Our local newspaper informs me that novelist Orhan Pamuk has been awarded the Aydın Doğan Prize for 2015. The prize has been presented annually since 1996 for high achievement in some aspect of culture or the arts. I’m happy for Mr Pamuk.
When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, however, response in his native land was muted to say the least. Some might assert that was because of the muzzling of free speech in Turkey under the AK Party government, but I wouldn’t be one of them. I have yet to meet a Turk who has actually read one of Pamuk’s pre-Nobel novels through to the end. Aydın Doğan is founder/owner of a commercial empire that includes several of Turkey’s most popular daily newspapers – and I don’t remember any of them celebrating the nation’s first and only Nobel Prize winner with front-page banner headlines. Interestingly, Turkey’s President at the time of the Nobel Award, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, departed from his normal practice of congratulating citizens who won honours on the world stage and actually refrained from publicly acknowledging Pamuk’s achievement.
President Sezer, in fact, was no friend of the AK Party government, having been appointed (not popularly elected) by the previous non-Islamic-rooted DSP government of Bülent Ecevit. His refusal to congratulate Pamuk was based on the novelist’s statements in foreign media that Turkey was responsible for the killing of 30,000 Kurds and more than one million Armenians. Pamuk himself makes much of the fact that a court case was brought against him for these statements – though he tends to play down the result, which was that the charge was dismissed and he was never actually brought to trial. His references to the case also fail to mention that it was not brought by the government but by an ultra-nationalist lawyer, Kemal Kerinçsiz, who was later implicated in the Ergenekon trial of high profile military officers and civilians accused of plotting to overthrow Turkey’s elected government.
So we need to be a little careful who we listen to here. I don’t remember President Sezer attracting much criticism at the time for his cold shoulder treatment of Mr Pamuk. What I do remember is that there was pretty widespread feeling in Turkey that it was Pamuk’s expression of political opinions critical of his own country rather than his phenomenal literary talent that had won the hearts and minds of the Nobel committee – and possibly others like the German Book Trade who presented him with their ‘Peace Prize’ in 2005; the 2006 Time issue that listed him among the ‘100 People Who Shape Our World’; and the online poll in 2008 that voted him the 4th topmost intellectual person on the planet.
Critical opinion of Pamuk’s literary achievement prior to 2006 was somewhat mixed. The Nobel committee, of course, made no specific mention of the novelist’s public criticism of his compatriots, preferring to laud him as one “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures”. Professor Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Committee, in his presentation speech, commended Pamuk for having ‘made your native city an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, Joyce’s Dublin or Proust’s Paris – a place where readers from all corners of the world can live another life, just as credible as their own, filled by an alien feeling that they immediately recognise as their own.’
Well, I don’t know about that. My advice to dwellers in other corners of the world would be to come to Istanbul and see the city for themselves rather than rely on the rather narrow perspective they will gain from Orhan Pamuk’s books. According to one reviewer, ‘Pamuk does not respect his native land or its people; indeed, a good case can be made that he finds them almost wholly ludicrous, childlike – not as to their innocence – but as to their emotional and intellectual development – and profoundly ill-equipped to handle the exigencies of life and politics on their own ground, let alone on the world stage.’ Rather unkindly, he/she refers to other critics who found Pamuk’s novel ‘Snow’ boring, and says, ‘We need more than another third world whiner who wants to be a first world intellectual.’ Another review of the same book, commenting on its ending, says, ‘It is telling that when the book ends on its last sad note – “As the train pulled out and the people receded from view into the blur of the falling snow, I began to cry” – we are completely at a loss as to what Pamuk is crying about.’
As for me, I ploughed through all 688 pages of Mr Pamuk’s turn-of-the-millennium novel ‘My Name is Red’ (‘Benim Adım Kırmızı’), in English translation. It was a feat of endurance made possible only by grim determination and a powerful desire to give the author a fair go. After learning that this was probably the most readable of Pamuk’s works, I confess my enthusiasm was not up to sustaining the effort through another one. Another critic has said, ‘Unfortunately, the word I would have to use in describing Pamuk’s fiction as a whole—excluding most of ‘My Name is Red’ — is “ponderous.” It lacks the comic vitality characterizing the best postmodern fiction, although Pamuk’s intention to inject something of Western postmodernism into Turkish literature still seems a worthy and potentially interesting project. Finally, however, the attempt rarely rises above the lugubrious and heavy-handed. One might hope that Pamuk’s future fiction will show him handling the task of adapting modernist and postmodernist literary strategies to his non-Western subjects with a somewhat lighter touch, but, having been rewarded for his work in its current form with the most prestigious literary prize available, one suspects that Orhan Pamuk will find few reasons to reconsider his approach.’
