The Friday Times | Sep 1, 2006
By Orhan Pamuk;
Translated by Maureen Freely;
Faber and Faber (2004);
Our guide, “Orhan the novelist,” is the narrator of his own novel. Culturally and politically Western, Pamuk remains critical of the force the Turkish state applies to enforce its vision of democratic secularism, established by Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s, on its Islamist population. Fictional character Turgut Bey, an honest and humane man who has suffered hardship for his beliefs (he is also the father of the beautiful Ipek) asks a question not too dissimilar from what Pamuk himself would ask, “Speaking as the communist, modernising secular democratic patriot that I am, what should I put first: the [European] Enlightenment or the will of the people? If the [. . . former], then I am obliged to see the Islamists as my enemies and should support this military coup [ . . . ]” (p. 247)
In the course of the novel, Pamuk examines both sides: the Islamist ‘people’ and those who claim to uphold the European Enlightenment. In so doing, he exposes their weaknesses – but identifies their similarities through which they may find conciliation.
The setting is contemporary Kars in eastern Anatolia – once a prosperous city of Russian, Armenian and Ottoman pashas, businessmen and intellectuals; presently impoverished and drained of all its capital and intellectual wealth. Heavy snow – kar in Turkish – is the backdrop that provides our protagonist Ka – Kerim Alakusoglu – a dried up poet, the inspiration for his 19 poems and is also the cause of Kars’ isolation from the rest of the world for four hectic days. An unmarried 42 year old exile in Frankfurt for 12 years, Ka has returned to Istanbul and journeys further to Kars, ostensibly to cover the phenomena of suicide among headscarf girls as a journalist, but in reality to bring back himself a wife – he learns that the beautiful Ipek of his student days is divorced and stranded in this provincial town.
As Ka and Ipek contrive to make meaningful conversation in their first encounter in years at a pastry shop, they witness the murder of the director of an education institute – a representative of the secular state – at the hands of an Islamist. Before the murder is executed, the Islamist interviews the director:
“Let’s hear your views on the beautiful 31st verse of the chapter entitled ‘Heavenly light [of the Quran],'” demands the Islamist.
“Yes, it’s true. This verse states very clearly that women should cover their heads and even their faces,” replies the director. (p 40)
Both Islamist and secularist are in agreement over the wording of this Quranic verse: obviously a Turkey struggling to reconcile the two divides won’t get very far with such interpretations. I myself have never read such a translated interpretation of 24:31. By citing this verse as the root cause for division between the two parties on the headscarf issue, Pamuk is showing us something very important: such interpretations are what cause secularists to reject arguing on Islamists’ terms and such interpretations are what prevent Islamists from integrating into a Kemalist Turkey. Can secularists justify to themselves a reinterpretation of the Quran to fit within a Kemalist framework? Can Islamists?
In either case, Pamuk is sceptical about the sincerity of those who refuse to tolerate others with stances different from their own. Ego becomes a stronger driving force than ideals. Sunay Zaim, the vain leftist Kemalist theatre activist, or modern artist as he would like to be regarded, stages a military coup and is responsible for the murder of unarmed Islamist students. Islamist outlaw Blue, proponent of women’s modesty and headscarfs, is himself a constant seeker of media attention and a womaniser. Even the religious high-school boys who are forced to watch Sunay Zaim’s final (stage and real life) act aren’t spared: “Mesut, [ . . . ] who’d been opposed to burying atheists and believers in the same cemetery, [. . .] confirmed how Sunay held [the religious high-school boys] spellbound [. . .] Perhaps this had to do with Sunay’s absolute power, the thing to which they aspired.” (p. 401)
Lest we forget, this is a novel, and Stendahl quoted in the epigraph notwithstanding, (“Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore,”) the plot is carried along with a continuous stream of unexpected and grabbing twists. The book is full of winning characters and the tortuousness of Ka’s pursuit of the beautiful Ipek is outdone only by putting the book down.
Grating to this reader is Pamuk’s deconstruction of the woman to a single quality that determines her attractiveness: her aesthetic beauty. Speaking for himself (Pamuk the narrator enters the novel as novelist Pamuk, the friend of Ka), Pamuk writes, “Ipek was more beautiful than anyone could have imagined [ . . . ] Only a man with a soul as deep as Ka’s could have won the heart of a woman like this.” One would have expected more of an urbane 21st century Western man, but then again, perhaps Pamuk is revealing more of Turkey by revealing a typical Turkish man’s thinking. Perhaps he justifies this undesirable method of thinking, as his fictional friend Ka justifies his undesirable method of thinking with, “I am a Turk.” (p. 370)
Turkey is lucky to have a novelist who brings up contemporary social issues for national discussion in an accessible way. Turkey is also lucky to have a novelist who endears international readers to the country. Though critical in front of an international audience, the depth of candid introspection conveys the author’s love for his country.
Even then, Pamuk issues a warning to foreign readers through Fazil:
“If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.”
“But nobody believes everything they read in a novel,” rebuts Pamuk.
“Oh yes they do believe it,” he cried. “If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathise with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds.”
Snow is as good a place as any to start understanding the dynamics within Turkish society, but finish this book and you too will feel compelled to continue your journey and make the trip to Kars.
– Imaduddin Ahmed is Features Editor at The Friday Times