A NEEDLE’S EYE VIEW PHILIP HENSHER FINDS INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM HAS NOT DULLED PAMUK’S FOCUS
by Philip Hensher
The Daily Telegraph (LONDON)
October 6, 2007 Saturday
Orhan Pamuk must be one of the most famous novelists in the world,
and is certainly the most famous writer in Turkish. He has been
translated, as he tells us, into 40 languages – I doubt that he has
always been translated as beautifully as here, however, by Maureen
Freely – and has been a bestseller in most of those. He has won every
prize going, including the Nobel, and nowadays leads not just a public
but an international life.
This is odd because he tells us that, after a childhood adventure
to Switzerland, he did not leave Turkey again for a quarter of a
century. One might have worked that out from his writings. His novels,
alluringly, are both about that most historically cosmopolitan of
cities, Istanbul, and determinedly local; they watch the world as it
passes through the needle’s eye of the Bosphorus.
Success has changed Pamuk’s life; there are many casual references
here to international literary conferences. According to the New
York Observer, he has just paid $1.8 million for a flat in New York,
apparently abandoning Istanbul for the moment. There was, too, the
recent case of Pamuk’s prosecution for referring in an interview
to the 1916 massacre of the Armenians, a claim still denied by the
Turkish government. In the course of the trial, Pamuk’s belief in
freedom of speech risked turning him into a martyr for the cause.
But an increasingly international and polyglot life hasn’t changed
Pamuk as a writer, on the evidence of this interesting and varied
collection of essays and shorter pieces.
When he goes to New York, what interests him is what interested him
about historical Istanbul: the way the world filters through it.
Writing about Germany, what engages him is his subject as seen from
afar: the notion of Turkishness as maintained by the German-Turkish
Pamuk is a local writer, but one who sees the facts of the world
implicit in those local phenomena. He is like the philosopher in Conan
Doyle who could deduce the existence of lakes and rivers after seeing
a drop of water for the first time. From individual relations, deftly
sketched out in short newspaper columns, the reader can extrapolate
tendencies in Turkish society.
A beautiful essay, remembering the first showing of the Elizabeth
Taylor epic Cleopatra (1963) in Istanbul, two years after its
first release, is freighted with significance. At one level it is a
wonderfully specific evocation of a place, a time and an experience
of the sort that made Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul (2005) so haunting. At
another, there are all sorts of considerations under the surface
of the relations between East and West, starting with the absurd
orientalist film, that turn it into something more than a memory of
a boy at the cinema.
His subjects are local, but his concerns are near-universal. Perhaps
the only slight disappointment in this collection is Pamuk’s discussion
of books. He clearly set his sights high from an early age, and his
obsessions are the international classics: Dostoevsky, Stendhal,
The reader is left in no doubt that Pamuk, from the start, set himself
the task of becoming a great writer on a world stage. His comments
are always acute, even if he can’t resist explaining on each occasion
exactly where and when he first read each of these writers.
For me, though, Pamuk has written most rewardingly of works of art
in his immediate culture, such as the miniaturists in My Name Is
Red (2001). He ought to be encouraged to publish his reflections on
Turkish writers, even if they are not known outside Turkey; the ones
in Istanbul were a perfect joy.
The two best pieces of writing here are the warm and touching memoir
of his father which constituted Pamuk’s Nobel acceptance speech,
and a wonderful story, "To Look Out of the Window". It is a story of
late-1950s family life, and its title sums up something important in
Pamuk: the sense of idling, of staring out at the world going by and
always managing to find something interesting to look at. It can’t
be said of many collections of scraps and ephemera that they add to
your sense of the author’s genius. But this one does.