quarry, to the point of secretly taking over the writing of his column for him. Unlike the mystical seekers after the truth who travel the world in al-Attar's medieval romance, Galip's quest for the sweet cheat gone never takes him out of Istanbul. The Black Book is, before all, a tale of the city. When Galip visits a subterranean storehouse of dolls, he looks on models representing Istanbul types—the sort of people tourists rarely get to know:
He saw bingo men with their draw sacks. He saw snotty, stressed-out university students. He saw apprentice nut roasters, bird fanciers, and treasure seekers. He saw those who have read Dante in order to prove that all Western art and thought have been appropriated from the East, and those who have drawn maps in order to prove that the objects called minarets are in fact signal posts erected by extraterrestrials, and he saw the mannequins of theological-school students who, having been struck by a high tension cable, were jolted into a collective blue funk which enabled them to recite daily events which had happened some two hundred years back. In the muddy chambers, he saw mannequins who had been teamed into groups of mountebanks, impersonators, sinners and impostors. He saw couples who were unhappily married, ghosts who were restless, and war dead who had bolted their sepulchres. …
Istanbul is an apocalyptic city, whose inhabitants wait for a Messiah who will bear His cabalistic (that is literary) credentials written on His face. Galip's quest is a search for signs and meanings in a shabby city, as he looks for omens in the activities of the pimps and the vendors of sesame rings, in the posters advertising Bruce Lee films, in the dusty clutter of shop windows and in the pattern of the narrow, twisting streets. He comes to believe that the city is a book which can be read only if one also knows that each person has their destiny written on their face.
The Black Book is not one story but many. In this it resembles The Thousand and One Nights, another collection of what are overwhelmingly urban stories, and Pamuk repeatedly draws attention to the medieval Arab story collection as a source for many of the themes and motifs that he is working with. At several points, the reader encounters pastiches or reheatings of old tales from the Nights, most notably in a story, “A Lengthy Chess Game”, produced by Jelal for his newspaper column. This story is closely modelled on the tale of “The Mock Caliph”, in which Harun al-Rashid encounters his double on a boat floating down the Tigris. The medieval Nights story (which, after its marvelously mysterious opening, turns into a fairly conventional Arab love story) has been reworked by several modern writers. Naguib Mahfouz in Arabian Nights and Days (1995) turned it into a parable about protest against political oppression. Güneli Gün (who by an odd twist of fate and destiny has become the translator into English of The Black Book) gave it a transvestite and feminist slant in her fine novel On the Road to Baghdad (1991). But Pamuk characteristically turns the story into a metaphysical parable about the doubtful frontiers of individual identity.
Another of The Black Book's oriental sources is the Mathnawi Discourses, a rambling compilation of fables, stories and mystical meditations cast in verse form by the thirteenth-century Sufi poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi. The Mathnawi Discourses provides Pamuk with licence to meander, digress and be cryptic. Rumi is traditionally credited with the formation of the Mevlevi order of Whirling Dervishes. A later Mevlevi poet, Seyh Galip (1757-99), namesake of The Black Book's protagonist, is frequently quoted. Pamuk draws on the numerous Arab and Persian romances of star-crossed lovers and to a greater extent on the word-playing parlour games of the Ottoman court and literary elite.
There are other tales of the city which have furnished models for Pamuk. Thomas De Quincey's opium-driven pursuit of the prostitute Anne through the streets of London becomes, retrospectively, a prefiguration of Galip's rather odd way of trying to track down his wife. Dante Alighieri's transposition both of Florentine factional politics and of his love for an unattainable woman into the after-life provides more material for Pamuk's postmodernist game. The Hollywood B movie has affinities with oriental tales of star-crossed lovers, while crossword puzzles are the Western answer to the Ottoman parlour games. It is easy to list the influences, for the author signals them insistently. Pamuk deprecates originality, and there are several highly original passages in the book on the unimportance of originality. Confusingly, not only does he signal his actual borrowings, he also cites imaginary ones. I am sure that Bottfolio and Ibn Zerhani are made up. I am not sure about Dr Ferit Kemal, who had a Dostoevskyan treatise on the coming of the Messiah printed in Paris and who was acquainted with Baudelaire's Les Paradis artificiels. He ought to have existed.
The Black Book is a fiction which tackles, again and again, the question of Turkey's shaky cultural identity, as that identity comes under attack from European literature, hamburgers and Hollywood. As Galip learns, even Turkish body language has been changed by Western films. The identity of the individual is even more central to the book. Pamuk's characters find it very difficult to be themselves. They are always tempted to imitate, or to fake, or to be influenced. As Jelal puts it: “I must be myself, I repeated without paying any attention to them, their voices, smells, desires, their love, their hate. If I can't be myself, then I become who they want me to be, and I cannot bear the person they want me to be; and rather than be that intolerable person they want me to be, I thought it would be better that I be nothing at all, or not to be.”
Pamuk's first (and untranslated) novel Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), an account of the lives of three generations of a wealthy Istanbul family, was a realist novel in the manner of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks or Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. The Silent House (1983) was more modernist in its use of multiple voices and investigated the nature of identity. Pamuk's third novel, The White Castle, his only novel to be translated into English, was a historical fiction, set in the seventeenth century, which was again more preoccupied with exploring problems of cultural and individual identity than it was with history. The Black Book has been both a best-seller and a succès d'estime in Turkey. Its success has provoked the appearance, in 1992, of “Kara kitap”: Üzerine Yazilar (“The Black Book”: Writings about It), a volume which includes essays by critics, maps and photographs of the background to Pamuk's masterpiece.
“Every man resembles his times more than he does his father.” Setting Rumi, Sayh Galip, Dante and De Quincey aside, what Pamuk's novel most closely resembles is Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Pamuk shares Auster's intelligence, metaphysical preoccupations and astringent literary style. He also partakes of Auster's problems. His densely written book is highly cerebral. It has some affinities with the traditional detective novel, but reading it is more like watching someone sitting down to solve a crossword than a murder. Galip and Jelal seem to love literature more than women. Ruya is woman with a name, but hardly any body. She is a mystery to Galip and, surely, to most readers. Galip's perceptions of her and everyone else are consistently vanilla-flavoured.
But while Galip plods, Jelal flies. Jelal's eccentric and discursive newspaper essays are amazing. Addressing the reader directly, he writes about feral children living on the pontoons of the Galata Bridge, about Levantine pederasty, about letter mysticism, about Turkish gangsters, about the possible homosexuality of Rumi, about the desertion of Istanbul by parrots. Jelal is a Turkish Autolycus, “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles”. His fantasia on the drying-up of the Bosphorus alone is worth the price of the book. Would that we could get rid of our current newspaper columnists and instead have Jelal write his loonily erudite articles for some British newspaper. Jelal's (or Pamuk's) sentences are stately and dense, as befits a latter-day Turkish De Quincey. Considered as a novel, The Black Book is a little disappointing, for it fails to deliver the conventional satisfactions. It should really be read as an encyclopaedia of esoterica and as a compendium of medieval and modern literary tricks. As such, it is quite wonderful.
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SOURCE: Glazebrook, Philip. “Turkish but No Delight.” Spectator 275, no. 8719 (19 August 1995): 32.
[In the following review, Glazebrook argues that The Black Book is ultimately an unsuccessful novel due to its weak narrative and underdeveloped characters.]
In so far as this sprawl of a novel [The Black Book] is a narrative at all it tells the story of a Turkish lawyer's search for his wife. She may have left him for her older half-brother, his cousin, a journalist whose famous daily column appears to overshadow Turkish life. The search takes him among the clues and dead ends and street furniture of a labyrinthine vision of Istanbul, the city which enshrines Turkish history and Turkey's ambiguous leaning towards both East and West. The atmospheric picture of Istanbul, snowbound and benighted in most scenes, is marvelously composed so as to characterise that fascinating and repulsive city.
But the story is not gripping. It is a novel in which people are subordinate to the ‘ideas’ imposed upon them by a novelist preoccupied with the possibilities of fiction. Neither lawyer nor wife is sufficiently realised as human beings for the reader to care what becomes of them. Not one of the book's characters is allowed to attain a secure and consistent enough identity to be memorable. In a less self-assured and accomplished writer than Orhan Pamuk this want of firm and clear identities in his characters might be ascribed to incompetence—it is after all the hallmark of second-rate fiction—but in The Black Book the fuzzy outlines and changing shapes seem to be the deliberate outcome of the author's overriding concern, which is to question the nature of reality and identity. The book's form—a chapter of narrative followed by a chapter of discursive comment purporting to be a column by the famous journalist—ensures that every action and every person in the book are viewed through prisms which fragment any picture which might have lodged in the reader's mind. I found it an unsuccessful novel which nonetheless discussed in a provoking way ideas which are bound to interest all writers of fiction.
It is with ‘the impossibility of being oneself’ that this novel is chiefly concerned. Alone, individuals wrestle with this metaphysical conundrum; and nationally the Turks, as a race, are obliged by their geographical position astride the Bosphorus to wonder constantly who they are and where they belong. Ever since Mahmoud the Reformer massacred his janissaries in 1826 there has been intermittent pressure from despotic rulers to make these Asiatics into Europeans, a pressure which culminated in Ataturk forcing the descendants of Othman into tight shoes and a new identity, and obliging them to squeeze their Asiatic thoughts into European orthography. It never quite worked. Of course they are bound to wonder—or their novelists are bound to wonder for them—who on earth they really are. To the outsider it was ever one of the fascinations of Turkey, and especially of Istanbul, this double identity which must always have been so uncomfortable to live with.
The dilemma is expressed here in the existence in Istanbul of a maker of mannequins, each a perfect representation of an historic Turkish personage, a craftsman from an older world who can no longer sell his product in the face of competition from the mass-produced imported Western dummies which throng shop-windows and dictate popular taste. American movies, too, are blamed for causing ‘widespread blindness’ which makes it impossible for the victims ‘to resume their former lives’. It will be seen that we are here dealing in fables rather than literal truth, and the characters in the book do indeed tell each other fairy stories.
There are many non-European threads in this book—its central factor of the extended family is one—but it is this fabulous element which above all makes The Black Book not a European novel set in Turkey but a Turkish novel, a Turkish conception of fiction. For that, and for its picture of Istanbul—equally un-European—the book is instructive. But I found it heavy going. When I read in the blurb about this ‘stunning tapestry of Middle Eastern and Islamic culture’ my feeling was that of one who has indeed been stunned by a falling European tapestry of exceptional weight.
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SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Mannequin-Maker.” London Review of Books 17, no. 19 (5 October 1995): 22.
[In the following review, Parrinder comments that The Black Book combines elements of the “postmodern detective novel” with aspects of the “dysfunctional family saga.”]
A winter evening in Istanbul in the late Seventies. Political murders, disappearances and torture are daily events, and a military coup seems to be in the offing. Galip, a young lawyer whose speciality is defending political prisoners, returns home to find that his wife Rüya has left him. His instinctive response is to pretend that nothing has happened—Rüya is simply too ill to leave the apartment or come to the telephone. He then begins to scour the city looking for her.
Galip's wife is also his cousin, and he soon discovers that her half-brother, the much-admired Jelal, has also gone into hiding. In a city of readers addicted to crime novels, newspapers and interpretations of the Koran, Rüya is a detective-story fan and Jelal a famous journalist. The Black Book is crowded with the life of Istanbul streets, but it is also a looking-glass novel of stories within stories. Pamuk's city is both an Aladdin's Cave full of glittering signifiers, and an echo-chamber where, wandering in disguise like Haroun-al-Raschid, the searcher encounters phantoms of himself. Galip comes across other devotees of Jelal's newspaper column—a provincial barber, a discarded mistress, a retired colonel dabbling in Sufism—who are also engaged in a relentless, perhaps sinister pursuit of their hero. Thanks to his family connections, Galip steals a march on his rivals by managing to locate his vanished cousin's secret apartment. He moves into it, waiting for Jelal and Rüya to return, and carries on the daily column in Jelal's name.
Jelal may have good reasons for lying low. He is an essayist and storyteller rather than a political journalist—which is hardly surprising in a country where, then and now, authors can face imprisonment for exercising their right to political comment. Nevertheless, some readers regard Jelal as a clandestine Communist, while others hold him responsible for betraying a failed military coup several years earlier. To Galip, Jelal and Rüya's disappearance is a personal enigma, a rebellion against the claustrophobias of their ingrown family—a riddle that Galip himself, and nobody else, is intended to solve. What makes The Black Book so compelling is its author's ability to combine the anguished cryptography and involuted narrative of the Post-Modern detective novel with the old-fashioned world of the knowable community and the family saga. Pamuk's first, as yet untranslated, novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), traced the lives of a wealthy Istanbul family over three generations. The events of The Black Book could be seen as resulting from a basic cultural, moral and generational dysfunction in the bourgeois family.
If so, the key to these social uncertainties may be found in Jelal's newspaper columns which are very different from anything a popular journalist could get away with in Britain. A mixture of anecdotes, reminiscences and teasing literary and philosophical speculation, they appear in the novel as a series of alternating chapters, so that each stage of Galip's search starts from, and leads towards, one of the texts attributed to his cousin. Jelal's essays have always been scanned by his more fanatical admirers for acrostics, riddles and secret clues, and Galip, too, now approaches them as if they were written in code. From his obsessive study of the columns themselves and of the notes, clippings, photographs, discarded pieces and accumulated fan-mail that he finds in Jelal's apartment, Galip learns to imitate his cousin's style and methods of work; in a certain sense, he has become Jelal. But this does not necessarily mean that he has cracked the code, or become more than a cipher in someone else's plot.
Galip comes to realise that most of Jelal's evocations of modern Istanbul rely on tales adapted from earlier sources—from Dostoevsky to the 12th-century Conference of the Birds and, inevitably, the Arabian Nights—and that running through them is a thread of prophecies, secret doctrines and centuries-old correspondences. In making these discoveries, Galip resembles the protagonists of other well-known Post-Modern novels—comparisons with writers such as Borges, Calvino, Eco and Pynchon have become commonplace since The Black Book (first published in 1990) came out in the present translation in the United States a year ago. Such ready categorisations reflect the rise of the paranoid conspiracy novel from its former pulp-fiction status to its present position as a staple of the international avant garde, but it would be absurd to think of Pamuk as merely repeating what had been earlier and more accessibly done in the West. The Black Book is different from the European-American novel of hidden conspiracies, and closer to one of its hidden sources.
The prominence in recent fiction of secret organizations such as the Freemasons, Illuminati, Mafia and Templars would seem to reflect a post-democratic, post-humanist awareness of the state and civil society as battlegrounds criss-crossed by terrorist and counter-terrorist operations and by the wars of hidden persuaders, criminal gangs, underground cabals and the secret police. In what now seems the more innocent age of the late Forties, the paranoid plot could be used by British writers like Orwell and C. S. Lewis for straightforwardly satirical purposes. Early readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four do not seem to have focused on the difficulty of distinguishing between the Brotherhood, the underground resistance movement that Winston Smith attempts to join, and the Inner Party or secret organisation sustaining Big Brother himself. In Lewis's thriller That Hideous Strength, we are in no doubt that NICE, the Wellsian scientific research organisation dedicated to wiping out the world of traditional beliefs, is diabolically and unambiguously nasty. Later paranoid novels such as Pynchon's are far more nihilistic, revelling in the confusion, duplicity and inherent schizophrenia of a world such as Orwell had depicted.
In the Post-Modern detective story the hero is an undercover agent charged with infiltrating the Brotherhood and discovering their hidden knowledge, in the hope of thwarting the global conspiracy. The fascination of the occult doctrines for their initiates lies largely in the sense of secret power that they convey. (All this is a manifest perversion of the traditional goal of occult researches, which was to study and revere the divine wisdom.) Early in his quest Galip encounters Rüya's ex-husband, who believes he has uncovered and frustrated a thousand-year-old conspiracy—but his discoveries are irrelevant and he is dismissed as a harmless madman. Galip himself slowly recognises that Jelal is a devotee of his 12th-century namesake Jelaluddin Rumi, the poet and Sufi mystic who founded the Order of Whirling Dervishes. Rumi, like Jelal, was a conscious imitator who believed that he could do no more than repeat other people's stories. The wealth of allusions to Sufism and related Arabic and Persian traditions will regrettably be lost on most Western readers—what they will find, instead, are tantalising glimpses of one of the richest of the archaic cultural sources of modern civilisation.
Although the founders of Sufism were poets and mystics, they have been held responsible for the principal strands of occultism and secret brotherhood in the West. Robert Graves, for example, asserted that Freemasonry began as a Sufi sect and that both the Templars and medieval practitioners of the ‘black arts’ such as Roger Bacon took their inspiration from Sufi doctrines encountered in Palestine and Moorish Spain. According to Graves, too, the word ‘black’ in this context signifies not evil but wisdom—something which Pamuk doubtless had in mind in choosing the title of The Black Book.
The Templar device of the Turk's or Saracen's head was a symbol of wisdom, and not merely a way of boasting about the scalps collected by the Crusaders. Pamuk's novel is haunted both by the idea of people as mannequins or ciphers—one of its most attractive characters is the old mannequin-maker whose marvelously realistic but unwanted creations litter the catacombs and underground passages of the city—and by the doctrines of Hurufism, a variant of Sufism which taught that the secret of wisdom is to be found in the letters imprinted on people's faces. Galip learns from Jelal's column to read the letters on other people's faces, or at least on his own face seen in the shaving mirror. (He must first surmount the difficulties caused by Kemal Atatürk's substitution of Latin for Arabic script.) As he sets out on this process of discovery, Galip for the first time receives a small, mysterious sign of encouragement. ‘I was sent by Him. He has no desire at all for you to stray on the wrong path and get lost,’ Galip is told as he inspects the underground mannequins.
Sufism is a creed of love, not of power, and Rumi's greatest poems were inspired by his beloved, Shams of Tabriz. The two lived together in Rumi's cell for six months, until Shams left without warning for Damascus, where he was murdered soon afterwards. Rumi followed in search of him, and Jelal points out in one of his columns that the poet's adventures in Damascus were equivalent to the stages undergone by a traveller on the Sufi path to enlightenment. Another of Jelal's pet theories posits a series of occult correspondences between the street-plans of Istanbul, Damascus and Cairo: all three are in essence one and the same city. Galip concludes that his search for Jelal and Rüya is meant to be following a parallel path to Rumi's, with Jelal as his invisible guide—which perhaps explains his feeling of being watched every time that he goes out on the street.
One of Rumi's parables, not reproduced in Pamuk's novel, teaches that the seeker must forego his own personality and submerge his identity in that of his master. His purpose is to become the master. This parable proves a template for reading not only The Black Book, which openly acknowledges its debt to Sufi doctrine, but such modern Western classics as The Waste Land and Heart of Darkness. In Conrad's tale, Marlow is the true seeker who fights off rival claimants such as the Harlequin and the Intended on the grounds that he can better understand Kurtz, the master to whom he attributes ultimate wisdom. The tragedy is that Marlow comes too late and that Kurtz's insight—if that is what it is—crumbles to dust in Marlow's hands. The Black Book, in a very different key, also ends with a tragedy—a political murder outside Aladdin's store, on the street where Galip is staying, which he may have caused and of which he may have been the intended victim. The murder is left unresolved, but Galip is the seeker who comes too late.
The seeker is an impostor, who pretends to a knowledge and an identity that are not his, but he is also a lover who seeks to merge himself in the beloved. In one of the The Black Book's most appealing (though least likely) scenes, Galip impersonates Jelal in an interview for a BBC documentary. He holds the television crew entranced while he narrates three times, on camera—and in Turkish—the 8000-word ‘Story of the Prince’. In the tale the reclusive prince banishes all visitors and burns his books, furniture and clothing in an attempt to rid himself of external influences and become truly himself; but he is terrified by the silence of his mind. At another moment, one of Pamuk's characters echoes the familiar observation that the wish to take on a false identity is a product of political oppression in Third World societies: ‘In the land of the defeated and oppressed, to be is to be someone else. I am someone else; therefore, I am.’ Both statements offer us partial truths about Galip's needs: his desire to overcome impotence, failure and personal loss, his fear of inner nullity. But there is another side to the novel, which nurtures feelings of hope or, at least, the possibility of freedom.
Since The Black Book is obliquely, not directly, political, it is left to the glib BBC interviewer, with her thumbnail sketch of the last Ottoman sultans, the clandestine Turkish Communist Party, Atatürk's legacy and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, to sum up the determining social forces in Istanbul in the late Seventies. In the midst of Galip's exposition of Hurufism, we are told of various kinds of people whose faces are no longer legible because the letters have been obliterated; among these are ‘Kurdish rebels where the letters on their faces had been burned away by napalm’. Earlier this year, Orhan Pamuk was taken to court for contributing to a book of essays on freedom of thought, and he was also subjected to public attacks for speaking out against the Kurdish war. The tale he tells in The Black Book is not so enchanting that it omits to remind us of the sadness of modern Istanbul, and the miseries of its poor. Writing, Galip confesses at the end (now finally speaking in the first person), is his ‘sole consolation’; and one of the first columns he wrote in Jelal's name was a passionate love-letter to Rüya.
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Turkish Best-seller Offers Parable about Reading.” Christian Science Monitor 89, no. 103 (23 April 1997): 12.
[In the following review, Rubin criticizes The New Life for lacking narrative cohesion and an engaging storyline.]
Orhan Pamuk's most recent novel, The New Life, was a record-breaking best-seller in his native Turkey, which would seem to indicate a surprisingly keen appetite for contemporary fiction among that country's reading public. The phenomenon seems a little like the unexpected popularity of Umberto Eco's novels (The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum) in the United States.
Pamuk is one of the most prominent and popular writers of his generation in Turkey, and he has been gaining an international reputation as well. His work has been translated into 15 languages and two of his earlier novels, The White Castle and The Black Book, were published to critical acclaim in America.
He writes with an appealing blend of simplicity and sophistication, deftly touching upon various timely, even fashionable, themes. But this story fails to engage at a deeper level.
The New Life is a kind of parable about a young man whose life is transformed by reading a book. The narrator, Osman, is a university student in Istanbul who lives at home with his widowed mother. One day, he reads a book that he feels was written expressly for him. Reading it, he feels he is on the brink of a richer, fuller, more radiant life, and he is determined to seek it out.
Osman's passion for the book is allied to his love for Janan, the beautiful young woman in whose hands he first saw the book. He is sure she is his destined partner. Unfortunately, Janan is in love with someone else: Mehmet, the charismatic young man who first introduced her to the book. But Mehmet has vanished, perhaps killed.
Osman sets off on a strange odyssey, riding buses all over Turkey in search of the new life. Before long, Janan joins him. She sits by his side, even shares a hotel room with him, but is unmoved by his desire for a physical relationship. Riding from town to town, they imagine they will somehow achieve the transformation they are looking for. Every so often, their dream-like journeying is rudely interrupted by a real-life accident. These disastrous moments not only provide Osman and Janan the chance to appropriate cash and identification papers from injured and dying fellow-passengers, but also promise to bring them closer to the “Angel” mentioned in their cherished book.
