Thursday, November 1, 2007

My Name Is Red, Blue, Green And White

You'll find this in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


It was Salman Rushdie who pointed out that the Bosphorus, which Orhan Pamuk’s writing room overlooks, can be said to both separate and unite Europe and Asia. It is on this fault line that Pamuk’s work is born, something made abundantly clear by Other Colours, a collection of “ideas, images and fragments of life”.

This, however, is not a cohesive rainbow but a Pollock-like splatter. There’s been an attempt to shape it into an autobiographical sequence by the author, with selections from short essays, newspaper columns, speeches and interviews over the years -- one of the first pieces, for example, is on his father’s death, and the last one is of his relationship with his father and his writing.

Unfortunately, the first section is the least impressive, drawn primarily from short sketches originally written for Okuz, a Turkish magazine. Here, there are ephemeral meditations on spring afternoons, on giving up smoking, on wristwatches, on staring outside one’s window at seagulls and wholly unselfconscious accounts of his time with Ruya, his daughter. These, however, are leavened by evocative observations on the city of his birth: its earthquakes, fires and ruins, barbershops, street food and ferries on the Bosphorus – some of which now read like trial runs for his later book on Istanbul.

The more notable pieces in the next segment deal with the pleasures of immersing oneself in books. In reviews and literary analyses, Pamuk speaks of an affinity towards Dostoevsky for “his familiarity with European thought and his anger against it, his equal and opposite desires to belong to Europe and to shun it”. In another essay, speaking of Mario Vargas Llosa, Pamuk comments on his “lively innocence”; it is a trait that the latter, too, can be described as possessing.

In later sections, Pamuk displays his constant fascination with “otherness” in the context of European identity. In the allegorical essay ‘No Entry’, a sign on a door leads to a meditation on xenophobia, and elsewhere, he states: “For people like me, who live uncertainly on the edge of Europe with only our books to keep us company, Europe has figured always as a dream, a vision of what is to come; an apparition at times desired and at times feared; a goal to achieve or a danger”. (Interestingly, he asserts in a later essay that an understanding of the “other”, the “stranger” and “the enemy” is a central concern of the art of the novel.

His take on a post-9/11 world is nuanced: rather than the tenets of Islam or financial deprivation, what makes people of developing countries sympathise with terrorists is the “crushing humiliation” they have felt for years. In another well-measured piece written just before Pamuk went on trial for the crime of “denigrating Turkishness”, he points to this as the prime cause.

The section on the writing of his books is rich fodder for Pamuk enthusiasts, comprising reassessments, selections from interviews as well as, memorably, an essay on the trips he took to the city of Kars to get the background of Snow just right. However, the new short story included here, ‘To Look Out The Window’, reads suspiciously like straightforward autobiographical material, dealing as it does with errant fathers, fractious older brothers, and memories of Istanbul in the Fifties.

The crown jewel of this collection, though, is Pamuk’s Nobel lecture, ‘My Father’s Suitcase’, which in many ways sums up recurrent themes: his turning from art to literature, his love of Istanbul, the hours he spends writing, the competing lures of East and West and his warm though troubled relationship with his father. It’s a speech that is both moving and revealing, with a tone of unforced -- and because of that, appealing – sentimentality.

Throughout, Pamuk makes clear his undiluted love for reading and writing, his fascination for painting the world with words: “For thirty years, I’ve spent an average of ten hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk”. Which brings to mind Kafka’s aphorism: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked…” By remaining at his table, Pamuk has become the foremost among those who unmask today’s world.

No comments: