Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 19 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] Nobel winner scatters personal tidbits through political essays

From the alleys of Istanbul through politics to the smoke-free streets of New York, Orhan Pamuk tells an autobiographical tale with this collection of essays


By Orhan Pamuk
433 pages
Hardcover: Canada

Taken together, the scattered essays and sketches that make up Other Colors can be read as a loose sort of autobiography, Orhan Pamuk writes in his preface. A stray remark here, a detail there, and something like a life emerges.

We learn that Pamuk, Turkey's most eminent novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, dreamed of being a painter for most of his childhood and youth; studied architecture but abandoned the pursuit after three years; was once a leftist; writes very slowly; lived in New York for three years; and after the great Istanbul earthquake of 1999, constructed a shelter made of books under his desk.

That last bit sticks in the mind. It's the perfect emblem for a writer attuned to the cultural and political fault lines running underneath modern Turkey, and passionate about the novelist's power to make his own world through words. Pamuk, urbane and self-mocking, admires his little literary fort.

"Having assured myself that it was strong enough to withstand falling concrete," he writes, "I lay down there for a few earthquake drills, assuming a fetal position as instructed to protect my kidneys." Surrounded by books, he feels safe enough and decides to skip a long list of recommended precautions.

Pamuk devotes two essays to the big quake. They are among the best in a grab bag that includes wispy throwaway newspaper sketches, prefaces to a variety of classic and modern novels (including his own), his Nobel acceptance speech, several political essays and a short story. Nearly all of them end up, one way or another, addressing art, identity and cultural politics on the European perimeter.

The least successful do so directly. Pamuk, a Westernizer and a liberal, believes in a future for Turkey founded on freedom of speech and religion. His views have brought down the wrath of Turkey's authoritarian leaders, notably when he has argued against the government-enforced taboo that forbids discussion of the mass murder of Armenians and Kurds in Turkey.

As a political writer, however, he rarely advances beyond noble sentiment. Turkey should be included in the EU, he maintains, because Europe, for reasons he never really explains, would be incomplete without Turkey. Besides, Turks would feel hurt to be left out.

Pamuk returns to form every time he hits the streets of Istanbul, his native city and reservoir of images. He writes brilliantly about the hot dog, one of the street foods, along with doner kebabs and the pizza-like treat known as lahmacun, that seduced him and his brother, in defiance of their mother's strict orders. It tasted good - topped with tomato sauce, tomatoes, pickles and mustard - but it also functioned as a potent symbol.

"To leave behind Islamic tradition, whose ideas about food were embedded in ideas about mothers, women and sacred privacy - to embrace modern life and become a city dweller - it was necessary to be ready and willing to eat food even if you didn't know where, how or why it was made," he writes.

Likewise, the old coal-fired ferries that ply Istanbul's waters bring out Pamuk's most colorful, ruminative writing. So do barbers. Pamuk, as a boy, spent productive time in Istanbul's barber shops, feasting on a humor magazine called Vulture and keeping his ears open for a conversational style heard nowhere else, a kind of male gossip elicited, with great subtlety, by the barber himself.

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