What, exactly, are the contents of that mysterious tome? This is something that Pamuk deliberately leaves unclear, except to let us know that it is neither a religious fundamentalist tract nor a left-wing political manifesto. But the book has enemies. Some people believe it poses a dangerous threat to the Turkish way of life, that it is part of some grand Western conspiracy to inflict Coca-Cola and burgers on a sherbet-and-borek-(phyllo and meat pastry) loving nation. These people, in turn, have organized their own modest counter conspiracy against the “Great Conspiracy.”
Although The New Life is not an unusually long novel, it is perhaps too long for what it is. It lacks the kind of character development associated with realistic novels, but it fails as a parable to crystallize its somewhat murky cultural, political, and metaphysical themes. It demonstrates considerable invention, grace, and irony, but its various parts never really cohere into a focused, self-elucidating whole.
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SOURCE: Tuten, Frederic. “Ruined by Reading.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 June 1997): 11-12.
[In the following review, Tuten faults The New Life for overindulging in plot contrivances and “belabored” allegorical elements.]
Under the sway of romances and tales of chivalry, Don Quixote took up lance and shield and wandered about to battle injustice and the general wrong. Her head filled with sappy love novels, Madame Bovary took to adultery and the romantic swoon. Young Dorian Gray was given the book of all mind-altering books, “a poisonous book,” he came to call it, and, after reading it, he abandoned his fiancée, his closest friend and a life of Victorian rectitude to emerge as a suave decadent and prophet of a new hedonism.
Books and their influence—if any—have been the concern of many, especially today when the allure and power of serious fiction seem challenged by the values of marketplace. Can we, bombarded by the sensations of daily life, still read with the oneness and innocence of our childhood and youth, with the fresh wonder of that time, when books spoke to us from the deepest sphere of imagination?
In Orhan Pamuk's The New Life, the power of art's magic still reigns over the imagination of the main character, as revealed in the novel's opening sentence: “I read a book one day and my whole life changed.” The change is dramatic and takes the narrator, Osman, a 22-year-old Turkish student, away from his studies and his widowed mother into a new, adventure-filled life. The book, whose subject we never learn, infuses him with light, possesses his thoughts, occupies his every moment and propels him, finally, on a search for the book's meaning for him and for the new life that it has promised.
His new life begins quickly when, soon after reading the book, he falls in love with a young architectural student, Janan who, along with her lover, Mehmet, has also fallen under the book's spell. The readers of the book are in some danger, Mehmet warns the narrator, because mysterious persons are hunting them down and killing them. This danger proves to be real when Osman sees Mehmet shot and wounded in the street and when he later finds no trace of him or of his beloved Janan. Both have disappeared.
Now Osman pulls up stakes to pursue the dream of a new life along with the hope of being visited by an angel also promised by the mysterious book. He also journeys forth to search for Janan who is out there, somewhere, in the vast Turkish interior. This double quest takes Osman on the road, burning like some wild Kerouac character for whom the road is life. But this is a voyage of bus, not car, rides. Osman buses across Turkey, stopping only long enough to take another bus in no direction in particular, hoping that the change of buses will lead him to the book's ultimate revelation.
This is the most compelling section of the novel—the writing drives and flows with a pitch as intense as the narrator and his quest. The hour is always emotional dusk and the tone is lyrical: “Night: A long, very long and windy night. Dark villages and even darker sheepfolds, immortal trees, sorry service stations, empty restaurants, silent mountains and anxious rabbits went past the dark mirror of my window.”
One night his bus crashes, but he emerges from the bloody wreck alive and wanting now to find the sites and wrecks of other bus collisions. At one such accident site, he finds Janan, and the two begin riding buses together: He in love and she tender but removed. Months pass in these travels to nowhere until their bus crashes. A young woman in her dying moments reveals herself as a reader of the book and asks Osman and Janan to impersonate her and her lover, who lies dead in the wreckage. They must go, she says, to a Dr. Fine, the man who is behind the violent attacks on readers of the book.
Armed with the identity papers of the two young dead lovers, they set off and find Fine, a rich landed man who reveals that he had a son who had turned against him after reading the book, a son whose life had gone to pieces and who Fine believed had been incinerated in a bus crash. In revenge for what the book had done to the young man and to all those who had come to grief after reading it. Fine organized a terror against all the book's readers and against all printed books. The book was just one among many instruments of the great conspiracy—Coca-Cola and Marlboros being some of the others—that originated in the West and that were bent on destroying authentic Turkish culture.
It was one of Fine's agents who shot Mehmet, not realizing that he was really Fine's son and had assumed a new name after leaving his father's estate. Another agent murders Uncle Rifki, the anonymous author of the book and a friend of the narrator's family. Saying he will return in five days. Osman leaves an ill Janan behind and sets out to find Mehmet.
Of course, Osman does find Mehmet in a small village, where Mehmet has taken yet another name—the narrator's—and where his new life is “ordered, disciplined and punctual.” He is a contented man. He spends his days copying by hand every line, word and punctuation of the book and lives off their sales. He loves Janan still but does not plan to see her or to do anything but live as he does in reclusive pleasure. It is this monkish Osman that Osman-the-narrator shoots and kills with a pistol given him by Fine.
Osman returns to learn that Janan has left the estate. All his attempts to find her fail. Having concluded all adventures and all hopes of the promised illumination, he returns to Istanbul and his mother. Janan, he learns years later, married and lives in Germany with a doctor who had read the book but whose life had not suffered from the experience. Now a man of 35, married and with a daughter, Osman lives a quietly pained life, a man who drinks and falls asleep in front of the TV.
The novel would have reached a natural conclusion had it ended here. A tale of the collapse of a young person's illusions and hopes for a life more intense than most are born to live speaks to us all, young or not. But the novel goes on in yet another vein, adding yet more complications and convulsions to the story's already overstretched coincidences, its belabored symbolism, allegory and plot.
The story continues in an unexpected literary vein, exploring the influences of Dante, Jules Verne and Rilke on the writing of the book whose title, we belatedly learn, is the same as the novel we are reading. We have suddenly left the novel's deranged and passionate world and find ourselves in the classroom with our narrator turned literary explicator.
For all the blood spilled in the novel's bus crashes, there is very little of it in the novel's characters. Janan is just the figure of the unattainable Muse. Mehmet is just the narrator's cut-out double. Finally, despite the novel's rhetorical insistence on the lyrical mystery of life and the narrator's quest, little felt mystery but much hocus-pocus remains.
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SOURCE: Wright, Ronald. “From a Breeze-Block Istanbul.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4932 (10 October 1997): 23.
[In the following review, Wright commends The New Life as an engaging novel of ideas that serves as an allegory for modern Turkey.]
In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel observes that reading links the reader's contemporary experience with many “an early page in a distant foreign century”. He then quotes from Orhan Pamuk's novel The White Castle: “You cannot embark on life, that one-off coach ride, once again when it is over, but if you have a book in your hand … you can, if you wish, go back to the beginning, read it again, and thus understand that which is difficult and, with it, understand life.” Such rereading of the past through the lens of the present—and vice versa—is the task Pamuk sets himself in The New Life, a sparkling allegorical novel of culture and consequence that has been a runaway best-seller in the author's homeland, Turkey.
An earnest young man of twenty-two—an Istanbul student who lives with his widowed mother—sees a strange book in the hands of a pretty girl in the university canteen. On his way home that evening, he spots the same book at a roadside stall. Falling swiftly to the powers of beauty and portent, this “rational student of engineering” buys it, reads it in a sitting, and “my whole life was changed.” With the fervour of religious conversion, the man tells how the book affects him—saying little, until much later, about the book itself. We learn only that the volume bathes its reader in angelic light, that it promises “a new life”, that it seems to have been written just for him, that it reveals “the meaning of my existence”. For a long time, even its title stays a mystery (one I shall not disclose).
Pamuk fully exploits his coach-ride metaphor. The young man conflates love for the book with love for Janan, the girl in the canteen; and in search of the “new life”, the pair begin a random pilgrimage of long-distance buses and greasy-spoon cafés. The trip remains chaste (frustratingly so for the narrator), because Janan loves another, a boyfriend who introduced her to the book, and who has disappeared after a Blow-Up-style shooting that may or may not be murder.
The time is vaguely the 1970s or 80s, and the travelling takes place mainly on the Anatolian steppe, with its wide skies and skinny poplars, cold nights and flaying sun, its dusty towns and Giacometti badlands. But the most vivid landscapes are interiors: a comic-book and film-noir world, where images of love and death play endlessly on video screens in stuffy buses, of “velvet nights”, mawkish pop songs and horrible road accidents that act as tilts in the Cervantean quest. These crashes get a bit much, but that seems to be the point; they are a send-up of Hollywood's search for increasingly spectacular demolitions of life and property: in the land of plenty, “things must be smashed and broken”. One is reminded of those potlatches in which chiefs displayed their wealth by setting fire to it in public.
Like a beguiling and complex work of music—a simile raised in the text—The New Life measures out its revelations carefully, and is better experienced than described. (I also suspect that the grace-notes have suffered in translation. Pamuk is known as a stylist, but the slangy AmerEnglish offered here does not suit the Turkish setting.) The enigmatic book within the book stirs up a flock of ghosts from “foreign centuries”. Can it be the Bible? The Koran? The tales of Amadis? La Vita Nuova? Alice in Wonderland? The Origin of Species? The Communist Manifesto?
The answer, when it comes, is deliciously bathetic, but by then Orwell's Room 101 has been invoked, as have the brave new worlds of Shakespeare and Huxley, Rilke's interest in time and essence, the Sufi mysticism of Ibn Ali, amid countless other allusions. The luminous book, it seems, is every book that ever changed a world. But, more than that, the act of writing itself is seen as bibliomantic—and not always to the good. Pamuk questions the price exacted from a culture when literacy fossilizes speech and, above all, the price paid when Turkey, under Atatürk, changed alphabets in 1928.
The fault-line between the lost consolations of tradition and the evaporating promise of modernity can be traced in every country, but there are few where it runs so close to the national surface as in Turkey. Having conquered the remnants of Byzantium, the Turkish elite allowed itself to be insidiously colonized by European attitudes, until it came to disparage its own civilization. After the First World War, the Kemalist republic used supposedly liberating foreign ideas to divorce the country from its past. National dress was banned, the capital moved, the religious establishment crippled, the mystic orders suppressed; and, greatest in symbolic power—signalling a fundamental shift in allegiance from sacred to secular, from Oriental past to Western future—the writing changed from Arabic to Roman script.
Pamuk's thoroughly modern protagonists, inhabiting a wintry breeze-block Istanbul, are the grandchildren of these reforms, yet their names have been chosen for deep historical resonances. The narrator, who goes unnamed for half the book, is Osman—both a Turkish Everyman (Osman and Ottoman are variants) and an echo of Osman, the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, who became caliph after a murder and was in turn assassinated. Mehmet, the young proselytizer who enthralls first Janan and then Osman with the mysterious book, recalls not only the Prophet himself (Mehmet=Mohammed), redactor of God's word, but Mehmet the conqueror of Constantinople (and perhaps, also the hero of Yashar Kemal's 1955 Memed, My Hawk, an influential novel of love and escape in Anatolia).
Throughout their grotesquely entwined adventures, the characters pass comment on what their country has done to itself in the twentieth century. Turkey, Osman says, has become a “land suffering from Amnesia”, unable to read its own history. Even those who have prospered from progress—dealers in goods, for example, who seem to constitute parodic spiritual brotherhoods—feel that they have done so at the cost of their souls. “Everyone knows”, says Mehmet's dotty father, “that the greatest enemy of the timetable for prayers is the timetable for trains.” And from its Faustian bargain Turkey got only a defective copy of the Western dream; in the towns through which Osman passes, “concrete apartment buildings … besiege the statues of Atatürk like prison walls.”
The “new life” sought by Mehmet, Janan and Osman is not merely the alluring future that Turkey has swallowed but cannot digest; it is also, paradoxically, the encrypted memory of the past. Yet it would be a mistake to read this novel as a nativistic cri de coeur. Pamuk is too subtle a writer for that. He recognizes that cultures always borrow and steal; what matter are the choices and the means. Osman honours “this newfangled plaything called the novel” as “the greatest invention of the Western culture”. Though it is “none of our culture's business,” he is reading and writing it.
Pamuk is neither as surreal here as Borges nor as irksomely postmodern as Calvino, writers with whom he has been compared before. The playful seriousness of Umberto Eco is a better match. (A sinister organization seems bent on eliminating the book and its devotees; later, we learn that its operatives are code-named after watches: Seiko, Movado, and so forth.) Though the engaging plot has familiar ingredients, this is far from a conventional work of character. The personality explored is supra-personal: nothing less than the character of industrial civilization revealed in its procrustean shaping of mankind.
Orhan Pamuk has written that rare and difficult thing: a fiction of ideas. The New Life's unprecedented success in Turkey may have much to do with its witty and ingenious treatment of the country's unique transcultural ills. But Pamuk's achievement is also universal, bringing Western readers, in particular, to understand that the logic of kitsch, banality and greed threatens the civilization that purveys it as much as any other. We are all Young Turks seduced by Mammon, the ignoble victor to have emerged, at century's end, from the battlefield of ideologies.
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SOURCE: Emck, Katy. “Turkish Delight.” New Statesman 126, no. 4358 (31 October 1997): 44-5.
[In the following review, Emck comments on the overriding theme of “spiritual yearning in ideology-led times” in The New Life, calling the novel “a satire on the mystique of transformation promulgated by books.”]
Given that Turks don't usually write novels, and that Turkey is in many senses a liminal place—caught between Christian and Muslim, European and Middle Eastern cultures; not quite third-world poor—this book is every bit as paradoxical as a Turkish novel ought to be. It is also the fastest-selling book in Turkish history; 200,000 copies have been bought in less than a year. Pamuk, who is Turkey's foremost novelist, is also a writer of international stature who has been compared to Garcia Marquez, Kafka, Paul Auster.
Culturally and novelistically, The New Life exists between worlds, too. Pamuk, slyly over-modest, apologises for “the clumsiness of my voice” because “I have still not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.”
For western readers the novel recalls the wry literariness and metaphysical footwork of Borges, Pynchon, Calvino and Eco. For Turkish readers it is a cautionary tale about religious absolutes and cultural xenophobia. Looked at from a western angle, The New Life draws its inspiration from a quintessentially American genre, the road novel; from an eastern angle it is a mystical quest along the lines of Arabic medieval romance.
The novel itself is about a man teetering on a threshold, exchanging his old, mundane life for a new one of love, quest and adventure. Its early chapters are saturated with a sense of acute anticipation and narrated in a blissed-out, trance-like manner that suggests someone who has been either drugged or entrapped by the Moonies: “We are expecting something, perhaps a miracle, or some kind of light, perhaps an angel, or an accident, I just don't know what …”
The New Life is a satire on the mystique of transformation promulgated by books. Osman, an engineering student, reads a book and realises he must change his life immediately. The next day, as if to confirm that everything has changed (and directly echoing Dante's mystical experience of love as rebirth in La Vita Nuova), he falls in love with Janan, another student. “God is everyone's Janan,” says one of the characters.
If so, then God is cavalier with his servants' devotion. Osman ends up travelling across Turkey with Janan in search of her lost boyfriend. He also ends up believing that the couple actually framed him to fall for the book and Janan herself.
Increasingly, it becomes clear that other young Turks have also been reading the book, taking to the road and hanging about the scenes of accidents under the influence of apocalyptic yearnings.
Intimations of a mysterious conspiracy are everywhere. On the one hand it seems to be connected with the spread of political, fundamentalist literature. On the other hand, it seems to have been “fostered by those who wanted to destroy our country and our spirit and eradicate our collective memory”. In other words, there is a western capitalist plot to colonise Turkey with Coca-Cola ads, and there is a nationalist Islamic counterplot.
This is the vintage territory of paranoia that has been given brilliant expression by the American novelist Thomas Pynchon. What seem initially to be a set of random coincidences turn out to have a sort of determinism. The narrator becomes a detective, picking his way through a proliferation of signs and portents which may be the products of his own overheated imagination: “Unfortunate and foolish hero that I am, trying to discover the meaning of life in this land suffering from amnesia.”
Pamuk's novel is about spiritual yearning in ideology-led times. It is also a cautionary tale about reading. Osman allows a book to tell him how to live his life and he goes off the rails because of it. For western readers, the unspecified book might be any mass-produced genre—an airport novel or romance. For eastern readers, it might be a fundamentalist spin-off of the Koran.
The New Life is a plea for scepticism about all doctrines and beliefs, including the cult of romantic love. Nevertheless, the novel winds up with a beautifully poised tribute to love. The narrator comments: “I acquired these pearls without letting myself be taken over completely by blind faith, but also without being swept away by a cynicism that would leave my soul homeless.”
Pellucid, elusive, infinitely suggestive and poignant, it is as though Borges had sustained one of his crystalline fictions for the length of an entire novel. I have never read anything less clumsy. Everyone should read Orhan Pamuk.
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SOURCE: Calotychos, Vangelis. “Thorns in the Side of Venice? Galanaki's Pasha and Pamuk's White Castle in the Global Market.” In Greek Modernism and Beyond, edited by Dimitris Tziovas, pp. 243-60. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997.
[In the following essay, Calotychos offers a critical assessment of the appeal to Western audiences of The White Castle and Rhea Galanaki's Pasha, placing his discussion within the context of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and the global market for book sales.]
Like any nostos, my return to my alma mater and Birmingham invites potential scenes of repetition to recall acts, emotions, and practices—loci for my self-(re)definition. This academic discussion over the contours of modernism is but one such instance. A more moving topos was my visit last night to a curry house in Sparkbrook where, fifteen years ago as a Londoner armed with the conventional wisdom that Brum and Bradford, with their thriving Asian communities, packed the meanest curry, I first embarked upon the quest for the authentic Indian curry. That I ate my curry by hand and from a bucket, the balti, added the requisite primitivism to authenticity.
Travels since the Ur-curry have led me to better and lesser curries the world over, though not in India. Meanwhile, the authentic Indian curry, displaced in a world of migration and postcolonial chic, has become part of a transnational restaurant culture which, like film culture, has “gone global.” Asian restauranteurs in Brum, like postcolonial writers, manage the realpolitik of metropolitan dominance and so assert “an authenticity” not normally ascribed to their own culture.1 The bucket becomes exotic and authentic not because of its remoteness, but as a commodity whose availability and cultural consumption marks it as “exotic” and “Indian” in a global sense. Readers, like gastronomes, are eager to consume equally exotically. Writers and their publishers, forever aware of possibilities in transnational markets, and sensitized through their reading of theory to the modes of working through otherness, realize that a novel on the “periphery” must travel, and travel well, to Paris, New York, or London, before it returns home as an international success. In so doing, novels from “peripheral,” and often postcolonial, regions have revitalized contemporary fiction at the center.2
The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle (1979)3 has made this trip successfully. Neohellenists should take note since this novel resembles Rhea Galanaki's recently translated O Vios tou Ismail Ferik Pasa: Spina nel Cuore (1989).4 Given the benign push of canny marketing and high-profile critical support, Galanaki's novel can achieve equal stature. I do not know whether Galanaki has read Pamuk or even shared a curry with him—I leave that for others to ascertain. However, I am convinced that as progressive voices on Europe's margins, the remarkable affinity in textual practices, tropes, themes evident in both works owes much to their subject position. The accessibility of such strategems, their potential translatability, is what will concern us here, where “translatability” will mean not the difficulty or ease in rendering an English translation but rather will define the work's susceptibility or accessibility to forms of (re)cognition, novelistic or otherwise, that will find favor with a Western readership.
The striking textual similarities and resonances between the two novels cannot be developed in any great depth here and, in fact, Pamuk's work will be used only as a stepping-off point to discuss Galanaki. Athanassia Sourbati's unpublished dissertation reads many of the textual intricacies of Pasha in an insightful manner; Yiorgos Thalassis has enriched other aspects and his reminder that “the novel is not written solely by the author, but also by the reader” (Thalassis 1991: 102) is a particularly relevant injunction in this instance since critical readings of Pasha have shown a striking unanimity in their choice of themes. The analysis of identity, particularly through scenes of return, has elicited most critical responses from critics attuned to postmodern strategies. This paper will follow suit in order to consider issues stemming from the meeting of postmodernism, global markets, and the Greek novel.
The centrality of identity in Western theory and fiction today and the modes for its exposition are not lost on either Pamuk or Galanaki. Updike asserts that Pamuk “knows all the tricks western literature has to teach” (Updike 1991: 102). The couplings, splittings, mirrorings, paradoxes, opposites, and the undermining of grand narratives favored in such works point to the likes of Rushdie, Calvino, and Borges. Not that these do not exist in the Greek tradition.5 Yet these writers experience what Rushdie has called “one of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to choose his parents” (Rushdie 1991: 21).
The White Castle concerns an Italian slave taken captive at sea by the Ottoman fleet and eventually given to a scholar-inventor named Hoja, the teacher, who is his sp(l)itting image. Traditional stereotypes of East and West are blurred, but an oppositional logic underlies the two characters' profiles—the one is a Western slave, a dreamy storyteller and our narrator; the Other is, surprisingly enough, the Eastern Master, awed by science and reason, but resistant to writing. At one level, Pamuk enters into a dialogue with Hegel's exposition of dependence and independence of self-consciousness, Self and Other, through an analysis of lordship and bondage (Hegel 1931: 228-240). Pamuk's dispassionate intelligence wends its way through geometric patterns to oversee the exchange and studied conflation of such binaries. The two protagonists look long and hard into mirrors, write their past histories as psychotherapy, and delve into various epistemologies—reminiscent of Flaubert's eminently protopoststructuralist Bouvard et Pécuchet—to answer and inscribe “Why Am I What I Am?”6 By novel's end, the narrator seems to suggest that the two protagonists change clothes and identities, and that Hoja the Turk “returns” joyfully to Italy as if he were Italian and the Italian narrator “stays home” in Turkey as if he were Hoja the Turk. Tearless, we pull away the last layer of Barthes's onion to find nothing at identity's core.
The commerce of personhood(s) occurs at many points in the novel. In one such instance, our two protagonists construct a superweapon in the hope that it will assist the sultan in his next campaign in the West. This campaign ends in disaster when the weapon, the grand size of “a mosque,” gets stuck in the mud and obliges the sultan to abandon the siege of the airy white castle of the title, located in Poland. Concurrently, a debate rages over the identity of master and slave peoples. As various peoples allied with the Poles are listed, the castle is described as “purest white and beautiful”: “I didn't know why I thought that one could see such a beautiful and unattainable thing only in a dream” (143). Pamuk conjures up such dreaminess as a counterpoint to the scene's historicity, and the castle's cameo appearance in the novel that carries its name constitutes a ploy for downplaying its importance in the plot. To this end, in the book's prologue, Faruk Darvinoglou, the supposed discoverer and editor of the manuscript before us, contends that he did not “choose the title of the book, but [it was] the publishing house that agreed to print it” (12). Moreover, when he retold the story to friends, Darvinoglou confesses that he would emphasize its symbolic value and relevance to contemporary realities. As a result, “young people usually more absorbed in issues like politics, activism, East-West relations, or democracy were at first intrigued, … but soon forgot my story” (11). As Western readers of a Turkish novel, we are prodded gently to identify with such readers; we are made conscious of our eagerness to grasp a commentary on Turkey and the West which Pamuk, by way of Darvinoglou, offers passively aggressively, and disowns with consummate diffidence. Such diversionary tactics are written to preempt “sophisticated” readers who might rush gleefully to draw deterministic parallels between the siege of the white castle and the Turks' seventeenth-century defeat not in Poland, but in Vienna.7 (Pamuk's narrator even obstructs the one-to-one correlation of the castle with Vienna by mentioning the Vienna campaign briefly after the Polish escapade and after “Hoja's” return to Istanbul .)
