A Writer Above Politics
by RANDY BOYAGODA
Published: October 14, 2006
THE writer Orhan Pamuk of Turkey has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, and the timing would appear to be uniquely auspicious.
The divide between the West and Islam seems to be growing at an alarming pace. A series of troubling events, from the furor over a German opera performance to the violent reaction to the pope’s remarks about Islam, have resulted in recriminations and frustrated attempts at renewed dialogue and understanding. Anti-Islamic sentiments have shifted from the far right to the center of European political life.
And now a writer of Orhan Pamuk’s concerns and ambitions gains global prominence. In the Swedish Academy’s prize citation, he is commended as an artist who “has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”
No doubt, the latest Nobel laureate’s books will be taken up with immediate interest by thoughtful readers searching for wisdom about the violent crosscurrents of religion, politics, history and culture whipsawing our world. But one can only hope that this rush to conscript Mr. Pamuk as a literary mediator in the clash of civilizations will fail.
If it doesn’t, we risk missing the core insight of his work: that the chaos of cultural upheaval, and equally the harmony of intercultural connection, is always secondary to what Mr. Pamuk’s fellow Nobel laureate, William Faulkner, described as “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
To be sure, Mr. Pamuk’s books touch on the themes for which the Nobel committee cites him. Mr. Pamuk is a resident of Istanbul, a city that has for centuries been a complex amalgamation of East and West, empire and nation, tradition and modernity, faith and patriotism. His evocations of this city, like those of his work’s wider terrain, provide compelling meditations on the encounter between European and Ottoman civilizations, between believers and infidels of various stripes from the 16th century to the early 21st. In “My Name is Red,” a group of Muslim miniaturists are ordered to violate Islamic doctrines on representing human figures. In “Snow,” a poet gets caught up in a military coup and terrorist plot while searching for a lost love. And in “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” Mr. Pamuk describes what he sees as his native city’s “greatest virtue”: “its people’s ability to see the city through both Western and Eastern eyes.”
But Mr. Pamuk’s books are less about politics than they are about the longing to move beyond them — to transcend the limitations of history, culture and religion. Mr. Pamuk’s characters resist these forces out of private motives: artistic ambition, romantic love, the simple desire to contemplate the moody beauty of a storied city without recourse to the geopolitical implications of that beauty.
To reduce Mr. Pamuk’s work to its politics is in a sense to treat him as the Turkish authorities have done: as the purveyor of a message about “Turkishness” or its relation to Europe, about Islam and the West, rather than as a literary artist of the highest order. Perceiving the significance of his work along these lines inadvertently allows the bruising forces of the world at large to overcome the attempts of ordinary people to endure and prevail against such forces. This is a grim parallel to what transpires at the most tragic moments in the books themselves.
In reading Mr. Pamuk’s books for their resonance with our political and cultural preoccupations of the day, we narrow his significance as a writer to the very categories his work marks as secondary — and at the very moment that he gains unrivaled notice for his efforts.
Randy Boyagoda, the author of the novel “Governor of the Northern Province,” is a professor of literature at Ryerson University.