Orhan Pamuk starts his novel Snow with the Stendhal quote: “Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair, though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.” Snow has been the 2006 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Pamuk’s most political novel till date. It tells the story of a poet travelling to a Turkish town close to the Armenian border to write on a recent killing and a mysterious suicide epidemic among the ‘headscarf girls’ while Islamists are edging towards victory in the municipal elections. Despite this “pistol-shot in the middle of a concert”, it is his comments made outside his books that have made Pamuk such a political lightning rod, both inside and outside of Turkey. It is also for his ‘utterings’ about the Armenian holocaust — “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dare talk about it” — that the Nobel being awarded to the author is being seen by many as less based on his literary reputation and more on his political one.
It is notoriously difficult to divide one’s personal and political lives. It becomes doubly so when one is dealing with a writer whose very action is that of transferring the personal to a public space. For Pamuk, whose novels use the template of history and politics to narrate a story of personal imagination, dividing the strand of politics from that of literature is as futile as trying to isolate the upstairs from the downstairs of a flight of stairs. Pamuk comes from a European tradition of novelists typified by past masters like Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass and Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose unreal outputs are culled from the real, without leaving fresh, direct footprints. His 2000 novel, Benim Adim Kirmizi (My Name is Red), was a glorious play of genres, mixing mystery, romance and philosophical puzzles. Ten years before, his Kara Kitap (The Black Book) became notorious in Turkey not for anything else but for its imposing ‘literariness’. With the 1985 historical novel, Beyaz Kale (The White Castle), Pamuk had already started using post-modern techniques. So, to pin Pamuk down only as a pamphleteer with a great imagination is to fail him as a reader.
But by the same rules that make the personal political and the political personal, one cannot ignore that Pamuk is part of a larger landscape that includes Turkey’s troublesome entry into the European Union (a Nobel laureate could help) and the ways in which the liberal West is training itself and others to look eastwards at the Islamic world. After years, of course, all this will fall by the wayside. All that will remain is Orhan Pamuk, the author of shimmering literary works.