Pamuk walks the fine line of seeming at pains to keep his novel from being reduced to an expression of his country—where an “authentic” cultural identity would only fall into the totalizing expectations of the metropolitan gaze on the “periphery”—and courting this very undifferentiated image. In this regard, Pamuk's predicament reminds one of the problem common to postcolonial writers—in particular Latin American writers—who resist the packaging of their novels as expressions of their whole “continent.” This is to no avail in Pamuk's case, since even the translator of his last novel informs us that he “deliberately set out to become a world-class writer, [and] has borrowed the attitudes and strategies of Third World authors writing for the consumption of the First World” (Gün 1992: 62).
Galanaki's novel engages similar issues of personhood(s). Beaton points to its significance as one of the first Greek novels to confront “the heritage of Greece today [that] includes its history as a province of the Ottoman Empire” (Beaton 1994: 292); Lambropoulos believes that if neohellenists faced up to the Greek Ottoman past as a colonial experience, then the postcolonial prism would offer refreshing new interpretive strategies for analysing Hellenism (Lambropoulos 1994). Galanaki may not be as programmatic as Pamuk in her self-promotion, but the exhortations of critics to relocate the study of this novel into repressed “Eastern” or subaltern contexts, or where the Third World or the “minor” is read by the Center, need to be explored.
The title recalls Kazantzakis's Vios ke Politeia tou Alexi Zorba (The Life and Times of Alexis Zorba), which, once adapted by filmmaker Mihalis Cacoyiannis for international release and titled tellingly Zorba the Greek, furnished Western audiences with a stereotype of the quintessential Greek for a couple of decades.8 In the film, the novel's Greek narrator is transformed into a half-Greek, half-British intellectual who internalizes and internationalizes the clash of civilizations portrayed in the novel's depiction of the philosopher and Zorba. Galanaki also offers us a vios, but it is the hagiography or synaxarion of a Christian-turned-infidel, and so evokes a blending of traditions further complicated by a subtitle that reminds us that this saint hailed from the Venetian-ruled Lasithian plateau known as a thorn in Venice's side.9 Hagiography carries with it its own typologies, of veneration and secular biography, and the particularities of its encoder's access to a variety of literary/patristic, folkloric, and regional/oral material. If Galanaki is proposing a new prototypical figure, his twin nature (at one level) rivals that of pagan-turned-Christian saints and another originary Greek figure, Digenis Akritis the “Twyborn,” whose epic, for some, marks the beginning of modern Greek literature.10
Galanaki's prefatory note to the novel admits to a focus on a sketchily available historical persona, whose personal history and its narration straddle the divide of public and private spheres. Like Cavafy's Caesarion, inadequate sources and oral tradition offer insufficient “historical” grounding, but allow the writer greater licence. Galanaki's rich and highly poetic style undermines overtly and persistently the novel's claim to underlying historicity. But Galanaki never forsakes this claim, and the strong presence of a phenomenal world guards the novel from shifting completely into the realm of the fantastic or the sustained allegory; conversely, Pamuk's syncretism presents a dream-like description of the castle scene in order to keep history perceptible by the signposted act of its very repression.
The splittings in Galanaki's novel—more complex than in Pamuk's work—are initiated in the primordial scene, in a cave, when a young boy in hiding from the Ottoman Turks is separated from his mother and is taken captive with his brother.11 Guilt-ridden by his absence from the village square, where men had fought and been slaughtered in defense of their homes and their identity, the young Emmanuel is sold into slavery in Egypt while his brother, Andonis Kambanis, eventually resides in Athens. If Pamuk focuses the energy of potentiality in the phallic and religiously described superweapon, Galanaki privileges a knife overinvested with symbolic meaning that the boy takes with him from the cave on his travels as a constant reminder of the Father's Law. Leaving his village he comes across the conquering general Hassan Pasha who, at that moment, is thrown from his bolting horse. The young boy moves to help up the fallen rider, but on noticing that “the conqueror's face resembled his own” (17) and that the Other is also his Double, the boy pushes him away. Master and slave roles are conflated in a proleptic mirroring that prefigures the boy's eventual return to Crete as conquering general. For now, the boy considers himself dead in his first life and now reborn into a second, his Egyptian—“in the nature of one newly dead and newly born” (19).
Emmanuel is Islamicized and assumes the name Ismail, a reversal of the synaxarion genre, since a change of identity and name is given to those who convert to Christianity and are thus “reborn.” He is befriended by Ibrahim, the viceroy Muhammed's son, and eventually he climbs up the ranks to become Minister of War.12 His “secret engagement” to Ibrahim and Egypt is often described in sexual terms of giving oneself (99); or in terms that conflate Ismail's mother with the one who “had mothered [his] second life” (134), Ibrahim. Any cyclical promise of return, urged by the myth of nostos (Sourbati 1992: 169) is kept at bay by a series of images that describe the “quivering line traced by the course of the Nile” (27).13 Ismail assumes an Egyptian identity which prevails over his Greek memories, language, and identity. Only when a cousin, loannis Kambanis, brings news to him, in Greek, that his brother lives comfortably in Athens and is one of the key benefactors of the Cretan revolutionary struggle, does Ismail enter into a path toward nostos, return, circularity that has always already been at hand. The gradual process is reflected in the correspondence that Ismail exchanges with his brother in Athens, and which recalls the psychotherapeutic written exercises between Pamuk's Hoja and his slave look-alike. Yet this course has already begun when Ismail, in Egypt, receives the first letter from his brother. With a latent homoeroticism reminiscent of Pamuk's depiction of his own protagonists, Ismail reflects that “touching a woman in the harem had never aroused such desperate passion in him as Andonis's kiss” (59).14 His reverie in this scene leads him back to images of his mother and father and, later in his last letter, Andonis bids him farewell “the way I knew you in childhood” (71). Sourbati concludes that Ismail's return to Crete aims to balance the archetypal equation, reclaim his position as his father's son, and return to relive his mother's last embrace. This return to origins, described as a descent into an embryonic stage, becomes the central concern of the novel's second part, narrated in the first person by Ismail himself as he traces this nine-month tour of duty which coincides with his rebirth backward as a boy, in a reverse process of becoming and belonging with the paternal bloodline and his filial duty.15 By spring, Ismail is sent to quell a rebellion in Crete, funded by his brother, and he returns as a potential conqueror, to embody Hassan Pasha. He will return to the cave of his innocence where like Jesus-Emmanuel or Zeus, offspring of Rhea, both Galanaki and goddess from the Lasithian plateau, he will die and be reborn again (cf. Sourbati 1992: 176). As in Pamuk's novel, the narrative and the slippages of identity seem to orbit around a staged centering scene:
What I did perceive, though, as clearly as words inscribed in white letters on the blackness, was that for many years now I had sought to discover in my life some focus impervious to change a way of acceding to a stable, consoling fount of tenderness, whether a landscape or a human face. The only immutable thing was the face of a boy I had been, perhaps because I was familiar with the ageing process gradually leading to my present image, or perhaps for a simpler reason: because the boy's face belonged to me.
In her analysis, Sourbati privileges one scene “where the nostos will end” (1992: 182). Yet such privileging does not imply a telos, for this sign-posted central scene is decentered and undermines the expectation of a privileged moment. It becomes the incalculable sum of a number of versions since, like the notion of personhood, it too is diffuse.16 Yannakaki's treatment of the novel as postmodern historiographic metafiction reveals the way analepses, prolepses as well as internal focalizations in the narrative scramble any notion of linear and homogeneous time to leave us with dissected scenes at different points in the text and from multiple perspectives (Yannakaki 1994). Yet, there are also multiple staged scenes of return.
On his way to the plateau, Ismail comes across one such site of return, in the port of Heraclion, where, years earlier, he was separated from his brother. He reflects on the scene: “I told myself that for many centuries the conquerors and the conquered had been setting the scene for the last act of my life in a manner reminiscent of the operatic stage sets I had seen in Europe long ago” (126). The harbor represented as European opera set carries with it notions of opera's reliance on script and a stylized excess that proclaims its artifice. By way of opera's “unnatural” conventions, perhaps as in the favola or fable of early opera, the drama is set to, and follows, a recognizable tune. Galanaki plays on theatricality throughout as the reader watches Ismail play out or project for himself a number of roles that structure identity along the potential li(n)es of origin, purity, and return. The commerce between author and reader is heightened and it takes center stage in a game of anticipation, thrust and parry. In this first scene of return on Crete, Ismail offers three possible modes of self-understanding.
The realization that he has a part on an opera set obliges him to affirm the one datum he can trust—his own thinking self (rationalism), for he cannot put store in the Other, here his brother, who is described as having played “a role well”: “I could only acknowledge the fact of my own existence, here in the same setting as then—experienced as reality, not as mimesis. Anything beyond that fact I could only face with doubt” (126).17 But the cognitive powers of that self are soon questioned. In the second mode in this scene, Ismail plays out a modernist and Seferian discourse of loss and nostalgia by touching the column on which he last held his brother's hand.18 Symbolist echoes evoke the grooves etched on the well's lip, the silent stones, and the conflation of self and object from Mythistorema: “Tenderly, I wiped away the salt moisture on it, as if wiping away his perspiration—or was it a hallucination brought on by my feverish state?” (127).19 The melancholic image of a piece of driftwood in the harbor left over by the “craftsmen”—the conquerors and conquered of Heraclion—emblematizes his desire for his brother.20 The third mode focuses on the conquerors and conquered, the inventors of the grand narratives of history which structure agency and act on the individual. Narrator and reader become so conscious of their role in this grand production that the reader follows Ismail's ineluctable and choreographed progress in an archetypal unwritten script to the seemingly central scene of nostos in the cave. However, as with Pamuk's centering scene at the castle, despite the fact that the scenery of the past recurs in the present, the logic of a one-to-one correlation of arche and telos is thwarted as Ismail returns not to the womblike cave but to the familial home. A turn of the key, which sounded in the opening line of the novel and which promised to give life coherence, is replayed.
By the time the complex nostos scene arrives, it is an inevitable, if not foregone conclusion. Laden with allusions to the Odyssey's nekyia and Seferis, Ismail draws blood and so invites the spirits of his family. Though he derives some satisfaction from his mother's unconditional acceptance and his communion with the house itself, his father forgives him but does not acknowledge his right to the family line. More significantly, his brother appears “though his being still among the living should not have permitted it” (149). As in much magical realism, or in folktales, the boundaries of the dead and the living spill over into each other and this in-betweenness may manifest itself “at an imaginary point inside a double-sided mirror that reflects in both directions” (Faris 1995: 172).21 The admission of the fantastic or phantasmic, however, only heightens Ismail's conscious and willed desire to effect a scene of anagnorisis. Ismail perceives his brother in the freeze-frame of a photograph, in a theater's foyer dressed in a linen suit and narrow cravat, that in its incongruous detail and setting pushes the scene toward comedy. But Andonis's “framing,” and the reference to theater leads the reader to take a step back from the récit into the foyer of the theater perhaps, to converse with Andonis about the conventions and artifice of Ismail's staged scene of return. Andonis fixes his gaze off into the distance, through the invisible (to him) Ismail, and away from the mirror that Ismail holds up to him to prove their likeness. There seems to be no contact, visual or physical. Yet Ismail's interpretation of the encounter does not permit his brother's obliviousness to obstruct their identification: “He knew that the face of the patriot and national benefactor would reveal its resemblance to the face of the renegade and conqueror. He gazed beyond the scene in an effort to evade acknowledging the resemblance, due not only to kinship, but to a shared solitude. … I knew that he lived, and would die, utterly alone, like me” (150). Ismail's will to resemblance reflects the implied reader's willed pursuit of a reunion scene, and so subtly foregrounds the conventions and expectations that drive such reading processes. The detached reflection of the last line of the section carries an undertow of cruel irony: “[Andonis] was fortunate enough never to set eyes on me again” (150), since Ismail is certainly conscious that Andonis did not set eyes on him on this occasion, in this scene, either.
Pamuk, in his concluding chapter, also uses the mirror to play out the paradoxes of sameness and difference. The “new Hoja” buys a poor devil from the slave market to serve as a supplement for his absent Other—who, due to the last chapter's ambiguity, is also his Double—and so restage cherished exercises of identity. However, his slave turns away when “he is brought … to face the mirror,” and “Hoja” takes him back to the slave market to sell him, for the artifice of his supplementary role-playing is hardly a persuasive reenactment or sustainable illusion.
The third part of the novel, the Epimythio, follows the centering scene—just as the “centering” scene of The White Castle is followed by the last chapter and the “new Hoja's” reflection on events. As the title Epimythio suggests, this is literally the part “after the story”; though the Greek translates as “the moral of the fable.” Predictably, neither the chronology, the moral, nor the difference between life and death is simple. The logic of demarcation is thoroughly decimated in the text, and the “versions” of Ismail's death “live on” as reconstructed by political and diplomatic interests, gossip, rumor, superstition, and local lore, and relayed by an omniscient third-person narrator: (i) Ismail is poisoned for his treason and crypto-Christianity by Omer Pasha and heard to mutter the name of his mother in Greek and Ibrahim in Arabic; (ii) his “murder” is hushed up by the Egyptians so as not to cause diplomatic problems with the Ottomans; (iii) his fate is disseminated in the imaginings and rumor-mongering of the ship's crew that ferried his body to Egypt.
Other more magical versions follow. In the first, a levitating breeze accompanies Ibrahim's shade or spirit to Ismail's tent and narrates Ismail's encounter with an old woman. From his secret hideout, Ibrahim's partial and impaired relation of events, filtered through the third-person narration, maintains, often by inference, that the old woman sees a cross or a mark on Ismail's neck and, in a language Ibrahim cannot make out but intimates may be Greek, she exclaims joyfully at this anagnorisis. This belated nostos is overseen by one of Omer's spies—“who was able to see what exactly was going on” (163)22—and this leads to a poisoning similar to (if not identical with) the one given in the first version of Ismail's death above.
In the second of these “magical” versions, the Turks of Crete build a cenotaph in his honor, right next to the tomb of Hassan Pasha, the conqueror of Lasithi who fell off his horse and took Ismail captive earlier in the novel. Situated by a mosque, where Orthodox and Catholic churches once stood, the cenotaph, now standing on the soil of a Europeanizing modern Greek state, is dismantled in 1930 and a school is built against the wishes, ironically, of those who protest to preserve it out of respect for Ismail's alleged “crypto-Christianity.” A cenotaph, literally “an empty tomb,” signifies that which is projected on and into it by successive uniform readings. The name of the soldier housed or commemorated in tombs or in cenotaphs is often unknown, though his nationality is never in question; in Ismail's cenotaph, the soldier's name is well known but his nationality and identity become a source of much contestation.23 This reversal collapses the distinction between private and public realms that inscribe the narrative of our hero. The act of cenotaphic inscription has always been the fate of the orphan, wiped clean of his origins only to be socioculturally reinscribed—like Mohammad Ali, the once Albanian Omer Pasha, or all the orphans that grew to be janissaries. The cenotaph can become a monument to forgetting.24
Finally, Ismail's soul, reincarnated in the form of a boy, lingers in a school playground nearby and narrates to the schoolchildren the wholly unmagical truth about “the” nostos scene. He confesses that he experienced no scene of return, no innocence or purity of soul, and that he had turned the blade of paternal law on himself. This final scene, even though not a definitive version, is the most extreme repudiation of all the frustrated returns in the novel and the logic of unity, yet it cannot be read as a telos and has no privileged status as the moral or even the ending of the story. Galanaki, however, does stage it as just such an ending. Just as she posited a centering scene, she posits the realist ending as an invitation for the rug to be pulled from underneath it. “However good or bad [realist texts] may be,” Márquez notes, “they are books which finish on the last page” (Mendoza and Márquez 1983: 56). Galanaki's novel fulfills this requirement while also upstaging its convention; and as postmodern text, Pasha manages to effect a “double-coding” which will appeal to popular consumption and “sophisticated” readers alike (cf. Eco 1984). The storytelling multiplicity of the novel's last part resists the personal nature of modernist narrative and, instead, endorses the feeling that Ismail's tale also belongs to the reader.
Both Pamuk and Galanaki meditate on notions of self by rewriting and decentering the centering scenes of their novel. Whereas I'amuk suppresses a frustrated scene of conquest only to invite an ongoing exchange beyond the opposition of Hoja and the Italian, the Easterner and the Westerner, Turkey and Venice, Galanaki focuses on a frustrated nostos to critique the logic of history and national identity by deconstructing the modes of narration and reading that create them. Pamuk's novel has made a name for him in the West—one could say he has pricked the side of Venice, though Venice is, by now, inured to, even gratified by, such rib-tickling. On one level, we hope that Galanaki's work will savor the same, if not greater, deserved recognition. However, the notion of “translatability” does raise some interesting questions.
Clearly, Pamuk's and Galanaki's ex-centric narratives articulate a relation to certain dominant discourses of fiction. In the terms of Greek criticism, it is surely illuminating to situate Pasha in the tradition of the Greek historical novel; but, to do so by seeking out genealogical “origins” (“mitres”) is at odds with the novel's foremost critical concerns and only exhibits the very discourse, here of a hermetic national criticism that the work strives to undermine.25 Elsewhere, Galanaki has proclaimed herself indifferent to the philosophy and language of the traditional historical novel in Greece, and clearly the circumscription of so limited a reading of “history” does not do justice to this novel's transnational kinfolk or its philosophical orientations.26
This parallel reading of the two novels implies an underlying pattern, a postmodern archetype informing their structure and dynamic that, to a degree, conflicts with their tendency to undermine and deconstruct grand ordering narratives. Does not such likeness endanger difference in the local setting? Once such a book is translated, how is cultural specificity preserved? For example, splittings, mirrorings and other tropes exist in the Greek tradition too, and are alluded to in Galanaki's novel—most significantly, with reference to the paralogy of the folktale, Vizyinos's subversion of categories and genres, Cavafy's conception of history.27 The fantastic element alludes to certain cultural and communal traditions that are regarded, in a certain sense, as “Greek.” Yet, Galanaki also displays elements of magical realism, similar to those found in South American prose, and the captivating poeticity of her language reinforces this parallel. How does such an equation commodify the work's brand of otherness? Does the metropolitan reader who sees only magical realist traces run the risk of colluding in a cultural imperialism of sorts and, by reading difference uniformly around the world, only exoticize or stylize it?
The risk here may be offset by the argument that the devices promulgated by such novels may constitute a cultural community that will engender new paradigms and visions ready to dismantle such cultural imperialisms. Notwithstanding differences across cultures, the striking similarities in these works do point to a postmodern configuration of sensibility at this cultural moment, informed by theory and fiction in a global market that challenges those arguments that maintain Greece does not possess the conditions to produce postmodern fictions. There are, surely, other fine postmodern novels in Greece today as there are other able novelists in Turkey.28 Yet only Pamuk has gained for himself the mantle of the “Turkish” writer in the West and only he “is part of … the New International Voice—like Isabel Allende … who too must not be the only good writer in Chile, although she's the one we buy and read, in translation” (Gün 1992: 59). It is unclear if Galanaki aspires to become the “Greek” novelist in the way that Pamuk has donned the mantle of “Turkish” novelist in the West. Certainly, Pamuk's persona coincides with an integrationist geopolitical, cultural, and economic vision of Turkey ardently promoted by interests in the West at present. For Galanaki, this alignment is more difficult since modern Greece, as a European partner, a member of the First World, and a claimant of an often slighted “inner alterity” within Europe, has not, at this time, formulated a pressing claim—classical heritage aside—to the metropolitan imaginary. It is ironic that Galanaki may vie for just such a space with a book that collapses public and private identity, proposes alternative modes of collectivity, resurrects repressed non-European contexts, and questions the mechanisms of nationalism so unequivocally. Writers from the margins who wish their complex cultural realities “translated” for a metropolitan audience may have no other recourse than to see their work read as a “national allegory,” even if it is a national allegory about the undoing of nationalism.29
The authentic Indian curry may no longer exist. This writer gourmand, however, must admit that, due to the pressures of completing a lecture on the eve of his talk, he never made that trip to the curry house in Sparkbrook.
Graham Huggan's acute consideration of postcolonial chic and how it “plays” in prestigious book awards and, specifically, the Booker Award spurred on some of the associations in the early part of this essay (Huggan 1994).
The “periphery” is a problematic notion, always contextual. In its very restricted usage here from the perspective of the metropolitan publishing houses with a global reach, the term seems relevant.
The work was first published in Turkish with the title Beyaz kale in 1979. It appeared in English translation in 1990 and received the financial assistance of the Arts Council of Great Britain. His first novel, Cevdet Bey ve ogullari (Cevdet Bey and Sons) has not yet been translated; his second, Sessiz ev (The Silent House) is available in French and was short-listed for the Prix Medici for the best foreign novel of 1988. The acclaim following The White Castle led to the publication of Kara kitap (Black Book) in English by Farrar, Straus, Giroux in 1994 amidst much fanfare.
The novel will hereafter be referred to as Pasha. References to the text are taken from Kay Cicellis's English translation. The fact that the translation was awarded financial assistance from a UNESCO fund may point to its global “appeal” and its “translatability.” It may, on the other hand, only be a propitious omen of the high-profile critical support that may bless it.
Beaton rightly parallels such devices—in particular the exploration of the divided or double self which defies the categories of religion, nationality, and gender—to the short stories of Georgios Vizyinos. “Two of these stories,” Beaton adds, “present a central Turkish character not only in a sympathetic light, but as in some way the counterpart or alter ego of a Christian one: Kiamil in ‘Who was my Brother's Killer?’ and Selim the Muscovite in the story of that name” (Beaton 1994: 292-293, fn.66). See Vizyenos, George, My Mother's Sin and Other Stories. Trans. William F. Wyatt, Jr. Hanover, NH and London: UP of New England, 1988. For insightful readings of such issues in Vizyinos, see Chryssanthopoulos (1994), esp. Ch. 7; Barbeito (1995) and Syrimis (1995).
See Donato (1979) for a discussion of the protagonists' epistemic quests; Gourgouris (1995) argues that the work complicates notions of premodern, modern, or “post-” literary-historical divisions.
