Sunday, October 28, 2012

Orhan Pamuk

Still from Orhan Pamuk: My Istanbul (Günther Schilhan, dir.; 2008)
A man seeks a beautiful and mysterious woman through the streets, squares, cafes and apartments of a city that is simultaneously ancient and modern. Despite the man's obsessive pursuit the woman ultimately escapes him, remaining forever elusive and unknowable.

This story is one that the Nobel-Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has returned to again and again in his novels. Along with the narrator's obsession with a beautiful woman, his books feature doubles, masks, mirrors, hidden meanings, and the yearning for a sudden break with the dissatisfactions and compromises of ordinary life. And (almost) always, the city of Istanbul surrounds the characters as a palpable presence, described with an attention to closely observed physical details that make it seem so real and vivid that it is almost another character.

As Pamuk said in the Norton Lectures collected in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist (Harvard University Press, 2010), "...the 'landscape' of the novel...should be seen as integral to, and an extension of, the hero's emotions....The landscape I speak of in these lectures is the landscape of cities, streets, shops, display windows, rooms, interiors, furniture, and everyday objects..." (p. 105).

Pamuk is a master at creating an emotional atmosphere from such concrete details. In The Black Book (Can Yayinlavi, 1990; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994; Vintage, 2006) there is a stunning set piece early in the novel where the writer imagines that the Bosphorus has dried up, and examines the broken, useless detritus left behind by a millennium of urban life as clues not only to the history of the city but of the protagonist himself.

The writer of this nightmarish vision is Celâl, a newspaper columnist. The Black Book alternates his poetic columns with the story of Galip, his brother-in-law, and Rüya, Galip's wife. Rüya loves mystery novels, and one day, like a character in a mystery novel, she suddenly disappears. Galip suspects that she has gone into hiding with Celâl and hunts them both through the locations Celâl has memorialized in his columns. As Galip delves ever deeper into Celâl's existence for clues to Rüya's whereabouts, he begins to take on Celâl's identity—and even begins writing columns under Celâl's name. For Galip, as for his creator, writing becomes "the only consolation" (p. 461).

If writing can console, it can also transform. "Novels are second lives" is the opening sentence of the first lecture in The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, and "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed," is the first utterance of the narrator of The New Life (Iletişim, 1994; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998). Osman abandons school and family, and takes endless bus trips across the countryside to follow (yes) a beautiful and enigmatic woman. Pamuk writes with great sympathy about characters who find their old lives unsupportable, but, trapped in themselves, can't find their way to a more authentic existence.

Like Rüya in The Black Book, Pamuk likes mysteries, and My Name Is Red (Iletişim, 1998; Knopf, 2001) is structured as a murder mystery centered on a group of painters of miniatures in the 16th century Ottoman Empire. But unlike a typical mystery novel, My Name Is Red is filled with digressions, stories, art-historical details about miniature painting and book illumination, and multiple points of view, including a narrator who is killed in the first chapter.

Because of their emphasis on atmosphere, Pamuk's books resist straightforward summarization. Snow (Iletişim, 2002; Knopf, 2004) follows the journalist and poet Ka, who comes to the mountain city of Kars to investigate a series of suicides by young women forced to remove their headscarves. He also hopes to renew his affair with a former lover, the beautiful İpek, now married to another man. His visit is complicated by a blizzard that strands him in the city, the eruption of violence, a declaration of martial law and attempts by actors on all sides of the situation to draw him in. Meanwhile, he discovers that his poetic inspiration has never been greater; the more uncertain the situation becomes, the greater the outpouring of new work.

The Museum of Innocence (Iletişim, 2008; Knopf, 2009) features another obsessed protagonist, Kemal. Kemal is engaged to the attractive but conventional Sibel and is sailing uneventfully towards marriage, children, and a predictable existence well-insulated by family money. But one day he encounters Füsun, a "poor, distant relation" whom he barely remembers as a gangly child. Now, she is 18 and breathtakingly beautiful. They begin a passionate affair that shatters Kemal's well-ordered existence. The affair ends badly, and in its aftermath Kemal turns the apartment where they met for their afternoon assignations into a shrine to Füsun and their brief time together. Over the years, he accumulates a museum's worth of emotionally-charged objects touched in some way by Füsun's presence: earrings, toothbrushes, barrettes, cigarette butts with traces of her lipstick.

In a real-life extension of the novel, Pamuk has opened an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; every copy of the novel comes with an admission ticket (printed on page 520 of the paperback edition). People ‘forget the objects with which they had lived so intimately, never even acknowledging their emotional attachment to them' (p. 510). The Museum of Innocence attempts to reclaim these everyday objects from the oblivion to which time, changing fashion and our indifference generally consign them by allowing us to see them through Kemal's haunted eyes. Pamuk has also published a kind of catalog to his museum, The Innocence of Objects (Iletişim, 2012; Abrams, 2012).

Pamuk has also written three earlier novels; a screenplay based on The Black Book; a collection of essays (Other Colors: Essays and a Story, Iletişim, 1999; Knopf, 2007); and three books of memoirs, including Istanbul: Memories and the City (Iletişim, 2003; Knopf, 2005). For a complete bibliography with links to reviews, see Iletişim's Orhan Pamuk site.

Update 26 February 2013: Kaya Genç has written a post for the LRB blog looking back at thirty years of Iletişim.