Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Clerk with a Poet's Soul


Photo of the author by Matthias Zeininger

Whenever I venture into the endless saga about what the West stole from the East and the East from the West, I think this: If this realm of dreams we call the world is but a house we roam like sleepwalkers, then our literary traditions are like wall clocks, there to make us feel at home. So:
1.     To say that one of these wall clocks is right and another wrong is utter nonsense.
2.     To say that one is five hours ahead of the other is also nonsense; by using the same logic you could just as easily say that it’s seven hours behind.
3.     For much the same reason, if it is 9:35 according to one clock and it just so happens that another clock says it’s 9:35, anyone who claims that second clock is imitating the first is spouting nonsense.
––– Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book, Vintage, 1990, p, 154

The writer Pamuk is a self-confessed clerk. Orhan Pamuk, the acclaimed Turkish novelist, sits down at the same time every day to write, and remains at his desk for several hours. Like a clerk, Pamuk is organized in his habits of composition, plotting out his storyline in advance, dividing his novels into chapters, giving each chapter a detailed profile. Pamuk explains that he doesn’t write poetry. In Turkey, “To be a poet is a popular and respected thing.” (The Art of Fiction No. 187, The Paris Review, 2005)  After publishing poetry in his teens, Pamuk realized that “a poet is someone through whom God is speaking…God was not speaking to me.” (Paris Review, 2005)  Yet if God wasn’t speaking through the author in his youth, today history speaks through him, as does the Turkish nation; as do Art, Literature, and Philosophy; as does the human spirit torn between modernity and a tormented loyalty to tradition. Best known for his political novel Snow (2002), Pamuk has written several major novels with themes ranging from identity to visual art, from childhood to romantic love.

Orhan Pamuk was born June 7, 1952 in Istanbul. An internationally recognized novelist, Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.  From childhood on, Pamuk has developed strong cultural ties to Islam and to the history of the Turkish nation, as well as developing his interests in painting and literature.

Pamuk grew up the grandson of a civil engineer who made a fortune building railroads in Turkey. Following in the footsteps of his father and his uncles, Pamuk attended Istanbul Technical University, but instead of becoming an engineer in the family tradition, he studied architecture and ultimately became a writer. Pamuk later spent time in the West, teaching Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York City. His novels and nonfiction, which includes the memoir Istanbul (2003), have been translated into thirty-four languages. One of the most important Turkish writers of his generation, Pamuk has often been compared to Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Among his other influences, Pamuk cites Thomas Mann, William Faulkner and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Of Dostoevsky Pamuk says he "shaped my soul…but in my books I’m not a (Nietzschean or a) Dostoevskian writer.” (Boston Book Festival, 2009, Part 3, YouTube)  True. For however much the dialogic themes of Snow – political radicalism, the contamination of the East by the secularism of the West – resemble the themes of Dostoevsky’s political novel, The Possessed, Pamuk views these dynamics from a vantage point both intensely personal and timeless, telling the story through identification with his characters, yet narrating as though from some remote point in the future. Unlike Dostoevsky, Pamuk doesn’t profess to long for a reinstatement of the past as a remedy for social conflict. Rather, he presents the reader with the full impact of modernity, with a densely detailed history, and with the conundrums of human nature, and lets the reader weigh them in the balance.

Having abandoned poetry in his teens and painting some years later, Orhan Pamuk has become the greatest poet of modernity in his generation, and a consummate painter of Turkish portraiture from past to present. His devotion to the craft of the novel, and the inspiration that grants him the power to synthesize life and art, tradition and his individual talent, enable him to transmit ideas in the form of stories all over the world.

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