In a review of the novel, Berman picks up on this allusion, but seems to read Darvinoglou's warning in the prologue at face value. As a result, Berman adjudges that Pamuk fails, for “all manner of interpretations leap to mind,” and he quips, “the sly author has only himself to blame” (Berman 1991: 38). The Turks' defeat at the second siege of Vienna in 1683 holds enormous importance for Turkish identity. It marks the advance of the Austrians and their allies into Ottoman territory and will lead to a distinct change in fortunes. They are no longer equal in power to the West and, only a few years later, at Carlowitz in 1699, they sign a treaty imposed on them by the victors (Lewis 1964).
A few years earlier, in 1953, the first English translation by Carl Wildman also chose the same title, Zorba the Greek.
In her prefatory note, the author explains that her subtitle Spina nel Cuore (di Venezia)—“a thorn in the side of Venice”—is taken from a Venetian manuscript of the thirteenth century which describes the troublesome and strife-ridden plateau of Lasithi in Crete. Thalassis analyses the incongruities of the title in much greater detail (1991: 100).
Parts of the epic's action are taken from oral tradition. It has also been argued that aspects are derived from hagiographical texts and the Lives of Theodore Stratelates or even Lazarus, the future stylite of Mount Galesius. See Trapp (1976); and Kazhdan (1993). For a portrayal of the blending of popular oral tradition and canonical Lives, consult Chapter 7 of Hart (1992). The predilection for synaxaria as genres on which to base the exposition of a new archetypal figure in Greece has been continued in Thanassis Valtinos's portrayal of the immigrant protagonist in his Synaxari tou Andrea Kordopati.
The scene of the fall, described as a separation from the mother, is a common scene. See, for instance, Ilias Venezis's To Noumero 31328.
Parallels, too, could be drawn with the historical figure Muhammad Ali himself (1805-1848) since he was a Turk from Kavala who fought with Egyptian forces against the French and soon imposed himself on the Ottoman government as governor. His successors, the khedives, were, by family right, to rule Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty.
The complex exposition of circular and linear metaphors, with attendant phallic or feminine connotations, is taken up in Yiorgos Thalassis's analysis (1991: 105-110). Despite some suggestive commentary, Thalassis concedes that the construction of elaborate binaries along these axes does not fall into settled categories and that there is need for much closer analysis.
The fate of his mother does not allow Ismail “to touch a woman's body without fear” (20). Ismail's relationship with his brother, by contrast, is one often described in terms of an ever-deferred physical contact (24, 48); indeed, their correspondence is described in terms of the fulfillment of a physical need, for Ismail declares: “Now I know that you have a body—now I can clasp you in my arms” (60); “I embrace you” (68); “Yet but if I could but touch you once again before I die” (70), etc.
Sourbati pursues an interesting parallel between Ismail and Saleem, the protagonist of Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
This is repeated in other key events in the novel—e.g., the multiple versions of the fate of Ismail's mother.
Galanaki shuns rationalism and mimesis in a way that recalls García Márquez's observation that, for all the magicality of One Hundred Years of Solitude, he claims writing it “simply by looking at reality, our reality, without the limitations which rationalists or Stalinists through the ages have tried to impose on it to make it easier for them to understand” (Mendoza and Márquez 1983: 59-60).
Melina Mercouri was the most celebrated practitioner of such ritual. On her visits to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, she would play out such a scenario and caress “her marbles.” Greek tourists to London very often take part in this ritual in the hopes of an end to their separation from the Greek cultural past and in anticipation of another myth of return.
The poet Nikos Kavadias ends his celebrated anti-Romantic poem “Marabou” with consummate modernist consciousness: “The hand trembles … Fever … I have forgotten myself.”
The “rotten brine-soaked timbers” of Mythistorema VIII, that themselves hark back to Kalvos, are conjured up here.
Wendy B. Faris considers the frequency and function of ghosts in postmodern fiction, asserting, “They return with an unusual frequency, confusing further our received notions of similarity and difference. … ghosts which figure in many magical realist fictions … resemble two-sided mirrors, situated between the two worlds of life and death, and hence they serve to enlarge the space of intersection where magically real fictions exist” (1995: 178); see also Zamora (1995). Ismail's mothers—his biological mother and Ibrahim—appear as ghosts who serve as mirrors of an abstracted Greek and Egyptian identity. As ghosts, they influence Ismail's actions and emotions without complicating the plot with well-developed motives of their own.
I prefer here my own translation over Cicellis's version because the “akrivos” [exactly] of the Greek text must be kept. Seeing what exactly happens is precisely at issue, and ironic.
Benedict Anderson argues that “no more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist than cenotaphs and tombs of Unknown Soldiers. The public ceremonial reverence accorded these monuments precisely because they are either empty or no one knows who lies inside them … they are nonetheless saturated with ghostly national imaginings. This is why so many different nations have such tombs without feeling any need to specify the nationality of their absent occupants. What else could they be but Germans, Americans, Argentinians … ?” (1991: 9-10).
I am indebted to Panayiota Batsaki for her insight on this point.
D. N. Maronitis seeks to locate the “maternal line” [mitriki riza] for Galanaki's novel in the tradition of the Greek historical novel (1992: 47); in somewhat more appropriate terms, Yiorgos Thalassis (without reference to Maronitis's article) begins his analysis with the critical exposition of such an endeavor by musing over the much-repeated turn of phrase in Greece: “this is how it came from its mother” [“etsi irthe apo ti mana tou”].
The preoccupation with history of a number of prominent contemporary Greek novelists—Yiatromanolakis, Douka, Valtinos—has led to much discussion on the relation between history and fiction. Writers and critics turned their attention to this coupling at a conference entitled “Historical Reality and Modern Greek Prose Fiction, 1945-1995” at the Etaireia Spoudon Moraiti on April 7-8, 1995. The proceedings received ample coverage in the press (Ta Nea, April 8 and April 10; To Vima, May 14). In Dimitris Mitropoulos's report, Galanaki distances her work from the traditional historical novel and its driving nationalist ideology while asserting her fascination with Cavafy's historical sensitivity as depicted in his historical poems.
The prevalence of dreams and folktales in such novels recalls the metonymic and metaphorical associations shared between the two. For a discussion of these parallels, consult Chapter 6 of Margaret Alexiou's (1997) book.
Jusdanis (1987) demands greater cultural specificity be maintained in describing the form of Greek cultural movements and institutions. According to Jusdanis, Greek modernism did not separate between “high” and “low” culture nor is the autonomy of art affirmed as in the West. As a result, the postmodern in Greece manifests itself only in some “personal statements,” for the conditions for the development of a theoretical problematic are absent. Tziovas has argued that this opinion is based too heavily on the reading of Greek modernist poetry. For a discussion of the postmodern in Greek fiction, consult Chapter 6 of Tziovas (1993).
The postcolonial context offers some insight into the Greek case. In a discussion of postcolonial texts, Fredric Jameson (1987) maps out a cognitive aesthetics for third-world writers and shows their propensity to expand the individual story into collective terms, as national allegory. Aijaz Ahmad's response (1987) questions many of Jameson's totalizing and psychographic assumptions as well as his favoring of the concept “nation” over such alternatives as “culture,” society,” “collectivity.” Moreover, Ahmad rightly believes that Jameson understates “the presence of analogous impulses in US cultural ensembles” (15). In general, Ahmad complicates many of Jameson's distinctions between First and Third World, and the shifting nature of Center and Margin in multiple contexts is acknowledged. But a consideration of how states at the margins, or their writers and publishers, envisage or define their relation to the European center, and how this affects the projection of their self-image, may benefit our understanding of such articulations.
Ahmad, Aijaz (1987). “Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory,’” in Social Text 17, 3-25.
Alexiou, Margaret (1997). Myth, Metaphor, Language: After Antiquity. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Anderson, Benedict (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.  Revised and expanded edition. London: Verso.
Barbeito, Patricia Felisa (1995). “Altered States: Space, Gender and the (Un)making of Identity in the Short Stories of Georgios M. Vizyenos.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 13, 299-326.
Beaton, Roderick (1994). An Introduction to Modern Greek Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.
Berman, Paul (1991). “Young Turk.” The New Republic, 9 September, 36-39.
Chryssanthopoulos, Michalis (1994). Georgios Vizyenos: Metaxi Fantasias Kai Mnemes. Athens: Estia.
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SOURCE: Paddy, David Ian. Review of The New Life, by Orhan Pamuk. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 249-50.
[In the following review, Paddy praises The New Life for its postmodern examination of literature and its emphasis on contemporary Turkish culture.]
Have you ever read a book that was so overwhelming, so utterly life-changing that you had to find everyone else who has read it and force it upon those who haven't? This impulse provides the basis for Turkish writer Pamuk's latest novel: in The New Life a man, Osman, encounters a book so earth shattering that it changes his entire life. He seeks out others who have read the same book, and he sets out on a bizarre journey to find in this world the new life proposed within the book.
Pamuk's novel may strike readers as strongly reminiscent of many other works (but in a book about books this should come as no surprise). The stunning opening chapter, which details Osman's experience of reading the eponymous novel, echoes Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. Osman's subsequent quest for the new life leads him to a number of conspiracies (one bent on destroying the book itself) that read like plots by Pynchon and Eco. Finally, Osman's fascination with bus accidents as the apocalyptic means into the new life feels much like Crash-era Ballard. Despite these similarities, Pamuk weaves these voices and ideas into a unique style that addresses particular concerns of contemporary Turkish culture.
The New Life is another volume in the postmodern library of books about books, or to be more precise, books about the experience of reading books. In this wing of the library, The New Life sits a little distance from Borges's Labyrinths and a little closer to Nabokov's Pale Fire and Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars. But The New Life doesn't sit on a shelf. The book lives and moves. It moves this reader as the book within the book moves the reader within the book.
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SOURCE: Gün, Güneli. “Something Wrong with the Language.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5006 (12 March 1999): 14.
[In the following essay, Gün responds to criticisms of her use of idiomatic American English in her translation of The New Life. Gün argues that British reviewers are critical of translations that use colloquial American English rather than literary British English.]
The drubbing I received from British reviewers for my translation of Orhan Pamuk's novel, The New Life (reviewed in the TLS, October 10, 1997), gives me a chance to expose the assumptions, biases, chauvinisms that beset a former empire (in this case, the British), which must now compete with other nations not only for other ideologies but also for other “englishes”, which, in my case, is American. I am amazed that some British reviewers complain that my text is “too American”. “Slangy” is another all too easy potshot from some of the mavens of the British literary establishment, such as Ronald Wright in the TLS. If Wright thought it through, however, he would see that the correct term would be “idiomatic American”.
Pamuk writes in a casual yet culturally resonant idiom that is colloquial and often humorous, although he will, whenever it's called for, regale you with lofty language or overwhelm you with politesse. The subtle values of a culture reside in colloquial idiom; it is the language of the insider; it is encoded; and it is the hardest part of a language for an outsider to learn. What British reviewers can't imagine, of course, is that fictional characters who are Third World Turks, when translated into English, are able to speak idiomatic American. But why not? Should they speak like stage Turks or Arabs, as played by Tony Curtis in The Thief of Baghdad?
American diction constantly crosses over class lines, which is what makes it so refreshingly democratic and self-renewing; but I use it simply because I happen to be an American. That doesn't mean I don't go for Britishisms when it suits, like “drubbing”, for example, a usage that resonates with subtle, class-conscious attitudes of that culture.
I think of myself as a novelist who does translations from time to time, but in fact I have spent four years translating three major novels from the Turkish, two of them by Orhan Pamuk. Why am I so reluctant to admit to being a translator? Well, as an author I am applauded for being as unruly and disobedient as I can be (and lavishly praised for it, I might add, even in the columns of the TLS, as well as other London publications), but as a translator I am expected to play the part of a docile handmaiden to literature who renders someone else's words from one language to another, as if I were some sort of a transliterating machine that mechanically finds the verbal equivalent in the target language.
As Lawrence Venuti points out in his recent book, The Translator's Invisibility (reviewed in the TLS, September 6, 1996), “The translator's invisibility is symptomatic of a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described … as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.” Venuti traces the covert existence of the translator in texts that conform to the British canon of fluency and transparency, which is the practice of concealing the translation under the illusion that it was originally written in—what else?—British English. The illusion of transparency is shattered, however, if a translator uses a language other than standard British English; then reviewers become acutely and painfully aware that they are no longer swimming in the comfort of their own stream.
I became aware of the same phenomenon occurring previously in the columns of the TLS (August 8, 1997), this time in relation to Vasily Shukshin's Stories from a Siberian Village, translated from the Russian by two Americans, Laura Michael and John Givens. Shukshin apparently used Siberian dialect to reproduce the language of the peasants in his stories; when the translators decided to use American colloquialisms to match that dialect, they were not making an unconscionable choice. Yet in his review, Donald Rayfield responds to the translation with insults and jeers, misidentifying the colloquial usage as “slang” so thick that “anyone not from Arkansas will be bewildered”. I am not from Arkansas, but I am not bewildered by the American duo's lively language. Professor Rayfield then offers a dull and stodgy translation done by Robert Daglish as a better version. Why? The Daglish version might be “straight, literary English”, but it is colourless and lifeless.
The translation of The New Life was originally commissioned and paid for by an American publishing house (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It is almost always an American publisher who buys the rights from a foreign author like Orhan Pamuk and pays for the translation; if the book looks like a winner, then an English publisher buys the translation at a reduced rate and reprints it kit'n caboodle (that is, the spelling, idiom and attitude intact), because copyright law makes it illegal to “british” the text. They could if they paid for it, but, on the whole, they would rather keep the costs down.
When I first read the great Russian writers in English, I was amazed that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gogol sounded exactly alike. Not only that, the Germans sounded like the Russians, who in turn sounded like the great writers of Spanish, Italian and French literatures. What the British canon considers transparency isn't transparent at all, but is mediated; where the British see transparency, I see an inflated Matthew Arnold, subsuming authors from various cultures into the dominant voice that defined the British Empire, thereby “domesticating” the foreign element.
Although logically a translation is the work of two authors, we trick ourselves into thinking that we are reading the “original” pre-existing words of Author One. But if we think about it clearly, we have to admit that Author Two necessarily constructs and invents her own representation for her own world, in this case American, rather than simply revealing the world of Author One, as if through a transparent medium. The other major translation strategy besides “domesticating” a text is deliberately to “foreignize” it, as in Ezra Pound's opacity, which calls attention to itself by using archaisms that distance his translation both from the foreign text and also from the prevailing values of his target culture. Lawrence Venuti, who wants the translator rightfully recognized as the second artist, also champions “foreignizing” a text, but Venuti has the advantage of dealing with the Italian culture which is quite readily available to the Anglo-Saxon world. The world of the Turk, on the other hand, is already considered so foreign, so distant and so unavailable that further “foreignizing” that world would be keeping alive the myth (in Gladstone's words) of “the unspeakable Turk”. I opted for the strategy of making that world familiar, near and available by letting Turkish characters speak idiomatic American.
Where the translated text is aggressive and innovative, the translator's voice is necessarily anything but transparent. I am all for “englishing” a text, but I shun a voice so homogenized with other translators' voices that it goes unnoticed. I am as unruly and disobedient a translator as I am a writer, which is, of course, precisely what bothers English reviewers. They cannot tell whether they're reading Orhan Pamuk or Güneli Gün. I want to reassure them that they are doing neither, or they are doing both.
I immediately fell in love with Pamuk's work. I thought that here was a Turkish writer, at last, who could break out of the insular climate of Turkish literature. I think it is the same fascination that compelled the Turkish reading public to buy Pamuk's book in such large numbers; the book represents a new life. Older Turkish writers have worked the “village novel” to death for the past sixty years, a genre so naturalistic and ideologically simplistic that its incurable pathos only manages to depress and wound the Turkish soul, without providing an answer to the nation's epistemological problems. Pamuk is the champion of educated New Turks who yearn for a legitimate place in the world of ideas. His work meets the West on its own terms, resonating with philosophic and aesthetic concerns that go beyond national boundaries.
Translating Pamuk is like mirroring his gestures. My fictions often deal with the same subject matter and themes as his, although Pamuk has the hopes and dreams of the Turkish nation behind him, while I am a frontierswoman working alone in the West without a “natural” audience. We are both postmodernists who juxtapose “high” and “low” language, both show-offs who do verbal and philosophical tricks, we both indulge in anachronisms and ransacking in the historical treasury that is concealed underneath the debris of the old Ottoman Empire. So it is no wonder that I spent two whole years on The Black Book, and more than a year on The New Life, clarifying and teasing out the semantics of the original Turkish, bumping up Pamuk's lexicon, giving the text a living voice in idiomatic American which is at times irreverently colloquial and at times intensely erudite—as is the original. Like Pamuk, I too had been carried away by the rhapsodic if slightly stilted language of the earlier English translations of Rilke's Duino Elegies and Dante's La vita nuova. In certain passages where I needed to pull the reader along with the febrile intensity of unrequited love, I decided to go for a whiff of lilac that wafted in from the nineteenth century, giving the prose that hypnotic ecstasy of “abnormal” language; in the words of my mentor, Richard Howard, poet and translator par excellence: “Poetry is language that has something wrong with it.”
I am quite aware that the current taste in translation favours the Anglo-Saxon word over the Latinate, yet it seems a pity not to harness the power of Latin when you consider that Pamuk's work is thematically and temperamentally linked to the epoch's important Latin writers, such as Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa. When the translators of these writers allow themselves to go for the obvious cognate, the clarity and precision of Latin rubs up against the muscle of idiomatic English, creating a frisson that used to thrill the great Borges. I get chills from it myself, so I wanted to provide that textual pleasure for Pamuk's prose.
When reviewers admire what I have done with his work, they call Pamuk's prose “hypnotic” or “dense and stately”. When they aren't sure, they praise the author for the elegance of certain passages and blame the translator for their quibbles with some shortcoming in the text (Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer), in this case, Pamuk's reluctance to write about sex other than from a respectful distance. Or they call my translation “slightly stilted”. Mars-Jones goes even further, questioning my “familiarity” with English, patronizingly assuming I don't know that some vintage words (such as visage, rife, dauntless, etc), although still beautiful, are not in circulation. It never occurs to him that I might be summoning up these words on purpose, that I might be so at home with English that I take calculated risks. Some reviewers are merely disquieted by words like “truck” for “lorry” (Brian Martin in the Financial Times), while others (Ronald Wright in the TLS) almost come right out and say Pamuk ought to find himself a better translator. But they can't read Turkish. So how do they know what Pamuk's prose is really like?
Reviewers aren't real critics; for one thing, they have neither the time nor the inclination to consider and reconsider the validity of their opinions. Yet they have the power to make or break a book. Letting them pick and choose among books is like letting two-year-olds decide what breakable objects are to be saved for posterity. The point in case is the polemical short-take in the TLS International Books of the Year (December 5, 1997) by Alev Adil. In a single paragraph that deals with two books by two authors (Orhan Pamuk and Ismail Kadare), four out of the eleven sentences are spent on blitzing one of the translators, namely, Güneli Gün. Why such a lack of balance? Considering that the reviewer has a Turkish name, you'd imagine Adil would have read The New Life in the original, squaring the English text against the Turkish, yet there is no first-hand insight; instead, the readers are offered a list of gratuitous insults against the translation (which are exactly the same ones some NewSpeak Istanbul ideologues level against Pamuk, badmouthing his Turkish and his long sentences): “fussy”, “clumsy”, “ungrammatical”, “unreadable mess”.
As a response, here is what Katy Emck writes in the New Statesman about The New Life: “Pellucid, elusive, infinitely suggestive and poignant, it is as though Borges had sustained one of his crystalline fictions for the length of an entire novel. I have never read anything less clumsy.” Obviously, Emck has been able to surrender herself to the pleasure of the text, which is how all writers wish their books read, including translators whose voices have not been neutered by convention. The sad thing (for me and for other author-translators) is that Emck never mentions my name, not even in the usual credits on top of the column, let alone in connection to the prose. But then, had Katy Emck noticed that The New Life is actually a translation, she might not have liked the book so much.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1932
SOURCE: Pamuk, Orhan, and Michael Skafidas. “Turkey's Divided Character.” New Perspectives Quarterly 17, no. 2 (spring 2000): 20-2.
[In the following interview, Pamuk discusses issues of Turkish identity, the critical reception of his novels in Turkey and abroad, and modern Turkish politics.]
Orhan Pamuk is perhaps Turkey's leading contemporary writer. His best-selling novels include The White Castle and The Black Book. His most recent book, The New Life, is just out. Michael Skafidas, editor of the Greek edition of NPQ, spoke to Pamuk recently in Istanbul where he lives and works in a beautiful apartment overlooking the Bosporus.
[Skafidas]: Your books have always reflected the reality of a divided culture. Today more than ever Turkey's two faces—Islam and secularism, East and West—are at war. Would you say that the very essence of your work has been about this huge, invisible wall that divides modern Turkey?
[Pamuk]: Yes, I think I get my energy from this traditional wall that still exists in Turkey between East and West, between modernity and tradition. All the artists and intellectuals of previous generations have had an idea of a Turkey, which would be either totally Eastern, or totally Western, totally traditional or modern. My little trick is to see these two spirits of Turkey as one and see this eternal fight between East and West, that takes place in Turkey's spirit, not as a weakness but as a strength, and to try to dramatize that force by making something literary out of it.
Your novels tend to be more successful than any other modern Turkish writer's, in Turkey and abroad. How do you explain this? Is it the surrounding controversy that makes your books popular in Turkey, or is it a newborn desire to get rid of the old way of thinking and see things through a fresh perspective?
Well, there are quite a few reasons. One thing that explains most of this is that during the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk there was such a radical will to westernize the country; a will to invent a new nation. And, to create a nation, you have to forget lots of things. A nation is a unity, perhaps, that is put together not with what we remember but with what we forget.
In order to establish a modern and Westernized nation, Ataturk and the whole Turkish establishment decided to forget Islam, traditional culture, traditional dress, traditional language and traditional literature. It was all buried. But what is suppressed comes back. And it has come back in a new way. Somehow, in literature, I am myself that thing that comes back, but I came back with my postmodern forms, I came back as someone who not only represents tradition, traditional Sufi literature, traditional form, traditional ways of seeing things, but also someone who is well versed with what is happening in Western literature. So I put together the experimentalism, I mix modernism with tradition, which makes my work accessible, mysterious, and I suppose charming, to the reader.
In Turkey I'm criticized for being too much of an outsider, too much influenced by the West, for looking at Turkey too much from a Western point of view. There is a truth to that in the sense that I am not a classical 19th-century novelist of the realist tradition. That's what they call “national” in Turkey, which is of course not national. The 19th-century realistic novel killed the traditional Turkish literature, which was full of imagination, esoteric and almost hermetical darkness.
These were all left aside with the rise of the modern state and Turkish writers began to write in a very simplified, dull and, honestly, uninteresting reportage-like manner. So what I did, simply, was kill that literature and instead pull out a bit of the strange and mysterious, a bit of the dark—literature with long, long, baroque sentences. The surprising thing is that it is popular.
Despite what some critics believe, I am not a magic realist. I don't like magic realism. In fact, I am a radical critic of magic realism because it implies that these nice people in the strange Third World countries are somehow funny and cute but, scum of the earth, not as human as we are!