To be fair, it seems that, since the award of the Nobel Prize, Pamuk has moved into more populist literary territory – to the extent that he has become a favourite with the Istanbul elite who earlier shunned him, some even accusing him of plagiarism. Witness the Aydın Doğan Prize mentioned above. Perhaps coincidentally, he seems to have moderated his former tough stance on the Kurdish and Armenian issues, pleading that he wants to be seen as an artist rather than as a political commentator – while at the same time espousing current politically correct views critical of Turkey’s AK Party government.
In an interview that gained some coverage in media at home and abroad, Pamuk was quoted as saying ‘that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was “destroying the balance of powers, which is in fact the key to any democracy.” ’ Apparently in his little elite corner of Istanbul, he has detected “a climate of fear, people whispering.” ‘Commenting on Turkey’s recent history, from coup-happy generals to [Turkey’s President, Tayyip] Erdoğan, he said: “Authoritarian soldiers were (pushed) out, (an) authoritarian and Islamist government took their place” ‘. This is a theme Pamuk expresses frequently, as though he is the only courageous soul with the cojones to speak the truth – instead of being merely a member of a host of p.c. nay-sayers who have been vociferously criticizing Mr Erdoğan’s government with impunity since the day they were elected.
I hope I am not being unfair to the man, or shattering the illusions of European democrats eager to lionise him, but nothing I have read of his background leads me to believe that Mr Pamuk would raise his voice so loudly if he really believed there might be personal danger in so doing. Drawing on several biographical sources here’s a little of what I have learned about the life and times of Orhan Pamuk.
He was born and grew up in the old money Istanbul district of Nişantaşı, roughly comparable to Mayfair in London, or New York’s Upper East Side. ‘Though his family was technically a Muslim one,’ according to one source, ‘it was a thoroughly secular household. “In my childhood, religion was something that belonged to the poor and to servants,” ’ So we can deduce that the Pamuk family had servants who were religious and clearly viewed as an inferior breed. “My grandmother,” he says, “used to mock them.” Orhan and his brother, however, were sent to Robert College, Istanbul’s American-sponsored academy for the elite, where they learnt English. Their first foreign travel was a trip to Geneva in 1959 when little Orhan was 7 years old. Thereafter, he said in an interview, “I didn’t leave Istanbul again until 1982.” Apparently Orhan’s father did his best to fritter away the family fortune, but in spite of that he was able to send his son to university to study architecture.
Those were the days, as we know, of protest, hippiedom and alternative lifestyles, so it’s not surprising that Orhan left without completing a degree. His path did not lead to anti-establishment protest, however, but to a withdrawn life of self study. He enrolled in the late 70s, during one of Turkey’s most turbulent periods, in a journalism course which he did complete, admitting that ‘while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers, he spent most days reading at home in Nişantasi.’
Of course, all that is perfectly fine. I have nothing against a man whose desire for a life of artistic fulfilment drives him to live outside the mainstream of conformity and ticky-tacky boxes in suburbia. It’s pretty evident, however, that Orhan Pamuk was able to lead a life of privilege by virtue of family wealth. He was able to drop in and out of university, pursue a course of self-study in ‘the works of Western civilisation’s most acclaimed writers’, and groom himself for a career as a writer without the burden of having to support himself financially. In fact, nothing I have read in any of the biographical material on Mr Pamuk suggests that he has ever actually held down a real job.
Again, good luck to him. Many of us would have been only too happy to live such a life. I do question, however, whether someone who has spent most of his 63 years on the planet in the rarefied air of socio-economic privilege; who didn’t travel outside the largest city in Turkey for the first 30 years of his life; and who has never actually had to work for a living, can be considered such an expert on life, the universe and everything. Please correct me if I’m wrong.