Thursday, October 12, 2006

Orhan & his Istanbul

The Swedish Academy announced today that it had awarded the 10 million Swedish kroner Nobel Prize for Literature to controversial Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. Of the many writers who were out there and notable contenders for the Nobel, I could not think of a more suitable winner than Pamuk.

The award citation read, "In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, (Pamuk) has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

Perhaps this, then, is Pamuk's greatest legacy. Born in a staunchly nationalist Turkey, the memories of Ottoman decline fresh in its mind, and the glory of Kemal Ataturk at the forefront of the national consciousness, Pamuk could be the Cassandra of modern Turkey. His has been the voice of prophecies and quiet introspection, and one that has been incredibly divisive internally. His work has attracted much attention, and a great deal of criticism, with some considering Pamuk to represent a vision of Turkey that is palatable to the West, but which it actually is not. His mention of the massacres of Kurds & Armenians has not gone down well in Turkey either. Pamuk has recently been victim of a lawsuit, brought to court by nationalist Turkish lawyers for insulting the Turkish nation state by accepting the genocides. In fact, its probably no coincidence that Pamuk won the prize in the same year that he faced the lawsuit - many Turks would probably also feel that the lawsuit itself might be the only reason for his winning the award at all.

Pamuk has continually chosen to depict the dichotomies of tradition and modernity and their conflicts within Turkish consciousness in most of his work. His work has focused on more easily identifiable themes, such as the syncretism of Istanbul and its transition from a centuries old capital to a simple commercial city in Istanbul or My Name is Red. He has also chosen to delve deeper into the issues of identity formation and constructivist identities that operate at multiple levels in The White Castle, Snow & The Black Book. There is also a recurrent mystic quality to his writings, whether in his descriptions of art as a means to reach God in My Name is Red, or in the power of books to transform lives (The Black Book, The New Life).

But for me, none of this is anything more than an intellectual exercise.For me, as a non - Turk, non - European, perhaps some of the complexities in his writing are inaccesible. I am definitely impartial to most of the controversies surrounding his work. Pamuk became one of my favourite authors, and the reasons for that were simple. He opened my eyes to his beloved city, Istanbul.

A city that has long fascinated me, I was intrigued by a place that is poised between Europe & Asia, historically, geographically, culturally. I wanted to see how Istanbul, for many centuries a great city, has dealt with no longer being the centre of the known world, where different cultures, empires, societies would meet in the original melting pot.

Pamuk helped answer some of those questions for me. Through his writings, I could trace the transition that Istanbul & Turkey have undergone over the past forty years - from a slow decline of Ottoman tradition, to the steady growth of European style secularism, with recent years seeing a resurgence of Islamism. His work helped me discern the fine divisions that existed between different factions within Turkey and their views of how Turkey should be; how it veered towards a modern, outward looking nation that is increasingly global & consciously European in outlook, against the backdrop of a strong Ottoman legacy, a distinctly Asian heritage and a syncretic society that saw many religions and ethnicities coexist within a distinctly Islamic framework.

The first Pamuk novel I read was his classic, My Name is Red. A historic murder mystery, set in medieval Istanbul, it brilliantly etches the strongly divergent views on art & representation between the Islamic & European worlds. At the centre of the narrative is this discord, of how long established traditions are threatened by new trends brought east by Genoese merchants, of how the quest for modernity can be so easily shattered by the tyranny of tradition. My Name is Red sketched for me a view of an Istanbul that was redolent of power and grandeur, but that was laced with a seamy underside of political intrigue & stifling traditional conservatism, as well as a city that was essentially divided between its European & Asian halves, psychologically as well as geographically.

I read My Name is Red & Istanbul before I visited Istanbul. But Pamuk's writing had painted a glorious picture for me, had opened my eyes to the multifarious realities that make up that uber-city, had prepared me for the schizophrenia that was to confront me at every step. I learnt not to blink at the sight of a woman in a full chador, only her eyes visible, walk down Istaklal Caddesi and pass several open air cafes, their tables occupied by several gorgeous young women, blond, in low cut tops, chatting and smoking cigarettes. I learnt to expect Turks to look Caucasian, Arab, Persian. I learnt that the architecture in Istanbul was a glorious cacophony of different styles, the older Ottoman heritage clearly showing its Mongol ascendancy, while more recent constructions spoke of rococo & Baroque influences. I learnt that it was normal for people to live in Asia and work in Europe, and cross that great divide twice a day on their way to work.

Pamuk's writing taught me, before I had even stepped foot in his city, that if you were in Istanbul, your name, too, would soon be Red. And for that alone, I applaud Pamuk on his Nobel prize - rarely has an award been so well deserved.

1 comment:

Priyankar said...

Congrats for this nicely written piece on Orhan Pamuk & his city -- Istanbul -- a city caught between two continents,between tradition & modernity.