We can only approach the strangeness of these unfortunate folk, the fans of magical realism seem to say, by making them sugary, but the characters in their literature do not have the human spiritual weight of, say, a Henry James or a Flaubert or a Tolstoy novel. They are little funny beings like caricatures. Most of the time they are laughable, lovable but you are never afraid of them.
Yet, the third world countries are places where you find real terror. They are full of horrors which magical realist literature does not represent.
Are you provocative by nature or by circumstances? You have said that if you do something new in Turkey “they look at me as a pervert; the future can only come from America.”
OK, I have an instinct to go to places, to be in the places that no one had stepped in before, although in my mental topographical map these places exist. Once you begin to walk in these places everyone is surprised.
Let me give you an example: I was raised in a secularized, Westernized almost semi-atheistic, positivistic family. My grandmother used to recite to us atheistic poetry and the rest of my family were all Westernized and thought themselves to be Turkey's elite. I went to an American high school here. With this background, then, I began to study Islamic mysticism, as a subject—something considered to be low culture.
So once I begin doing that everyone was surprised; I was walking in a strange land because the way I approach it was not the traditional Sufi way, which is not interesting and this is not what is expected from a person like me.
So I have this urge to be in places that no one has ever been before, mental spaces or ideological spaces or combinations. My instinct is that I should always try to put together things that previously had been thought to be incommensurate such as modernity, experimentalism and political Islam, resistance to consumer society and, say, post-modern thought and comic books.
This hybridization, I believe, is the formula of the new life. And once you begin doing that you feel yourself to be talented or helped by God. Then this new electricity begins to shine between these two different things that no one thought could connect. Something new appears then and that's dazzling. Everyone wants to be in that light.
In your books you describe Istanbul as a place that has no symmetry, no sense of geometry, not two lines in parallel, which is exactly the opposite from a modern city of the future in the West, like Los Angeles.
Would you say that Istanbul and Los Angeles are the two extreme urban opposites in the world emerging at the new millennium? One representing the past and its legacy, tradition, spontaneity, chaotic infrastructure; the other representing the future, rational space, corporate wealth, lack of memory?
Yes, for me Istanbul is a darkly, baroque, introverted layer; layers of layers of history, an inaudible city. My image of Los Angeles is that it's rushed, it's huge, but it also has some dangerous aspects like Istanbul. I would love to combine these two in a way. Either in an imaginary fashion or just do something literary, that makes it possible to see them in one bottle.
Octavio Paz has said that without the reconciliation of faith with science in Islam, there will be great conflict with the vast relativist civilization that now stretches through most of Asia, across the Americas to Europe.
Will Islam prove to be stronger than progress?
I like Octavio Paz, but he got the thing completely wrong. Like many others who look from the outside with heavily naive eyeglasses, he fails to see that political Islam is a modern phenomenon. In fact, that's what makes it different: political Islam is not traditional Islam. So the reconciliation between science and this part of the world is actually happening through political issues. Of course it is complicated. The fight against political Islam should be done by people like me, who are living in these countries, who are still managing to survive by trying to produce a local, traditional culture that should be secular. This is the way to create an alternative view to political Islam. Political Islam uses the very touchy card of identity; the question is whether that identity should be filled with religion, that is Islam, or with a rather secular culture that we should invent by using traditional culture.
The idea that there will be science, more science and then Islam will disappear is very naive. In fact, people are going to pay more attention to their roots and religion. They already do.
What is your reaction to the new psychology that affected the Turkish-Greek relations following last fall's earthquakes? Has nature succeeded where diplomacy has failed to create a more friendly frame of spirit between the two countries? Is this a real situation or is it an illusion?
It's real, it's happening. But, on the other hand, it could change at any moment. The earthquakes created one of those miraculous situations, where, because of the devastation there was an instinctive sympathy, understanding and goodwill. On the other hand, it's not deeply rooted. And that is because the basic education of the two nations is designed so that they hate each other. That should and could be changed. Unless that is changed, I can expect a collapse of these good relations any moment because we are all educated to hate each other. This is the logic of the establishment of the modern state on both sides.
The Greek left has always disliked the fact that Americans are supposedly much friendlier to the Turks than the Greeks. It is a paradox because Greece is a deeply Americanized country whereas Turkey still holds strong on its religious and cultural traits. Is it a real paradox or an illusion?
Here there is a paranoia that there are so many Greeks in the United States always influencing the American politicians and the establishment. On the other hand it is true that Greece is considered a part of European civilization and Turkey is not. No one is afraid that it can float by itself and be dangerous, while the United States is more concerned about Turkey turning out to be an Iran or a more dangerous country if no one is pulling it to the West. And then Turkey, with its 60 million people, is a huge country. So, of course, Americans would pay more attention.
How do you see Turkish identity being changed in a few years if and when Turkey becomes a member of the EU?
I hope that Turkey becomes a member of the EU, although Turkish state and governments are not doing anything to improve our horrible human-rights record or the violations of freedom of speech. If that is not done, if Turkey cannot even justify its status as a candidate member of the EU, things will get even worse. There will be so much chauvinistic, nationalistic anti-Western sentiment bursting out since it is already inherent in Turkey. Of course there is so much distance between just being a simple candidate and being part of Europe. Definitely, there is so much distance between Turkey's reality now and Turkey's full participation in an ideal future world.
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “The Finest of the Foreign.” Spectator 287, no. 9 (4 August 2001): 29-30.
[In the following review, Hensher discusses the lack of interest among British readers in foreign literature in translation, noting that My Name Is Red is a “dreamy, passionate,” and “wonderful novel.”]
The English are terrific translators, when they get the opportunity. The national literature is full of brilliant, idiosyncratic renderings of great foreign classics. If you want to consider the English epic a snark which was never quite hunted down you have to look at Pope's Iliad (the Odyssey is the work of multiple hands, and inferior), Dryden's Virgil and Harrington's Orlando Furioso as well as at Milton and Spenser. No one has really read Victorian literature who has not fallen for those shameful purple pleasures, Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Sir Richard Burton's dementedly fanciful Arabian Nights. And the tradition has continued with such brilliant writers as Constance Garnett, who brought the great classics of Russian literature into view. Even when the translation is somewhat wrong-headed, as in Scott-Moncrieff's Proust or, notoriously, H. T. Lowe-Porter's Thomas Mann (all those thous!) they are very often interesting cultural facts.
The caveat, however, has to be that the English are not often given the chance to show their ability. Notoriously, we are not that interested in foreign literature, and never have been. In part, this is down to our justified arrogance over the quality of our own, and, taxed on the subject, publishers are always apt to produce a variant on Randall Jarrell's proverb, ‘The Patagonians have two poets, the better named Gomez: the Patagonians call Shakespeare the English Gomez.’ A few great foreign classics, such as Dante, have been translated over and over again; others, like Ariosto, have only been done two or three times; and some, like Adalbert Stifter, have never been translated at all. The English translate fewer books than pretty well any other nation on earth. It's customary to deplore the lack of initiative of publishers in this regard, but in their defence it must be said that when they do bring out a foreign novel it is almost always to complete indifference on the part of the reading public. There is the occasional craze for an Umberto Eco, a Bernhard Schlink or a Peter Hoeg, but these are very rare.
Moreover, the books that do make an impact are generally those which tend to confirm what we thought we knew about their country. A gloomy German book about the legacy of the Third Reich will do all right, as will a Scandinavian novel about snow. A really funny German novel—yes, they do exist—stands no chance at all. One publisher after another has done his best with Leonardo Sciascia; but what we really want from an Italian novelist is witless fantasies about small-town life, where the sun always shines on the poor but happy postman. Sciascia's demonic analyses of political corruption won't satisfy our prejudices in this regard.
Frankly, we should be pleased that publishers try as hard as they do. A publisher like Harvill, which explores the furthest reaches of foreign literature, is a hugely admirable enterprise, and the quality of their list probably higher than any other London publisher. They've shown that it can be done: their list includes well-known classics, like Bulgakov, little-known but very enjoyable classic novels—I particularly commend Federico DeRoberto's The Viceroys, a raucous aristocratic Sicilian saga which I quietly prefer to the much more famous The Leopard of Lampedusa. And their work on behalf of contemporary foreign novelists has been consistently rewarding, introducing splendid novelists like Javier Marias and W. G. Sebald to an appreciative English audience. Among more recent discoveries, Andrey Karkov's Death and the Penguin, a disconcertingly funny novel from Ukraine about a hard-drinking obituarist and his pet penguin, is an especial pleasure. In general the Harvill list is the one you would wish to be stranded with on a desert island.
These books, then, are offered more in hope than expectation. Each of them is by an author of very high domestic repute, and it's safe to guess that you haven't read them. The fierce competition to get a novel into English doesn't mean that all translated novels were worth translating, of course: there are numerous examples of truly terrible books acquired in a fit of enthusiasm during the course of a jolly week at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But on the whole it must be said that if an English publisher considers it worth translating a Turkish novel, there must be a very good reason for it.
Jens Christian Grøndahl's Silence in October is a most beautifully poised and shaped novel of Danish domestic life. The narrator's wife, Astrid, has left home without warning, and is traced by her credit card payments to Lisbon, where the trail goes cold. In many ways, this is not far from a Danish version of the Hampstead novel: the narrator is an art historian, and there is much here about the certainties of Cézanne as his world falls apart. But the delicacy and subtlety of the treatment stay in the mind; it looks unambitious, and is overwhelmingly concerned with personal sensations rather than big ideas. In the end, though, it is profoundly impressive, simultaneously mysterious and precise: it is Grøndahl's ninth novel, and one would like to see some of the others in English.
Harry Mulisch writes from a national literature in a most peculiar and probably unprecedented position. The average Dutch reader is now so commonly at ease in English that English novelists often only find it worthwhile to bring out a Dutch translation if it appears before the English original. Some time, soon, a Dutch novelist will write a novel, which hops between the two languages: the technical term is macaronic, something only attempted in modern times, to my knowledge, by that peculiar novel, Beppe Fenoglio's Johnny the Partisan. The poor Dutch novelist is almost making a gesture of defiance by writing in his native language, like Welsh poets. His problems are not diminished, either, by the fact that this is a literature of which the world knows almost nothing. Apart from The Diary of Anne Frank, the only Dutch literature I know is the classic Max Havelaar by ‘Multatuli’. It's remarkable that the Netherlands have produced, in recent years, two world-class novelists in Cees Nooteboom and Harry Mulisch, who ought to be doing something to dispel the impression that there is no such thing as a specifically Dutch sensibility any more.
Whether Mulisch is the man to do this, I rather doubt. His last novel, The Discovery of Heaven, was a fantastically frustrating book. A superb first half promised great things in its alert, dry portrayal of an extraordinary childhood: the book was ruined when it turned into yet another Euro-novel about gigantic conspiracies, the Lost Tribes of Israel, the Knights Templar, the Ark of the Covenant e tutti quanti. This new book [The Procedure] confirms, alas, Mulisch's determination to turn himself into a Euro-novelist of the most boring kind, with lavishly servile homages to Calvino and a lot of unnecessarily tiresome playfulness. It is all about the myth of the Golem, the clay man supposedly animated by Rabbi Loew for Rudolph II, a subject which one seems to have heard rather a lot about recently, and no more interesting than before. Maddening: when Mulisch forgets his ambition to be Umberto Eco and writes locally, parochially, domestically, he is terribly good. But on the whole The Procedure is unmistakably a book intended for a course in Contemporary European Literature in American universities, and not for the ordinary pleasures of the ordinary reader.
Orhan Pamuk is, indisputably, a major novelist, and My Name Is Red a fabulous, baffling, exciting novel. I have to admit I know nothing of Turkish literature apart from Pamuk's novels, and in many ways he is writing, one feels, within that tradition and hardly at all for an international audience. It is set in the 16th century, and circles around a murder within an atelier of court painters. It is utterly unlike, however, the Western traditional historical novel or the intellectual thriller. It proceeds in grandly cloudy evocations of the world, as, one after the other, the characters, a small child, a dog, even a tree are magically given articulate voices. Oddly, the Western tradition it does draw from is a sumptuous orientalism. Professor Edward Said has taught us all to be rather snooty about French paintings of harems, and perhaps it takes a Turkish novelist to demonstrate that orientalism is, in reality, one of the richest of literary modes, even if it has nothing to say about the historical reality. Pamuk seizes the potential of orientalism with magnificent gusto:
This area, so often described by my Enishte and others who had visited the palace, lay before me like a Heavenly garden of unequalled beauty. I regarded the peacocks roaming through the greenery, the gold cups chained to splashing drinking fountains, and the Grand Vizier's heralds robed in silk who seemed to amble about without touching the ground, and I felt the thrill of being able to serve my Sovereign.
It is a wonderful novel, dreamy, passionate and august, exotic in the most original and exciting way. Faber have long stood by Pamuk, and it is to be hoped that a novel of this quality gathers for him a fraction of the gigantic readership he commands in Turkey. But what I would very much like to know is who else there is out there.
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SOURCE: Kirsch, Adam. “Getting Real.” Washington Post Book World 31, no. 35 (2 September 2001): 13.
[In the following review, Kirsch criticizes My Name Is Red for failing to adequately convey the richness and complexity of artistic creation.]
Orhan Pamuk is the most popular living Turkish writer, both at home, where his novels are unprecedented bestsellers, and in the West, where he has earned comparisons to Borges and Calvino. As those names suggest, his books can seem postmodernist, dealing as they do in unreliable narrators and shifting identities. But in My Name Is Red, his latest novel, the flatness of the characters, the multiplicity of plots and narrators, the highly self-conscious reference to myth and archetype, are sponsored by Pamuk's antique Turkish and Arabic sources; he is not so much rebelling against European realism as detouring around it.
In summary, My Name Is Red sounds like a familiar kind of book—a murder mystery, with a love story thrown in. In 1591, a man named Black returns to Istanbul at the summons of his uncle, a government official commonly called Enishte (Uncle). It was Black's declaration of love for Enishte's young daughter, Shekure, that led to his banishment 12 years before. But now Enishte needs his help in completing a secret commission from the aultan. Enishte has been to Venice, where he discovered the secrets of Western perspectival art, and he has convinced the sultan to have an illuminated book made using the new techniques. Four masters of the Ottoman style have been enlisted to produce the illustrations; but just as Black arrives, one of the artists is murdered.
But to read My Name Is Red merely to find out if Black wins Shekure, and if the murderer is discovered, is deeply unsatisfying and often tedious. The novel is narrated by a dozen different characters (and a few inanimate objects), one short section at a time, so that the action frequently halts and doubles back. Nor is this compensated for by the liveliness and variety of the narrators; none of them is a full or vivid presence, and the stilted, woolly translation is unable to sharply differentiate their voices. They form not a chorus but a din.
This problem is most acute when Pamuk introduces us to the three illustrators, Olive, Butterfly and Stork, one of whom has killed the fourth. Because they remain names rather than distinct characters, it is impossible really to care which is the murderer, although the mystery is drawn out to great length. Even the lovers, Black and Shekure, never come into focus. Their feelings change wildly from one section to the next; their actions seem random, unmotivated.
All of this would spell disaster for a novel that attempted realism. But Pamuk's real attention is elsewhere: He is concerned above all with the techniques and ideas of the Ottoman artists as they confront the power of Western art. Olive, Stork and their brethren are in the peculiar position of practicing representational art in a culture that strongly prohibits the making of images. They get around this ban by remaining illustrators and illuminators of books, rather than painters; they maintain the fiction that they are merely decorative craftsmen. But they have all the pride and ambition of Michelangelo, and Pamuk succeeds in giving the reader a sense of the richness and complexity of their art.
Enishte's project represents a spiritual crisis for the Ottoman illustrators, of which the murder is only a minor consequence. The advance of Western portraiture has shown them that their own images are unrealistic, and their artistic pride is wounded into rivalry. Yet their culture makes a powerful case against realism, which is synonymous with vulgarity and blasphemy. Pamuk draws the reader into this mental world, where art is both sacred and profane, representational and abstract, innovative and traditional. These paradoxes culminate in the notion that the greatest illustrators must go blind: Only by losing their sight can men see as Allah sees.
Pamuk's use of Ottoman illustration is similar to Thomas Mann's use of German music in Doctor Faustus: It is at once his subject and his guiding metaphor. Pamuk's painters, caught between the traditions of an Eastern past and the seduction of a Western future, remind us of Turkey itself, the Islamic country that has embraced secularism most ardently. And Pamuk's own flat, unreal, repetitious fiction is analogous to the chastened art of Butterfly and Stork. To a reader accustomed to depth, perspective and accuracy, it cannot help but seem inadequate.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1863
SOURCE: Davis, Dick. “Murder and Joy.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5136 (7 September 2001): 6.
[In the following review, Davis commends My Name Is Red for transcending the “conventional limitations” of the mystery genre and creating a rich narrative that draws from both Eastern and Western cultural traditions.]
To say that Orhan Pamuk's new novel, My Name Is Red, is a murder mystery is like saying that Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is a murder mystery: it is true, but the work so richly transcends the conventional limitations of the genre as to make the definition seem almost irrelevant.
We are in Istanbul in the 1590s, and the main characters belong to an atelier of miniaturists commissioned to produce a masterwork for the Sultan. Populist religious preachers are stirring up sentiment against the whole concept of representational art (traditionally regarded with great suspicion in Islam), and the world of the artists themselves is split between those who would cleave to the age-old methods of miniature painting derived from Persian masters, and those who are beguiled by the new Western techniques of painting imported from Venice. Or, in the words of the miniaturists themselves, between those who strive to paint the world as God sees it, and those who strive to do so as man sees it. Two of the most eminent members of the circle embody the opposing views. One speaks for the eager welcoming of artistic hybridity: “We owe Bihzad and the splendor of Persian painting to the meeting of an Arabic illustrating sensibility and Mongol-Chinese painting. Shah Tahmasp's best paintings marry Persian style with Turkmen subtleties. … To God belongs the East and the West. May he protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.” The other (in a chapter that turns into one of the most beguilingly lovely ten pages or so of art history I've ever read) pleads for a passionate immersion in the magnificent heritage of miniature painting itself, and the repudiation of all else: “Meaning precedes form in the world of our art. As we begin to paint in imitation of the Frankish and Venetian masters … the domain of meaning ends and the domain of form begins. … What could be more exquisite than looking at the world's most beautiful pictures while trying to recollect God's vision of the world?” It is one mark (among many) of Pamuk's great skill as a novelist that, as he presents these wholly opposing views, his persuasive empathy with both seems total.
Violence disrupts this hothouse world exclusively devoted to the production and understanding of art. First, one of the miniaturists, whom the others suspect of having developed secret sympathies with the fundamentalists who would condemn all representational art as the work of the devil, is mysteriously killed; and then the master who has advocated artistic hybridity and a selective welcoming of Western techniques is also murdered. A marginal figure in the atelier decides he will solve the murders, but much of his time and mental energy are already taken up by his desperate love for a beautiful woman who has two young sons, and who may or may not be a widow. These narratives of detection and desire mingle to form the rest of the novel's very complicated and highly satisfying plot.
Pamuk's empathy with the nostalgic beleaguered traditionalist who knows his world is passing is almost heartbreakingly persuasive, but the technique of his novel proclaims that he himself is a magnificently accomplished hybrid artist, able to take from Eastern and Western traditions with equal ease and flair. He has frequently been compared to Borges and Calvino. It is certainly true that he shares Borges's love of mazey intricacies, and he also seems to be beguiled by the glamour of distant heroic violence in the way that Borges can be. Like Calvino, he delights in multiple perspectives (I lost count of the number of narrators in My Name Is Red, but there are at least eight), as well as in the elegant manipulation of stock folk-tale-like characters and tropes—another Calvino speciality. But both Borges and Calvino, despite their large output, are essentially miniaturists, specializing in brief, preternaturally resonant, parable-like forms. Pamuk has written a book that is over 400 pages long, and which has all the exuberance and richly descriptive density of a nineteenth-century European novel. He can sound like Stendhal (on love), or Dostoevsky (on guilt and sin), or Dickens (in his sudden homing in on the memorable detail that brings a moment alive before the reader's eyes), or Balzac (in the marvellous plethora of evocative particulars with which he can describe a scene). His use of the Eastern tradition is equally virtuosic, and a joy to participate in. His knowledge of the details of life in sixteenth-century Istanbul is clearly extensive and used to often ravishing effect. Many of the circumstances in which the characters find themselves echo moments (as the characters themselves point out) in classical Persian poetry. These latter are taken chiefly from the works of Nezami (twelfth century), and from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (eleventh century). Nezami in particular is omnipresent in the book's structure; his Khosrow (or using the Turkish spelling Husrev) and Shirin are the inspiration for the love story in the novel (even the heroines' names are similar, Shirin means “sweet”, and Shekure, the name of the beloved in Pamuk's novel, is cognate with our “sugar”); the detection part of the plot makes many allusions (these include the book's title) to Nezami's masterpiece, The Seven Portraits (Haft Paykar). Western readers unfamiliar with this literature will miss specific references, but any reader will be aware of the pervasive presence of traditional tropes in the book's narrative, as they are openly referred to.
The techniques of classical Islamic literature are used to anchor the book within a tradition of local narrative, but they can also be used with a wonderfully witty and distancing lightness of touch. For example, it was common for classical Persian authors to conclude a poem with their name appearing somewhere in the last line; the last word of “Khosrow and Shirin”, the poem behind the love story in Pamuk's novel, is the name of the author, “Nezami”. Pamuk's first name is “Orhan”. One of the children of Shekure, the beloved in My Name Is Red, is also called Orhan. As the novel closes, Shekure tells us that she will entrust the telling of her tale to Orhan, but we must not believe everything he says because, “For the sake of a delightful and convincing story, there isn't a lie Orhan wouldn't deign to tell.” This repeats a familiar trope from Islamic literature, but it also ironizes it.
And this combination itself echoes a similar moment in Golestan by the thirteenth-century author Sa'di', in which the author insistently presents himself as a traveller (with the implication that he knows about distant places we haven't been to), but then tells us that you cannot believe travellers because they tell lies.
But brilliant technician though Pamuk undoubtedly is, it would be wrong to give the impression that the novel is chiefly memorable as an aesthetically intricate formal tour de force. Similarly, although one of the great pleasures of reading it is our sense of being transported in a convincing manner to sixteenth-century Istanbul, this prodigious act of historical re-creation also seems less significant in an assessment of the novel's power than other factors. The heart of the novel is surely the long discussion on the nature of art, its relation to reality, and the relation of the artist, especially the artist of great talent, to whatever traditions he may inherit or encounter. The pages that deal with this are intensely exhilarating to read, and the author (or his surrogate) has much that is arresting and provocative to say on the subject. Connected with this concern for the artist's identity is the preoccupation with a society's identity, and it is hard here not to draw parallels with the state of modern Turkey. Just as Pamuk's sixteenth-century artists felt they were uneasily caught between East and West, and were being forced to make choices they would rather evade, so modern Turkish society notoriously feels itself poised between the pull of tradition and the lure of Western versions of what life is, or should be, about. In both the novel's world and in contemporary Turkey, the presence of religious fundamentalists threatening violence is not to be discounted. If we consider the novel to be in some way “about” Turkish identity, it is surely significant that Pamuk belongs to the first generation of Turkish intellectuals since Atatürk's revolution which has begun to explore the artistic heritage of the Ottoman courts as a significant, and not wholly negative, cultural legacy.
This novel is then formally brilliant, witty and about serious matters. But even this inclusive description does not really capture what I feel is the book's true greatness, which lies in its managing to do with apparent ease what novelists have always striven for but very few achieve.
It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity and humanity. This is particularly so in the treatment of the love story, which seems on the surface so romantically extravagant, but becomes as it progresses so human, endearing and humane. Despite the fact that the novel deals with murder, with the passing of an era, and with people caught in ineluctable tragedy, the chief emotion the prose conveys is joy, the pleasure of being alive, of being able to connect with other people, and of having the opportunity to give oneself to a calling or a person with passionate commitment. It is this that makes the book such an extraordinary achievement.
It is customary to carp a little in a review of this nature, and though there is very little to fault in Pamuk's novel, one or two minor matters can perhaps be placed on the other side of the ledger. There seem for example to be a couple of small slips in the use of the Persian legendary material. At one point Rostam's forked arrow piercing the eyes of Alexander (the Great) is referred to; it was Esfandyar whom Rostam killed in this way, not Alexander. Similarly Seyavash (from the Shahnameh) is referred to as “avenging his brothers”; this seems to be a confusion with the Iraj story, as Seyavash has no brothers (or none whom he is interested in avenging). However, as the whole novel is narrated by different characters who participate in its plot, it may be that these are not authorial slips at all, but that we are meant to register them as errors made by the particular speakers. The translation is in the main very felicitous indeed, and I was frequently struck by how very well the English read. However, there are a few slips: “illicit” for “elicit”, “lay” for “lie” (this last is becoming common in new novels), “fell” for “felled” (as in “he felled the hero with a single blow”), and “Your sympathy and understanding are much obliged”, when the meaning is clearly “I am much obliged to you for your sympathy and understanding”.
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SOURCE: Bukiet, Melvin Jules. “Perceptions of East and West.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 September 2001): 1, 5.
[In the following review, Bukiet compliments My Name Is Red as a “meditation on authenticity and originality,” describing Pamuk as an accomplished “chronicler” of the Turkish consciousness.]
Few boundaries on this planet are more distinct than that of the narrow nautical channel called the Dardanelles, which separates Europe from Asia within the nation of Turkey.
To the east lie several thousand miles of harshly variegated landscape that has given birth to harsh rulers from Genghis and the rest of the Khans to Tamerlane and, over the last century, the Shah of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein, while westward stretch more-temperate climes inhabited by presumably more-civilized though often no-less-murderous Europeans. Straddling that border, partaking of East and West, sits the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and yet further back in time Byzantium, and in that city sits Orhan Pamuk, chronicler of its consciousness.
The author of several previous novels, including The White Castle and The Black Book, Pamuk could probably live no place else on Earth. Certainly his new novel, My Name Is Red, could occur no place else. Its subject is the difference in perceptions between East and West, and its main characters are miniaturists who wrestle with those differences while illuminating manuscripts for Sultan Murat III toward the end of the 16th Century.
Guided by an older man named Enishte, or “Uncle,” four of the sultan's finest artists. Butterfly, Stork, Olive and Elegant, are working privately on sections of what will become a larger, unified masterwork. Until their era, such artists adhered to a traditional Islamic style that aimed to ornament rather than represent its text, because identifiable images were considered idolatrous. Yet the court had recently been influenced—or tainted—by so-called Venetian art. What's the difference? Well, by placing a person in the center rather than on the periphery of a canvas, one implies that humanity may be as central as deity, and by embracing techniques of perspective one sees the world from a human point of view rather than God's. This is incendiary to the established order though nonetheless enticing, because portraiture provides “‘a memento of [its subjects'] lives and a sign of their riches, power and influence—so they might always be there, standing before us, announcing their existence, nay, their individuality and distinction.’”
Two plots take place against this art-historical background. The first involves the relationship between Enishte's daughter, Shekure, and her erst-while suitor, Black. Shunned years earlier for another man who has since been lost in battle, Black has just returned to Istanbul to reclaim his beloved. Secondly, and more ominously, one of the miniaturists believes that the result of his work is heretical. To stop it, he kills his co-worker Elegant and then Enishte. Driven mad by theology, the killer believes that he and his colleagues are “attempting to depict the world that God perceives, not the world that they see. Doesn't that amount to challenging God's unity, that is—Allah forbid—isn't it saying that I could do the work of God?”
But who is the mysterious killer? The passionate Shekure enlists the tormented Black to uncover his identity. Thus the dual plots twine together against an intellectual background.
Yet before considering the novel in its entirety, we must toss one further element into the mix: Today's literature may have more in common with its medieval ancestors than with realistic novels of the intervening centuries. This half-antique, half-contemporary style reveals itself in the structure of My Name Is Red.
To begin with, the story is told from more than a dozen perspectives, including the illustrators', and also, apparently, many of their illustrations: a dog, a tree, a coin, and, perhaps connecting to the enigmatic title, the color red. Dead people also tell their tales.
Within the individual narrative voices, we hear multiple mini-essays that pose questions about style and what effect art has on its viewers and its makers. More so even than the twin plots of love and death, these questions are the true center of My Name Is Red. In other words, the focal point of the novel is its background of pronouncements upon its own nature. Some are worldly and cynical. For example, Butterfly says, “if truth be told, money and fame are the inalienable rights of the talented,” and Enishte notes that art is created “‘to escape the prattle of others, to escape the community, but … we also want those we've forsaken to see and appreciate the inspired pictures we've made.’” Other comments, however, are intellectual and ontological, such as Stork's, “To know is to remember that you've seen.”
This philosophical inquiry comes to a peak when Olive, Butterfly and Stork, the three suspects in the murders, deliver final statements that echo yet contrast with one another. The first is, “When I draw a magnificent horse, I become that magnificent horse,” the second, “When I draw a magnificent horse, I become a great master of old drawing that horse,” and the last, “When I draw a magnificent horse, I am who I am, nothing more.”
Obviously, Pamuk is getting at a subject that has compelled modern thinkers from Heidegger to Derrida: what it means to perceive and then to interpret one's perceptions by representing them. Thus, My Name Is Red is a meditation on authenticity and originality. In probing these matters, Pamuk frequently comes up with lines of transcendent clarity, as when he has Enishte say, “‘simply existing in this world is a very special, very mysterious event.’” Yet, as in much contemporary philosophy, he sometimes veers into gassy reflection: “I don't want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.” One is not sure, exactly, what this, well, means.
It's ambitious to work on so many levels at once, and though Pamuk is more often than not up to the task, some of his levels are inevitably more successful than others. Many of the characters in the mystery (call it the Western) section of My Name Is Red are portrayed as flatly as Eastern archetypes. Their generic names, Butterfly, Olive, etc., preclude the kind of personal knowledge we expect in our portrait-like novels. Even when one of them is revealed to be the killer, we can't distinguish him from the rest and can't therefore feel the satisfaction of resolution.
On the other hand, the cold logic of what we might deem the Eastern section is usually delivered with a sharp particularity. Thus, while the Western art discussed here is “‘less focused on ornamentation and intricate design and more on straightforward representation,’” the book in which this discussion occurs is at its best when it is focused on intricate design.
All of this is hard to grasp for a reader—and reviewer—yet that may be the truest definition of art. As the killer notes, “‘A great painter does not content himself by affecting us with his masterpieces; ultimately, he succeeds in changing the landscape of our minds.’” Pamuk may not have told a fully fleshed story, but he has surely accomplished this larger and infinitely trickier goal.
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “In the Beginning was the Book.” New Leader 84, no. 5 (September-October 2001): 23-5.
[In the following review, Schwartz offers a positive assessment of My Name Is Red, noting the impact of Pamuk's writing on Turkish letters.]
Orhan Pamuk is not only a superb writer, he is a cultural phenomenon. Equally at home in the traditions of ancient Islamic literature and Western postmodernism, he's the first Turkish novelist to win spectacular success in Europe and the United States. His four novels published here, of which the best by far is The White Castle (1991), are curious variations on a handful of themes: Turkey's Ottoman past as a stage for the clash and cross-fertilization of East and West; the infinite, tortuous complications of individual and national identity; and above all, the magical properties of books. In every Pamuk novel a book, real or imaginary, is the source or trigger, virtually the protagonist, of the action.
“I read a book one day and my whole life was changed” is the first sentence of A New Life (1997). The narrator sets off on a picaresque road trip through a Turkey shaped by American incursions like Coca-Cola and Hollywood movies, to find the promised new life. Though the book turns out to be a hoax of sorts, the exhilaration and perplexity it causes are authentic and vivid. The lure of a new life—that is, of the old self given a new past along with a new future—is ubiquitous in Pamuk's work. In The White Castle, a 17th-century Venetian, sold into slavery by Turkish pirates, and his master spend years exchanging family histories and anecdotes until they change places and identities. By the end, both reader and characters are not quite sure who is who. The borders of the self, in Pamuk's world, are so porous and ambiguous that the lawyer-hero of The Black Book (1994) can move into his dead cousin's apartment and, without any great difficulty, take the deceased's phone calls and continue writing his idiosyncratic newspaper columns.
Pamuk's latest novel, My Name Is Red (translated by Erdağ Göknar), is conceived on a grander scale than his previous works. Its setting is late 16th-century Istanbul, in the ateliers of the Sultan's court painters and manuscript illustrators. In this milieu beset by religious fanaticism and strife, two artists working on a possibly heretical book are murdered weeks apart. (Readers may be reminded of Umberto Eco, but Pamuk has a lighter, playful touch, more in the vein of Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges.) The opening chapter is told by the corpse of a miniaturist recounting his brutal death, but only 400 pages later do we discover which of the three suspected master illustrators is the culprit.
The mystery moves along in first-person chapters narrated by the eight or so major characters, with intervening chapters contributed by a dog, a tree, Satan, Death, and similarly unexpected voices. We soon learn these voices are the improvisational riffs of a storyteller who entertains in a freewheeling coffee shop frequented by the illustrators and targeted by the repressive fundamentalists. Within the historical setting, Pamuk is obviously alluding to current political and religious struggles between Islamic zealots and advocates of free expression in Turkey and neighboring countries.
At the Sultan's request, the elderly master illustrator Enishte Effendi is supervising the creation of the dubious book whose artistic principles prove worth killing and dying for, intended to represent everything in the Sultan's world. The project is dubious because the Sultan and Enishte wish it to exhibit the intriguing new Venetian manner, with its cultivation of personal style and its use of perspective, portraiture and realistic depiction of the world, as opposed to the entrenched Persian tradition of painting as “the act of seeking out Allah's memories, seeing the world as He sees the world.” (Enishte himself will be the second artist killed for reasons of esthetics.)
Attached to the murder mystery is a love story. Enishte's nephew, the former miniaturist Black, ends a 12-year exile to seek his early love, Shekure, Enishte's beautiful daughter. Shekure's soldier husband never came back from his last battle, and with her marital status in question, she has returned to her father's house to escape the advances of her volatile brother-in-law. When Black presents himself, the clever, pragmatic Shekure is utterly confounded. Should she wait faithfully but probably uselessly for her husband, or succumb to the persuasions of her wild yet attractive brother-in-law, or yield to Black, whose appeal is less frenetic? The two small quarreling sons she dotes on, Orhan and Shevket, complicate her choices. (In an interview, Pamuk said that he is the Orhan of the novel, who at the close is entrusted with telling the story, and that the family configuration mirrors his own childhood. Plus he has a brother named Shevket. “These are my essential subjects: rivalry, jealousy, problems of domination and influence, revenge”; they originate in sibling rivalry as well as in Turkey's ambivalent position between East and West.)
Despite the personal overtones, or perhaps because of them, the love story and family dilemma are the least successful parts of My Name Is Red. Shekure's arbitrariness is unconvincing, and the back-and-forth courtship ritual where Black is teased and manipulated and made to perform heroics in order to win his bride, becomes tiresome. The romance seems a distraction from Pamuk's genuine interest—the conjunction of esthetics, politics and religion. On this subject he can be brilliant at dramatizing subtle painterly distinctions and at offering an overview of Ottoman history and lore—battles, tales of passion, royal intrigue—as preserved in the ateliers of the master painters. The downside, unfortunately, is a great deal of repetition, and erudition often delivered in huge chunks that clearly fascinate the writer more than they will the reader.
The salient feature of Ottoman illustration, as Pamuk describes it, was close copying of the old masters; “style” as we know it was considered a flaw, a deviation. “Illustration,” though, is the key word. “A beautiful illustration,” according to an ancient Sultan, “elegantly completes the story. An illustration that does not complement a story in the end, will become but a false idol. Since we cannot possibly believe in an absent story, we will naturally begin believing in the picture itself. This would be no different than the worship of idols …” Enishte's book has pictures but no text as yet—a risky departure from tradition. Black, besides courting Shekure, is enlisted to provide a text. The book's last page will show a realistic portrait of the Sultan, in perspective—“the same size as a dog. … Our Sultan's … face in all its detail! Just like the idolators do!” This is what horrified the murdered painter, and what he threatened to tell the fanatics; this is why his colleague, eager to try the new methods, murdered him.
To portray life as Allah sees it, “the vision of the world from a minaret,” means resisting the temptation of individual style: “No one ought to compete with Him … claim to be as creative as He.” But in the lengthy and sometimes violent arguments among the miniaturists, the opposite view is heard as well. Perhaps attempting to reproduce Allah's vision is the real presumption. Perhaps the Venetian artists, with their humanist perspective and distinctive styles, are more fittingly humble. As the artists take sides and the quest for the murderer heats up, Black and Master Osman, who represents the old school of thought, spend three days in the Sultan's private library of old manuscripts, seeking clues to the murderer's identity in tiny stylistic quirks. Their research becomes Pamuk's elegiac tribute to the ancient Persian masters, who labored anonymously, for art's sake, to the point of blindness. In an ecstatic moment, Master Osman even blinds himself: blindness is supposedly Allah's gift to the faithful painter. Only when blind, after a lifetime of effort, can he see the world in memory, from an unending, Godlike darkness.
It doesn't much matter, finally, who the murderer is; in the tradition of Ottoman painting, the three suspects sound very much alike. Indeed, Pamuk's greatest tribute to his subject is his use of so many similar voices, in imitation of the technique of the ateliers, where several painters worked on the same pictures in a uniform, time-honored manner. The novel itself might well be the nonexistent text to accompany the daring illustrations, the rich book showing everything in the Sultan's world.
As Enishte approaches death—clobbered by the painter who kills for the right to his uniqueness—he sees “the presence of an absolutely matchless crimson. … The beauty of this color suffused me and the whole universe.” This is the “crimson within which all the images of the universe played.” My Name Is Red takes no sides between Eastern and Western attitudes; it recognizes the need for both and the value of their mingling. “Nothing is pure,” Enishte says. “To God belongs the East and the West.”
That kind of inclusive vision makes the religious fanatics see red: In a climactic raid on the artists' coffeehouse, they kill the storyteller—the ultimate symbolic act. Though this novel wavers in places, it is the work of a master. But for an introduction to Pamuk at his most distilled, I would recommend starting with the incomparable White Castle.
Books, again, are what drive the characters in Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (translated from the French by Ina Rilke), but here they serve to sustain the spirit and free the imagination. Dai Sijie is a Chinese filmmaker now living in France, and it is no wonder that his first novel was an “overnight sensation” in his adopted country. The books that help two adolescent boys weather the rigors of the Cultural Revolution are by Balzac, Romain Rolland, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Alexander Dumas, and Flaubert. A suitcase full of the banned treasures is discovered under a bed in a remote, primitive mountain village (whose former main product was opium) where the urban boys, sons of disgraced doctors and intellectuals, were sent in 1971 to be “re-educated” by hard labor. Dai Sijie himself underwent re-education in his youth, and very likely the novel's pungent details of rural life and work are drawn from his experience, though they could hardly have been as comical in actuality as he manages to make them in fiction.
To say the novel is a charming fable of the Cultural Revolution may seem an oxymoron, yet it is accurate. When the two boys arrive in their new home on the mountain called Phoenix of the Sky, the local headman and assembled villagers shake and tap the unnamed narrator's violin with puzzled suspicion. Hearing its music softens them, but their wariness isn't fully allayed until Luo, the narrator's best friend and fellow exile, assures them the tune is called “Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao.” Quick-witted Luo is also a gifted storyteller: “A pleasing talent, to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it. Modern man has moved beyond the age of the Thousand and One Nights, and modern societies everywhere, whether socialist or capitalist, have done away with the old storytellers—more's the pity.” Since the headman is “the last of the lordly devotees of narrative eloquence,” though, the boys are sent off to town every month to see a movie and act it out for the grateful, story-starved villagers on their return.
And so it goes. We know from the outset that art will save the day and save our heroes, even if they have to crawl through coal mines with laden baskets strapped to their shoulders or climb narrow mountain paths with buckets of excrement on their backs. “Dear reader, I will spare you the details of each faltering step; suffice it to say that the slightest false move was potentially fatal.” Other excesses of the Cultural Revolution are mocked in the same wry tone, a boyish marveling at so idiotic a turn of fate. Behind that lurk—or should lurk—terror and despair, yet only intermittently do we feel their weight. Then again, perhaps I don't give enough credit to the indomitable human spirit.
Both boys are smitten by a beautiful young seamstress, daughter of the tailor in a neighboring village, although Luo finds her “not civilized, at least enough for me!” This drawback will be remedied when Luo and the narrator find the suitcase of books stashed away by their friend Four-Eyes, who is interned in a nearby village and reluctantly trades a copy of Balzac's Ursule Mirouët in exchange for help with his work. “Picture, if you will,” says the narrator, “a boy of 19, still slumbering in the limbo of adolescence, having heard nothing but revolutionary blather about patriotism, Communism, ideology, and propaganda all his life, falling headlong into a story of awakening desire, passion, impulsive action, love, all of the subjects that had, until then, been hidden from me.”
The books do more than nurture the boys' hopes and fantasies; they help Luo succeed in love. “‘With these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She'll never be a simple mountain girl again.’” He proceeds to woo her by reading aloud. So, besides the fairy tale elements—four crones whose spells cure Luo's malaria, a raven that hovers nearby as an omen, the hidden jealousy of the rival lover—we have shades of Pygmalion!
Toward the end the tale darkens somewhat. While Luo is away visiting his sick mother, the seamstress appeals to the narrator to help her get an abortion. This gives Dai the opportunity to depict the execrable hospital conditions in the small district capital, as well as to explain the Draconian laws regarding unwanted pregnancy. In 1971 not only was abortion illegal, but it was illegal for anyone, including doctors, to help unmarried women in childbirth; moreover, marriage was forbidden before the age of 25. The only way the narrator can persuade a doctor to perform the abortion is by offering him Ursule Mirouët. As a bonus, he throws in his personal favorite, Rolland's Jean Christophe (“Without him I would never have understood the splendor of taking free and independent action as an individual”).
To escape from their wretched situation, the plucky boys long to live in, and live out, a French novel—a touching dream that succeeds all too well. Balzac may have introduced them to the exaltations of human passion and striving, but the seamstress extracts a different lesson. The abortion successful, she cuts her hair, sews herself a spiffy new outfit, and sets off for the city, like Rastignac. “‘She said she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman's beauty is a treasure beyond price.’”
Happily, Dai Sijie emerged from re-education with his talent and sense of humor intact enough to write an amiable novel. But the ingenious French scrim through which he shows the Cultural Revolution casts an unsettling glow over the real thing. Watch for the movie.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336
SOURCE: Hibbard, Allen. Review of My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk. Review of Contemporary Fiction 21, no. 3 (fall 2001): 203-04.
[In the following review, Hibbard asserts that My Name Is Red explores themes that are “highly relevant” to contemporary Turkish society.]
Colors figure prominently in this historical mystery [My Name Is Red], set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, which takes us into the lives of a handful of miniaturist painters, one of whom is murdered by a fellow artist in the first chapter, narrated by the corpse itself. “Try to discover who I am from my choice of words and colors,” we are told toward the opening of the novel in a chapter entitled “I Will Be Called a Murderer.” The ensuing narrative, in a manner similar to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, gradually pushes toward a resolution of the mystery while at the same time giving us a flavor of life in the days of Sultan Murat III and introducing us to the rich traditions of miniaturist painting. At stake is that very way of life. The murders (yes, there is more than one) seem to be motivated by wishes to adhere strictly to Muslim prohibitions on representational art and stave off the corrupting Western influences of Venetian portrait painting that elevate the individual at the expense of more selfless, collective endeavors. The themes of Pamuk's novel are highly relevant for a Turkey that even today is caught in the crosswinds of the competing values of West and East. Near the end of the novel a mob enflamed by the words of Preacher Nusret Hoja of Erzurum attacks a coffeehouse, killing a storyteller who they have determined is corrupting morals and overstepping the bounds of religion. Pamuk, however, is not at all didactic; rather, he simply displays the cultural dynamics at work. As in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the story's baton is handed from one character to another and moves through time, producing a clever narrative scheme we only wholly grasp on the last page.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1267
SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “The Plague.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 October 2001): 9.
[In the following review, Levi applauds My Name Is Red as a “modern classic,” commending Pamuk's representation of “the intense life of artists negotiating the devilishly sharp edge of Islam 1,000 years after its birth.”]
Istanbul, 1591: Black, a painter of miniatures, returns to his native Istanbul from his travels into Persia and the far reaches of the sultan's empire. For 12 years he has tried to escape the vision of his beautiful cousin, Shekure, whose hand was denied him by his master and uncle, Enishte Effendi. Riding into town, Black discovers that Shekure has been recently widowed and one of Enishte's illustrators has been murdered.
Love and crime in an exotic city have always proved a compelling combination to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whether in his 1990 contemporary novel The White Castle or his historical The Black Book. Yet it is neither passion nor homicide that makes Pamuk's latest, My Name Is Red, the rich and essential book that it is. While Pamuk's descriptions of the ravishing and ravenous Shekure quicken the heart, and his circuitous clues to the identity of the murderer quicken the mind, Pamuk is neither Jacqueline Susann nor Umberto Eco. It is Pamuk's rendering of the intense life of artists negotiating the devilishly sharp edge of Islam 1,000 years after its birth that elevates My Name Is Red to the rank of modern classic.
Pamuk's artists are a select group of miniaturists in the employ of the sultan. These are men who have passed a lifetime listening to stories in coffeehouses and studying the work of the great Islamic masters, whose illustrations embellish the mythology of Persia. These artisans have spent years engaged in the paradoxical art of illuminating old stories with new pictures in such a way that the illustrations will be beautiful and yet, in following the aesthetics and methods of the old masters, bear no trace of individuality, or “style.”
They have operated according to strict guidelines set by imams who interpret the Koran as tolerating visual art only as an extension of writing, a decorative addition to the already decorative calligraphy. And as an extension of writing, everything from the color to the size of objects was determined not by proximity to the viewer or interpretation but by relative importance in the scene and the hierarchy of the world.
Now these miniaturists, known by their noms de plume as Butterfly, Stork, Olive and Elegant, have been recruited by Black's uncle, Enishte, to work on a project so secret that its true nature is kept even from the chief illustrator, Master Osman. Enishte has been commanded by the sultan to complete a special illustrated book. “Our Sultan, Refuge of the World, wanted to demonstrate that in the thousandth year of the Muslim calendar He and His state could utilize the styles of the Franks as well as the Franks themselves.” Enishte has been asked to conquer the West by imitating its culture. And yet, in the eyes of the fundamentalist followers of Nusrat Hoja, doing so will be blasphemy against Allah, against the East. Enishte has been commanded to perform the impossible.
For in a culture in which personality is frowned upon and respect for the past is sacred, style is a dirty word. Style is for the Franks, for the Western painters that Enishte encountered on a youthful visit to Venice as an emissary for the sultan many years before. In the West, verisimilitude is all the rage and forced perspective the way to capture the three-dimensional world on the two-dimensional canvas.
In the East, such art is sacrilegious icon-making. “On the Day of Judgment, the idol-makers will be asked to bring the images they created to life,” the Murderer of the novel tells Enishte Effendi. “Since they will be unable to bring anything to life, their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell. Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of God. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do as He does, who claim to be as creative as He.”
And so we have a religious pretext for the two murders that fuel the novel and for the love of Black and Shekure which first ran aground when Black dared to replace the faces of two famous mythological lovers, Hüsrev and Shirin, with those of his beloved and himself. But none of this commentary would hold any power if not for the particular place of honor that books and art hold in the empire.
It is a world riven by wars of succession in which each new victor pulled “apart the books that had come into his possession; a new dedication would be written, boasting of the conqueror as the new ‘ruler of the world,’ a new colophon added, and it would all be re-bound so that those who laid eyes on the conqueror's book would believe that he truly was a world ruler.”
To read Pamuk is to be converted to the cult of the book. He paints the lives and the histories of his miniaturists with exquisite detail and, yes, style (and is beautifully served by his publisher's chief “miniaturist,” the book designer Chip Kidd, whose art has heightened the value of hundreds of books over the last decade).
Pamuk gives voice to all his characters, from the sensuous Shekure to the corpse of the illustrator. Esther, the pink-clad yenta of Istanbul; the luxurious Master Osman with his fatal love for the illuminations of the old masters; the corpse of the dead illustrator; a drawing of a horse and the color crimson—each have chaptersful of monologues to paint their particular section of the Pamuk story. Even a gold coin puts in its two cents on the issue of verisimilitude. “All right then, I confess. I'm not a genuine twenty-two carat Ottoman Sultani gold coin minted at the Chemberlitash Mint. I'm counterfeit. They made me in Venice using adulterated gold and brought me here, passing me off as twenty-two carat Ottoman gold. Your sympathy and understanding are much appreciated.”
Sometimes pushing forward with gossip, sometimes stretching imaginatively with glorious excursions into myth and history, these voices build a city of words. But most miraculously, Pamuk's Istanbul is a city trembling over a fault line of ideas. To read Pamuk is to be steeped in a paradox that precedes our modern-day feuds between secularism and fundamentalism.
The urge to be as creative as Allah is unstoppable. It comes from God's asking the angels to bow down before man, says Satan, the only refusenik among the seraphim, in a story recounted in the miniaturists' coffeehouse. No wonder everyone wants his portrait painted, wants himself placed at the center of the world. “I know it as well as I know my own name,” Satan complains to God, “that this narcissism can only culminate in their forgetting you entirely.” “As this plague spreads,” says the Murderer later on, “none of us will be able to stand against the methods of the Europeans.” Sound familiar?
My Name Is Red, like the best historical novels, is a super-parable, a novel of our time. As the Taliban destroys statues of Buddha thousands of years old and Bible thumpers burn art books and ban John Lennon, we realize that still for some, it is not McDonald's but Michelangelo who is the great Satan.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726
SOURCE: Simons, Char. “The Deadly Art of Portraits.” Christian Science Monitor 93, no. 222 (11 October 2001): 19-20.
[In the following review, Simons comments on Pamuk's skilled portrayal of Islamic society in My Name Is Red, noting its particularly relevance after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.]
“There are moments in all our lives when we realize, even as we experience them, that we are living through events we will never forget, even long afterward.”
These words from the bestselling Turkish novel My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, ring as true in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as in the year 1591, in which the novel is set.
While My Name Is Red has a many-layered plot—including a murder mystery and a love story—its thematic value is threefold: to provide a glimpse into an Islamic society, to understand the global tensions that exist when one empire waxes while another wanes, and to point out the cyclical nature of history.
In this case, the waning empire is the great Ottoman, which lasted 700 years until the early 20th century and, at its peak, encompassed Asia Minor, North Africa, and parts of Hungary and southern Russia up to the gates of Vienna.
The story takes place in Istanbul during the early years of the empire's decline. A powerful sultan has commissioned his miniaturists to create an illuminated work celebrating his royal self and his extensive dominion.
The artists have been asked to break with tradition and work in the new European style. But this is considered an affront to Islam because of its use of portraiture. As a result, the sultan's master gilder is murdered. Is this a sign of an impending clash with European values? In such a climate, the victim's widow notes correctly. “It's easy to lose sight of right and wrong.”
In addition to addressing the artistic, cultural, and political differences between the Ottomans and the Venetians, Pamuk also distinguishes between Turkish, Arab, Persian, and Chinese thought, philosophy, and art. This distinction among Muslims and other peoples of the Middle East is particularly useful in the aftermath of Sept 11, when the overriding tendency is to lump all Middle Easterners together.
The book's backdrop of waxing and waning empires serves as a reminder that global upheavals have been common throughout time, that war and peace operate in cycles, and that history can serve as an anchor and a beacon in a period of uncertainty.
As the master painter of the novel says, “Shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world's beauty belongs to Allah.”
The pace of My Name Is Red is the rhythm of Turkey itself. Just like fishermen in a timeless Turkish village setting off in their boats to cast their nets, the novel begins slowly, but subtly catches the reader in an ensnaring, rich tale.
Influenced by Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Pamuk has created a whodunit similar in plot to Eco's The Name of the Rose.
The twist is that the story unfolds as each chapter is narrated by a different character or object—the murder victim, the murderer, the lovers, the town gossip, a dog, the color red—with a style reminiscent of Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler.
The significance of My Name Is Red is obvious in Turkey, where the book has enjoyed the largest print run in the country's history.
Despite being condemned by both the secular left and the fundamentalist right. Pamuk is by far the most popular writer of the country that straddles the Middle East and Europe.
In a recent anthology for the Council of Europe, the author wrote:
I have spent my life in Istanbul, on the European shore, in the houses looking towards the Asian shore. Living by the water with a view of the opposite shore ceaselessly reminded me of my place in the world. Then one day a bridge connecting the two shores of the Bosporus was built. When I went up on the bridge and surveyed the landscape, I realized it was still better and still more lovely to see the two shores at once. I felt that a bridge between two shores was the best thing to be. Speaking to each shore without completely belonging to either; this unveiled the finest scenery of all.
It is precisely that blending that makes his work so appealing.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7522
SOURCE: Almond, Ian. “Islam, Melancholy, and Sad, Concrete Minarets: The Futility of Narratives in Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book.” New Literary History 34, no. 1 (winter 2003): 75-90.
[In the following essay, Almond discusses how Pamuk blends themes of sadness and “the anxiety of identity” in The Black Book.]
Instead of being amazed that library shelves in Islamic countries are crammed full of handwritten interpretations and commentaries, all one has to do is take a look at the multitudes of broken men in the street to know why.1
All the books of Orhan Pamuk, in their own way, breathe certain sadnesses. Their plots are wandering and discursive, their tones reflective yet distant, their styles making curious use of an oxymoronically comic melancholy. The settings of his books seem to underline this tristesse which clings to every line of Pamuk's prose: the gentle despair and nostalgia of the Venetian prisoner in The White Castle, the tea salons and bus stations of lonely Turkish provincial towns in The New Life, and of course the “sadness of Istanbul streets in the rain” in The Black Book.2 Perhaps most keenly of all, it is the endings of Pamuk's novels which express this modern, post-Romantic version of melancholy, a sadness which seems to combine the pain of unrequited love with the discovery that there are no grand narratives—or rather, that there are only narratives, stories whose only secret is that there is no secret, no supernatural source, no cosmic meaning beneath them. All three of the above novels end on similar moments of silence and indifferent resignation; The White Castle's closing image of the swing swaying gently in the wind, the glare of the headlights as the oncoming truck approaches the bus in The New Life, the (almost) inconsolable solitude of the widowed Galip as he stares out into the Istanbul night. All these endings mirror the sadness of a protagonist who has finally realised that he does not have a self, that his narratives possess no super-cosmic significance, that his life no longer has an object of adoration. The success of Pamuk as a novelist lies in the skill with which he explores the metaphysical echoes of certain sadnesses—homesickness, aimlessness, unhappiness in love—a skill which transmutes sequences of concrete events and sufferings into speculatively postmetaphysical parables.
The purpose of this study, however, is not to examine the role of sadness in Pamuk's work, but rather to show how Islam is involved in that sadness—why Pamuk's texts appear to see Islam as a synonym for melancholy and resignation, why every reference to Ibn 'Arabi, Hurufism, to mosques and minarets, seems to carry with it a haunting sense of loss and abandon. Descriptions of “sad, concrete minarets,” “forlorn mosques,” not to mention the badly illuminated Mosque of Selim the Grim which looks “more like the dark mouth of an old geezer who had but a single tooth in his head,” all reinforce a definite melancholy echo to the idea of Islam (BB [The Black Book] 306, 63, 360).
After the grand old man of Turkish letters Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Pamuk stands as Turkey's most translated writer, with four of his novels already in English. He began his writing career with the publication of Cevdet Bey and His Sons in 1982, a “panoramic” era novel written in the classical realist tradition. His second novel, The Silent House, published the following year, was significant in its use of stream-of-consciousness technique and unusual emphasis on the pyschological and sociological formations of its characters. The White Castle (1985) is considered a turning point in Turkish literature by many critics with its imaginative narration of the fortunes of a Venetian prisoner, captured by the Ottomans and kept as a slave in Istanbul to work for the Sultan's doctor. Pamuk's following novels—The Black Book (1990), The New Life (1994), and My Name Is Red (1998)—have all retained the same themes first glimpsed in The White Castle: questions of identity, of modernity, of the differences between Islamic and European attitudes to art and culture. His most recent novel Snow (2002) is a “political” novel in Pamuk's own terms, presenting an authentic view of contemporary Turkish society with its current conflicts and problems. Although by no means as linguistically experimental as Oğuz Atay, whose Tutunamayanlar (Those Who Cannot Hold On) plays with newspaper reports, monologues, and dramatic exchanges in a direct response to James Joyce's Ulysses, Pamuk's novels represent a clear break from a tradition of Turkish social realism à la Kemal. Difficult to place in any modern history of Turkish fiction if only because of their originality, novels such as The White Castle and The Black Book seem to combine the thought-games of Jorge Luis Borges, the narrative tricks of Italo Calvino, and the medieval esoterica of Umberto Eco with the kind of cynicism and satire of Turkish institutions and mores found in another of Pamuk's predecessors, Aziz Nesin. The result has puzzled and infuriated both left-wing and traditionalist critics alike.
Pamuk's controversial 1990 novel, The Black Book (Kara kitap), constitutes his most intensive examination of Turkish national identity and the various layers of religion and history which have come to form it. Pamuk seems to have had the term “postmodern” (along with a variety of comparisons to Borges, Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez) pasted onto him by most Western critics, eager to find a writer who “delights in shredding preconceived dichotomies.”3 This certainly extends to Turkish critics—Jale Parla's seeing The Black Book, with its collection of narratives, columns, stories, and confessions, primarily as an example of intertextuality,4 Gürsel Aytac's description of the book as “stratified fiction” (atektonik kurgu),5 Ramazan Çeçen's reading of The Black Book as the postmodern novel tied together with the Eastern tale.6 A number of other critics, however, have seen possibilities in The Black Book for less postmodern comparisons—Enis Batur's situating of Pamuk's Istanbul alongside Joyce's Dublin and Robert Musil's Vienna, for example,7 or Aytaç's observations on certain similarities to Thomas Mann. The curious place of Islam in his novel, as we shall see, forms its own commentary on the complex ambiguities within Pamuk's own response to a familiar postmetaphysical situation.
Pamuk's secularism is self-confessed, even if he feels free to draw on the multilayered traditions of mysticism and religion in Turkish culture. In contrast to Borges and John Barth, there are no compartmentalized pockets of Islam in The Black Book—Islam, rather, along with the history of Islamic institutions such as the Bektashi, the Hurufis, and the Alawites, form an intricately woven background to the events of the novel, a cultural screen whose presence imbues the events of the novel with hidden (and sometimes inescapable) meanings. Jelal's fascination with the fourteenth century Sufi Rumi (Jelalettin Rumi), for example, not only invites us to view Jelal as a modern day Rumi but also implicitly proposes The Black Book itself as a kind of Masnevi, a collection of Sufi stories and tales told with one ultimate aim in mind—to expose the illusion of the self (that is, the illusion of the self's independence from God). As we will see, this curious congruence between the writings of a medieval mystic and Pamuk's own postmodern speculations on the slipperiness of all notions of identity will not be the only example of how The Black Book reinvents and rewrites the various vocabularies of Islam as it goes along.
Despite the central presence of Ibn 'Arabi, Ibn Attar, Rumi, and al-Ghazali in The Black Book, Pamuk has insisted in several places that his appreciation of the Sufi tradition is purely literary:
I am interested in Sufism as a literary source. I never went into it as a morally educating tool and a self-disciplined code of behaviour. I see Sufi literature as a literary treasure. As someone who has sat at the table of a secular Republican family I live as someone affected by Western, Cartesian rationalism. At the centre of my life there is this rationality. On the other hand … I open myself to other texts, other books. I don't see those texts as a necessity, I take pleasure in reading them, I feel a joy. Where pleasure is felt, the self is affected. Where the self is affected, I also have the control of my reason. Perhaps my books find themselves without bickering or scuffling between these two centres.8
In this curious passage, Pamuk admits to two selves: a Western, secular, pro-Enlightenment rationalist, and an alternative self, implicitly Eastern, more closely linked with feelings and pleasure. Pamuk's attitude towards Islam in The Black Book will reflect this precarious dualism: on the one hand, the secular Orientalist and cynical nonbeliever will expose the myths of various Islamic traditions, suggesting (much in the manner of a Max Weber or a Maxime Rodinson) material, distinctly untranscendental explanations for the coming of the Messiah or the disappearance of Rumi. On the other hand, the vanquishing of such traditions, and implicitly the larger narrative which sustained them, will leave a sadness and sense of regret in Pamuk's more sensitive, unrational (Eastern) self. To a certain extent, these twin poles of East-West, Feeling-Reason, Spirit-Matter are represented by the figures of Galip and Jelal: Jelal the cynical, clever columnist whose not-quite-opposite is played by the tortured, melancholy figure of his cousin, Galip. Galip's novel-long quest in search of his wife/dream (in Turkish they share the same name, Ruya) ultimately portrays him as the only “true believer” in the text—the only character who insists on reading the world as a forest of signs which, when interpreted correctly, will lead him back to Rüya, the raison d'être of his existence.
The significance of Galip's infectious melancholy—the “stubborn sadness that he seemed to put out like a contagious disease” (BB 390)—leads us to the three varieties of sadness which The Black Book bestows upon the reader. They are sadnesses which not only implicate Islam and Islamic traditions in their melancholy, but which also reveal themselves to have an ultimately theological genealogy. The whole weight of The Black Book's deconstructive engine is geared towards this ruthless dismantling of the verb “to believe”—and an evaluation of the subsequent nostalgia which is left over once the operation of de-transcendentalizing Galip's dreams is complete.
THREE KINDS OF SADNESS IN THE BLACK BOOK
A hundred thousand secrets will be known When that unveiled, surprising face is shown.
—Attar, Conference of the Birds (qtd. BB 256)
The first kind of sadness in The Black Book results from the death of the mystery. It is a sadness which is hermeneutic in origin, springing from the moment we realize there is no hidden meaning to every sign—in Koranic terms, no secret batin (inner meaning) to every zahir (outer meaning). Of course, the idea that the only secret is that there is no secret is a familiar enough motif. Alain Robbe-Grillet writes “of having found a locked drawer, then a key; and this key opens the drawer quite impeccably … and the drawer is empty.”9 In Umberto Eco's Il Pendolo di Foucault, a group of young academics construct a bizarre conspiracy theory out of Templar lore, Freemasonry, Egyptian pyramids, and numerology, attracting unwanted attention from a variety of dangerous parties as they do so. When the unfortunate Belbo is finally trapped by a motley collection of cultists, masons, and Crowleyesque aesthetes, he refuses to give them the ultimate secret—that there is no secret, that their entire research has been an elaborate academic hoax—and pays for his silence with an unpleasant death. Such is the allure of the much sought-after kerygma, which turns out to be hopelessly irrevocable, a cruel joke or (worst of all) only leading onto an infinite regression of further pseudo-secrets (surely the joke of The Maltese Falcon, a film whose entire plot is driven by an object which remains forever off screen). In the case of The Black Book, Pamuk's newspaper columnist plays the same kind of games as Eco's conspiracy theorist, and is murdered only when his “loyal, faithful readers” decide they have been duped all along. In both cases, the disclosure of the secret brings melancholy and death.
In The Black Book, Islam is seen as an accomplice of the enigma, as a furnisher of secrets, as precisely the kind of worldview which enables secrecy to take place. Most references to the activity of interpretation in Pamuk's novel have an Islamic context, whilst many of the references to Islam (to the Hurufis, numerology, Messianic hopes, eschatological signs) invariably concern hermeneutics. This synonymity of belief and interpretation—that is, the believer as a kind of interpreter—gives the vast, sprawling book of anecdotes and references that is The Black Book its unifying drift: towards a deconstruction of the secret. Towards showing how at the heart of every ideology we construct, be it Albanian communism, Turkish nationalism, or Islamic/militant messianism, there lies a “secret” which is semantically empty. The definition of God we encounter in the book as a “hidden treasure,” a definition which belongs to a well-known and popular Sufi tradition, underlines the demythologizing intentions of Pamuk's text: “He read a great many pages attesting that God's essential attribute was ‘a hidden treasure’ (a kenz-i mahfi), a mystery. The question was to find a way to get to it. The question was to realise that the mystery was reflected in the world. … The world was an ocean of clues, everyone of its drops had the salt taste that led to the mystery behind it. The more Galip's tired and inflamed eyes read on, the more he knew that he would penetrate into the ocean's secrets” (BB 262). The Black Book has been called, with some justification, a “quest novel” (arayis roman).10 Galip's quest for the hidden location of his missing wife gives his hermeneutics an urgent, desperate edge. The boon side to the illusion of a secret—which The Black Book so cleverly portrays—lies in the sense of sheer magic it lends to the ordinary, in the way it transforms the peripheral into something (or someone) central and significant. Pamuk is fond of this idea—the ease with which the presence of a mystery can turn tedious details into objects of fascination. In Galip's search for Rüya, his wife/dream, he reads and rereads Jelal's old columns, searching for some clue as to their hideout. The affinity of the detective novel with deeper metaphysical speculations—Pamuk is endebted here not just to Eco but also Borges, in whose story “Death and the Compass” the detective tracks down his murderer's next victim using the Cabbala—finds its expression in several places throughout the novel: the mixed-up piles of detective novels and interpretations of the Koran sitting outside Sheikh Muammer's store (the Koran, in other words, as a metaphysical whodunnit [BB 297]), or F. M. Ücüncü, the esoteric author of The Mystery of Letters and Loss of Mystery, whom Galip reads so avidly, in reality a pun on the name of the Turkish translator of the Mike Hammer stories, F. M. Ikinci.11 These playful overlappings with the detective genre do comment sadly on Galip's own predicament: if The Black Book really is a detective novel, then it is the story of a failed detective, of a failed hermeneutics. Our hero fails to reach the scene of the murder in time, he fails to find out the location of Rüya and Jelal—all his powers of interpretation cannot prevent the death of his wife.
A vein of mockery, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, is also at work in this alliance of Islam and the Krimiroman. Its object is the ta'wil tradition of Islamic (generally though not exclusively Shi'ia) hermeneutics, which allows for mystical meanings to be attributed to verses of holy scripture, often opposing their original meaning. A good example of this is Ibn 'Arabi's contradictory interpretation of the surah of Noah (the seventy-first surah, Nuh), where Noah is depicted as faintly foolish while the drowning unbelievers who refused to board the ark are implicitly redescribed as saints of God.12 Such esoteric interpretations of phenomena are by no means related to the Koran. Dates, such as Ibn 'Arabi's mystical reunderstanding of the date of the Almohad's victory over the Christian armies in 1194,13 and letters—for example, the common sufi interpretation of the name of Mohammed (laxo) as a physical picture of the perfect man (al-insan al-kamil)—form the Islamic background to Galip's belief in the world as “an ocean of clues” (itself a phrase which alludes to Al-Ghazali's famous description of the Koran as “a sea without a shore”14). Such practices are far from obsolete—in July 1999, when the earthquake struck Istanbul in the early hours of the morning with a Richter scale of 7.4, many Muslims turned to the fourth verse in the seventh surah and found: “How many cities we have destroyed! In the night Our scourge fell upon them” (7:4). In the parodied figure of F. M. Ücüncü and the ex-colonel who insists Jelal's columns contain politically coded messages, Pamuk's mockery of hurufism is ultimately a response to Islam and the Koran's oft-cited verse “Among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the living things He has dispersed over them” (42:30). Creation is seen koranically as a collection of signs, as something intrinsically interpretable. In the universe of The Black Book, there may well be an abundance of signifiers, but they point to no mystical signifieds other than ourselves. There is no secret message to decode—and certainly no hidden treasure to stumble upon—we are the meaning of our own interpretations. Islam simply provides the excuse for our semantics.
Jacques Derrida, in a number of his writings, has described metaphysics as the “nostalgia” for a lost presence, the yearning to recover the primordial meaning of the sign, the Rousseauistic wish to rediscover its original purity. The sadness which Pamuk forever associates with Islam would seem to fit this Derridean understanding of Western metaphysics as a semantically futile longing for a lost presence. Like Salman Rushdie, Pamuk uses Islam as a synonym for metaphysics in much the same way thinkers such as Derrida and Nietzsche have used Christianity as a synonym for (and a symptom of) Western logocentrism. Pamuk, writing outside the boundaries of the “Christian” European tradition, has no Church or Enlightenment myth to rail against; Islam provides the “local” version, the Turkish manifestation, of a universal metaphysical delusion.
If the first sadness we encounter in The Black Book is precipitated by the death of the mystery, the second variety arises from the death of identity. The two are, of course, related—the secret of our identity is precisely that we have none, and that we require an Other to perpetuate its illusion. In both The New Life and The Black Book, the sadnesses which take place at the end of each novel stem from a dissolution of identity. For Galip, condemned to forge Jelal's “unpublished” columns for the remainder of his years, the deaths of Jelal and Rüya doubly rob him of his selfhood, reducing him to a widow and a ghost writer. Near the end of The New Life, this loss of identity is observed on a grander scale, not just the death of the self, but of the collectivity to which it belongs. As the young narrator sits weeping in the bus-stop cafeteria, having realized that the magical book and the destiny he had constructed for himself are nothing more than a string of random coincidences, he is approached by an old man: “‘Today we are altogether defeated,’ he said. ‘The West has swallowed us up, trampled on us in passing. They have invaded us down to our soup, our candy, our underwear; they have finished us off. But someday, perhaps a 1000 years from now, we will avenge ourselves; we will bring an end to this conspiracy by taking them out of our soup, our chewing gum, our souls’” (NL [The New Life] 290-91). This will be a repeated motif throughout Pamuk's work—resurrecting East-West dualisms only to collapse them spectacularly the moment they have convinced us. The sadness of one's selflessness, in this case, would be the sadness of defeat, the melancholy of losing one's identity to someone or something else. Pamuk, a writer often (and unjustly) accused of Western plagiarisms, poor Turkish and apish imitations of Borges and Calvino, is unsurprisingly obsessed with this notion of identity and its latent mendacity. As the ex-colonel tells Galip, “No-one can ever be himself in this land” (BB 339), certainly a comment on Pamuk's own public fortunes as a writer. And yet the sadness inherent in The Black Book is not simply of having lost one's national identity to the cultural and economic centers of North America and Europe, but rather the melancholy impossibility of ever having an authentic identity at all.
In Pamuk's novel, Islam is implicated in this nostalgia for a “true” or “original” identity in two ways. First of all, it helps to establish it. Similar to the mixing of nationalism and religion in Rushdie's Shame, Islam supplies a general, all-purpose social glue to the project of Turkish identity. When the prostitute Galip has allowed himself to be led to begins to act out classic scenarios from old Turkish movies with him, she interrogates him first with nonsensical questions:
“What's the difference between the Sultan and the Bosphorus Bridge?”
“Between Ataturk and Mohammed?”
“I give up.”
The truth is, there is no difference between the icons the prostitute offers Galip—they are different synonyms for the one nebulous whole called “Turkishness.” Pamuk seldom touches on the nationalist uses of Islam without colouring it with a barely discernible cynicism. Regardless of whether it is the sanctimonious advice of the older columnists to the young Galip (“The reader never forgives the writer who blasphemes against Mohammed” [BB 76]) or the mention of conservative TV documentaries lamenting the loss of Ottoman mosques in the Balkans which have fallen into the “hands of Yugoslavians, Albanians and Greeks” (BB 62), Islam works throughout The Black Book as a politically useful storehouse of images to supply the Turkish citizen with a carefully constructed series of heritages, destinies, and hopes.
Paradoxically, Islam (in the form of Sufism) is also used to dismantle the notion of identity, in particular the notion of a self. In the story of Rumi presented to us in Chapter twenty-two of the book (Who killed Shams of Tabriz?), the charges of homosexuality occasionally cited against Sufis like Mevlana—in particular, his incomprehensible devotion to one disciple, neither especially bright nor particularly pious—become the subject matter of a controversial retelling of the famous Sufi's life. “All his life, Rumi had sought the ‘other’ who could move and enflame him. … In order to endure the suffocating atmosphere of a thirteenth century Anatolian town [Konya] and the devotion of his blockheaded disciples (whom he just couldn't give up), the poet needed to keep around other identities, just like the tools of disguise the poet always hid in his closet, which he might assume at appropriate times for a little respite” (BB 223). Here, the legendary rumors and myths concerning Mevlana's alleged lover metamorphose into something quite different: the possible weakness of a saint suddenly becomes a semantic strategy, a means of compensating for the boredom of veneration by cultivating a collection of different selves. The fact that Pamuk has Jelal attribute this to Mevlana, one of the most popular and loved figures in Turkish Islam, underlines the way in which Pamuk is actually using Mevlana—and the Sufi tradition to which he belongs—to illustrate his own very secular beliefs concerning the illusion of the self. The key tenets in Sufism of fana' (self-annihilation, what Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart would call niht werdenne or becoming nothing) and ittisal (union with God) are ultimately reappropriated by Pamuk with a much more secular aim in mind; renarrated to us in a text obsessed with identity like The Black Book, the story of Rumi as he wanders frantically around the streets of Damascus looking for his dead lover, loses its spiritual weight and becomes a deconstructive parable for the dissolution of selfhood into a confused “nothingness”: “‘If I am He’ said the poet one day, dissolved in the city's mystery, ‘then why am I still searching?’” (BB 227). The sadness of Galip as he realizes he has lost his identity, however, finds no metaphysical consolation in the becoming-part of something bigger and Other than himself. Unlike al-Hallaj and Ibn 'Arabi, the deconstruction of selfhood and identity in The Black Book leads to no Mount Kaf or “Absolute State of Union with God” (BB 227), but simply a drifting sense of melancholy indifference.
What Pamuk does in his presentation of Rumi is use tradition to undermine tradition, employing one aspect of Islam to deconstruct another. We will see this again in the wandering protagonist of The New Life, who roams the criss-crossing bus routes of Turkey like a modern-day Sufi dervish, a series of endless bus rides which ultimately culminates in a very postmodern form of fana'—“I was nowhere and everywhere; and that is why it seemed to me I was in the nonexistent center of the world” (NL 209). The final and most significant irony of Pamuk's lies in the fact that texts such as The Black Book are simultaneously both a celebration of tradition and an attack upon it. On the one hand, The Black Book devotes more attention to Islam, filling its pages with references to Ibn 'Arabi, al-Ghazali, Ibn Attar, and Rumi, than many more conservative novels; the power of its nuances and allusions rely on a certain familiarity with various traditions of Islamic commentary and reflection. On the other hand, its unflattering version of Rumi's biography, its subtle cynicism at the exaggerated claims made for Ibn 'Arabi as Dante's superior and “the greatest existentialist of all time” (BB 73),15 and above all its ultimate disenchantment of the idea that there lies a secret somewhere with the magical power to transform our lives, a Mount Kaf which will fill our lives with bliss when we finally reach it—all these reservations fundamentally undermine the validity of the traditions on which Pamuk draws. The curious power of The Black Book lies precisely in the way its author can play with the form of Islam while questioning its content.
Jale Parla has written of how the nineteenth-century Oriental tale was “on the whole the tale of an identity and power quest of a hero who encountered his double in the colonized East.”16 The Orient, in other words, was a source not of knowledge but self-knowledge for the Westerner, a means by which s/he (invariably he) could construct a “true” identity for himself through an immersion in the exotic. In its obsession with a very Orientalist East—Sufi stories, tales of Ottomans and Byzantine princesses, allusions to The Arabian Nights, and fragments of Islamic esoterica—The Black Book performs an interesting parody of this function. The secular Western hero of the text—a comfortably middle-class Istanbul lawyer—moves deeper and deeper into the book's Orient and its various hurufisms and messianisms, not to find his identity but ultimately to lose it. If the whole point of the constructed Orient of nineteenth century fiction was to give the non-Easterner (and implicitly the nonbeliever, the non-Muslim, the “Giaour”) a self, in The Black Book we find this traditional use of the Orient quite subverted.
The final variety of sadness evoked in The Black Book is the sadness of our own weakness—hermeneutics not just as a consequence of our own unhappiness, but also as a symbol of our inability to take the sign at face value. It is the sadness which springs from a need for meaning, for stories and narratives: “He despised the way he couldn't live without narratives in the same way he hated the sort of child who constantly seeks entertainment. He concluded instantly that there was no room in this world for signs, clues, secondary and tertiary meanings, secrets and mysteries. … He felt a wish to live peacefully in a world where every object existed only as itself; only then would none of the letters, texts, faces … be the suspect sign of something other than itself” (BB 246). This desire for what Immanuel Kant called “noumenal reality”—the reality of a thing-in-itself (Ding an sich selbst)—reveals a fatigue with the dependence on meaning. Our inability to live without frameworks of meaning supplies both the proof and the sadness of our humanity. The “multitudes of broken men … in Islamic countries” (NL 259) testify to Islam as the most visible expression of weakness we have. The Koranic redescription of the universe as a collection of signs embedded with hidden messages never really loses this sense of melancholy self-delusion in Pamuk's work; the retired colonel who discovers—after years of avidly reading Jelal's columns—that he has been misreading them all along, provides the most obvious metaphor for religious revelation the book has to offer (“My poor pathetic life was enriched …” [BB 337]). In this case, Jelal would be the false, conniving prophet, and his army of “loyal readers” the duped believers. This idea of basing one's life on the wishful and passionate misreading of texts occurs again in The New Life, where Osman finally discovers the comic books and candy wrappers contain no hidden clues, mystically leading to a “new” reality, but are nothing more than comic books and candy wrappers. The desire to learn the secret ultimately results in its destruction; the fervor of the exegete is ultimately his undoing.
And yet the activity of hermeneutics, with all its religious/metaphysical overtones, does enjoy a certain ambiguity of status in The Black Book. On the one hand, certainly, it is revealed to be a delusion, motivated by a sense of boredom, impotence or unhappiness, a desire for the beyond—a new leader, a new Messiah, a new identity, a new state—springing from a profound dissatisfaction with the immediate. The antimetaphysical weight of the book's statement, however, is partly contradicted not just by the meaning and purpose Galip obtains from his hermeneutics, but also by the enjoyment the reader obtains from the observation of Galip's quest. Throughout The Black Book, Pamuk's narrator writes like one of the al-batiniyaa or Ismaili esotericists whom al-Ghazali railed against in his al-Mustazhiri.17 At several points throughout the book he mimics the al-batiniyaa's technique of talking about a secret without ever revealing it—his reluctance to give the names of the three columnists A, B, C, epitomized by one of the columnists himself: “That's right, that's why you must keep the mystery concealed. Don't you ever sell the secrets of the trade” (BB 79).18The Black Book is a text which delights in this breeding of mysteries. Regardless of whether it is the green ink of the ballpoint pen which Pamuk repeatedly refers to with mystical significance, or the personalities of Jelal and Rüya, whose faces, characters, and voices are forever absent from the novel (giving The Black Book a faintly Godot-like air), The Black Book represents the simultaneous incarnation and deconstruction of a mystery. In other words, we have the irony of a book which detranscendentalizes the secret, but at the same time employs hidden meanings, clues, and narrative suspense as its core technique. A book which, with a precision sometimes bordering on the anatomical, lays bare the hidden machinery of our beliefs and mysticisms—but which also makes unashamed use of that selfsame machinery to entertain and thrill us.
For the prince in Jelal's story, the “most crucial problem in life” was to be oneself or not to be oneself (BB 178). One could say, however, that the most important question in books such as The Black Book and The New Life is not so much one of self-identity, but rather of meaning itself: are we ever able to fall in love with the thing itself? Or will we always need a deferred horizon—a Messiah, a true love, a political coup, a promised state of future happiness—to imbue the things around us with secondary meanings? It is perhaps the most Nietzschean question The Black Book has to offer—the fact that Pamuk fails to answer it without reservations suggests a dilemma within the text, torn between an acknowledgment of the semantic emptiness of reality (no secrets, no mysteries, no hidden treasures) and the mendacious aesthetics of a metaphysical promise. That Pamuk resolves to find neither a beauty nor a courage in his rejection of metaphysics, but merely a sadness, suggests a melancholy and strangely stoical acceptance of this state of affairs. In The New Life, when Osman finally reaches the town of Son Pazar (in Turkish, “last bazaar”) only to be told by the old, blind candy-maker he has tracked down that the stories he has believed all these years are nothing but myths, a cumulative sense of resignation makes itself apparent:
Now that I had no more hope and desire to attain the meaning and the unified reality of the world, the book, and my life, I found myself among fancy-free appearances that neither signified nor implied anything. I watched through an open window a family gathered around a table eating their supper. That's how they were, just the way you know them. I learned the hours for the Koran course being given from a poster tacked on the mosque wall. … In either case, they were neither excessively interesting nor excessively uninteresting. For those readers who think I am much too pessimistic, let me make it perfectly clear that sitting in a café with a nice trellis, I preferred watching them to not watching them.
“I preferred watching them to not watching them”: for Pamuk's narrators, this is the most that can be said. Osman is incapable of a genuinely Nietzschean response—that is, a joyous one—to the depthlessness of the world. Whereas for Nietzsche, the realization that there is nowhere but the here and now represents “the end of the longest error” and a “return of cheerful and bon sens,”19 for Pamuk's narrators the discovery that there is no mystery signifies the end of delight, the demise of excitement, the fading away of passion. In this lies the greatest irony of texts like The Black Book and The New Life, for all of Pamuk's avowedly secular inclinations, Islam and the hermeneutics it provides supply characters like Osman, Galip, and Jelal with a reason to be passionate. Islam may well be, for Pamuk, the Turkish face of a universal desire in human beings to be deluded, but it does at least allow the believer to restructure and color the mundanity of the actual into something more exciting. Bereft of this world-coloring, protagonists like Galip and Osman appear quite lost at the end of their respective novels. The moment of their (what Jean Paul Sartre called) “conversion,” where they suddenly realize the intrinsic absurdity and meaninglessness of a world where everything is simply what it is, leaves them quite adrift. For the lover of mystery (and, implicitly, for the reader of detective novels, the whodunnit fan, the conspiracy theorist), Islam has this virtue at least; it turns the world into a secret. The death of Islam, in this sense, cannot mean anything other than the death of the secret, the death of passion. Seen from this perspective both The Black Book and The New Life, as it turns out, become melancholy laments for the loss of mystery in the secularized world of the European Enlightenment. Pamuk, for all his Western credentials, may well be making a very Eastern point.
A final remark needs to be made concerning the stylistic presentation of Islam and Islamic figures in The Black Book, in particular a certain explicatory tone which often accompanies references to Islam in Pamuk's text. As with Borges, there is something deliberately encyclopaedic about Pamuk's use of Islamic sources—his minibiography of the founder of Hurufism, his commentaries on certain surahs in the Koran (translating the Arabic headings into Turkish for the unfamiliar reader), his elaborate and at times exaggerated cross-referencing (mentioning ibn 'Arabi's Phoenix, al-Bukhari's Prophets and al-Kindi's daydreams in the same paragraph) (BB 259, 132, 133). This erudite indifference to context when citing obscure or esoteric authors—indeed, a certain revelling in the oblique inappropriateness of the source to the question—is partly endebted to Borges, for whom Pamuk has frequently expressed his admiration. When, in the middle of a scene featuring a man eating a bowl of soup, we are given Ismail Hakki of Erzurum's thoughts on the gastronomic origins of sadness (NL 291), it is difficult not to think of Borges's own tendency to mix mundanity with wonderfully unrelated esoterica (following evening meals with Kabbalistic references to the acentricity of God, for example).
The Black Book's scholarly and compendium-like presentation of Islam, however, carries with it more significance than a mere indication of the Argentine's influence on Pamuk's style. It suggests, with its documented quotations and explanations of the Koran, something still rare in Turkish fiction: a Turkish novel about Islam written by an outsider, for outsiders. To say this is not to replicate the criticism which Sara Suleri has made of Rushdie's Shame, describing it as a novel which “knows it will be banned from the culture it represents” and whose articulation, therefore, “relies on a Western context.”20 To accuse Pamuk of “writing for the centre” in The Black Book would be to ignore the intimacy of its dialogue with Turkish culture on all levels; nevertheless, there is something labored and excessively informative in the novel's treatment of Islam which, consciously or no, excludes a certain audience.
What such a treatment suggests in Pamuk's books is that Islam is somehow “foreign” to the novel—that the only place Islam, with its exclusivist claims as a master narrative and its reservations towards representation, can have in another narrative is as a background, an entertaining collection of fragments. In The New Life, Pamuk writes on how “the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture's business” (NL 243). If the novel, as a construct, really is synonymous with the term European, then Islam as Europe's Other can have no place in that construct. In more recent novels such as My Name Is Red (Benim adim kirmizi), Pamuk has gone to some lengths to examine the familiar Islamic distrust of European liberal arts—in this case, the first Ottoman objections to Italian portrait-painters. Just like the “contemporary narrow-minded Sheikh of Islam” in The Black Book who prohibits the mannequins as an act of shirk or idolatry (BB 53), Islam often finds this place in Pamuk's work as the antithesis of creative self-expression. Forever relegated to the status of Other and object, there lies a Cartesian clarity to books like The Black Book and The New Life which Islam is never allowed to spill into and muddy. A sensitive, openminded, but ultimately empirical worldview underlies the texts of The Black Book and The New Life, a subtle empiricism which dallies and plays with the semantic wealth of Islam for a variety of purposes, but seldom allows it to escape from certain prearranged boxes—prohibitive dogma, nationalistic glue, source of exotic mysticisms, soroptimistic messianisms, uncompromising fundamentalism. A book in which Islam, in other words, is kept safely “other.”
The thought of “writing for the centre” gives rise to the question: what can Western readers learn from The Black Book? That non-Western writers who play textual games with their readers may well be drawing on much older intellectual traditions within their own cultures (Sufi poetry, hurufism, Islamic esotericism) and not merely aping Calvino and Borges. In her essay “The Anxiety of Indianness” the critic Meenakshi Mukherjee makes this point concerning Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, a novel which many have seen as an Indian Pride and Prejudice relocated in Fifties' Calcutta, but which reminded Mukherjee of a “Bengali … tradition of long three-decker realistic stories about families.”21 Certainly, there is the uncomfortable possibility that non-Western writers such as Pamuk, David Maalouf, and Vikram Seth are learning to repackage and represent their cultures on a wider scale, for a wider (and inevitably Western) audience. This may well take place at the cost of an admittedly deconstructible cultural authenticity, one which in The Black Book manifests itself in a portrayal of Islam which, although not quite Western, is certainly not Muslim. This is without doubt more of a problem for Pamuk at home than abroad—the desire for individuality in any Turkish writer will always run the risk of allegations of mimicry and cultural betrayal, in much the same way Rushdie was called an “imitation Márquez” and Joyce an imitator of Henrik Ibsen (or, even worse, a “West Briton”).
In closing, one last observation should not be overlooked. Up to now, Pamuk's association of Islam with sadness, his imbuing of various images from Islam and Islamic history with a definite sense of melancholy, has been given a very un-Islamic interpretation: the sadness of Islam, we have said, springs from a certain awareness of metaphysics, the end of our ability to believe in such stories and yet our simultaneous inability to carry on living without them. The sadness of Pamuk's Islam, in other words, is the sadness of our own loneliness, the pathos of our own need for narratives. There remains the possibility, however, that in bringing together two ideas as thematically contrasting as Islam and loneliness, the author of The Black Book may actually be drawing on a much older motif in Sufi thought—that of the loneliness of God. In his study of Ibn 'Arabi, Henry Corbin suggests the Arabic word for divinity ilah may come from the root wlh “connoting to be sad, to sigh, to flee fearfully toward.”22 The phrase which Galip stumbles upon repeatedly amongst Jelal's research notes—that God's essential attribute is “a hidden treasure” (kenz-i mahfi)—belongs to a commonplace hadith of untraceable origin: “I was a hidden treasure and I yearned to be known. So I created creatures in order to be known by them” (CI [Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi] 114). It is a saying which is found frequently in the writings of Ibn 'Arabi. The idea that Allah should feel the discomfort of solitude, that God should have need of company, certainly veers towards the unorthodox and heretical—Corbin speaks of a “God whose secret is sadness, nostalgia, the aspiration to know Himself in the beings who manifest His being” (CI 94). The aptness of Pamuk's source lies in the fact that it reflects perfectly the central theme of The Black Book—the anxiety of identity—but from a divine point of view, instead of merely a mortal one. If Allah is a symptom of the unhappiness of the believer, then belief is also a product of the unhappiness of Allah; if God is an expression of our loneliness, then equally we are an expression of God's.
Orhan Pamuk, The New Life, tr. Güneli Gün (London, 1997), p. 259; hereafter cited in text as NL.
Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, tr. Güneli Gün (London, 1995), p. 155; hereafter cited in text as BB.
Charlotte Innes, review of The Black Book in The Nation, 27 March 1995, 245.
See Jale Parla, “Kara kitap Neden Kara?” in Kara kitap üzerine yazilar, ed. Nüket Esen (Istanbul, 1992), p. 118.
Gürsel Aytac, “Orhan Pamuk'tan bir Yeni Roman: Kara kitap,” Argos Dergisi, June 1990.
Ramazan Çeçen, “Kara kitap Üzerine Kara-Ak Denemeler” in Kara kitap üzerine yazilar, ed. Nüket Esen (Istanbul, 1992), p. 208.
Enis Batur, “Orhan Pamuk'un Dûkkani” in Kara kitap, ed. Esen, pp. 11-14.
Orhan Pamuk, Öteki Renkler (Istanbul, 1999), p. 154; my own translation.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, tr. Richard Howard (Evanston, Ill., 1965), p. 83.
See Mustafa Kutlu's article in Kara kitap üzerine yazilar, ed. Nüket Esen (Istanbul, 1992), p. 15.
See Orhan Koçak, “Aynadaki Kitap/Kitapdaki Ayna” in Kara kitap üzerine yazilar, ed. Nüket Esen (Istanbul, 1992), p. 159.
See Ibn 'Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikem), tr. Ralph Austin (New York, 1980), pp. 71-73.
See Austin's introduction to 'Arabi's The Bezels of Wisdom, p. 5.
The Jewels of the Qur'an: Al-Ghazali's Theory, tr. Muhammad Abul Quasem (London, 1977), p. 46, qtd. in Gerald L. Bruns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern (New Haven, 1992), p. 124.
Ibn 'Arabi as a precursor to Dante is most probably an allusion to the claims of the Spanish Orientalist Asin Palacios.
Jale Parla, “The Divided Self of the Eastern Quest,” Boğazici Universitesi Dergisi 7 (1979), 201.
For more on the al-batiniyaa, see Henry Corbin's illuminating essay “The Ismaili Response to the Polemic of Ghazali” in S. H. Nasr, Ismaili Contributions to Islamic Culture (Tehran, 1977).
See Corbin's essay, p. 79.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, tr. R. J. Hollingdale (London, 1990), pp. 50-51.
Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago, 1992), p. 175.
Meenakshi Mukherjee, “The Anxiety of Indianness,” Mapping Colonial Spaces, ed. Nilufer Bharucha and Vrinda Nabar (Delhi, 1998), p. 91. Mukherjee is thinking of the Bengali writers Buddhadeb Bose, Ashapurna Debi, and Bimal Mitra.
Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, tr. Ralph Manheim (Princeton, 1969), p. 112; hereafter cited in text as CI.
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