‘A novel isn’t a wikileak’
There is a lot in India that reminds Nobel-winning writer Orhan Pamuk of growing up in his native Istanbul. It might be the oldness, the smells, or the way a shopkeeper starts chatting. For the reader and writer of a novel, such materials of the daily, mundane life, can also lead to a sudden jump to heights that only religion or philosophy could have earlier addressed, says Pamuk in New Delhi.
The writer of works such as The Black Book, Snow, My Name Is Red and The Museum of Innocence, peers into and probes the novel in his latest book, The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, a compilation of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he delivered at Harvard in 2009. “This is the only book I will write about how novels work and operate,” he says. There is also a philosophical dimension, as the book is also an essay on the human mind. “I argue against the Cartesian idea that contradictory truths must be resolved by saying that we can simultaneously entertain contradictory thoughts.” He cites an example from Snow where he is able to understand and identify both with an Islamic fundamentalist as well as a secular officer. “A novel works best if the opinions of the disagreeing characters are explored and represented in all their truth and you only get to guess what the author is thinking.”
Why does he need to invoke the critical distinction between the naïve and the sentimental, made in the late 18th century by Friedrich Schiller, that doyen of Enlightenment and German Romantic thought? How apt as a benchmark is Schiller’s treatise On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, firmly settled as we are among our post-modern anxieties?
“I am not using Schiller’s observation about literary style but about human character. For him, a naïve genius, a person not troubled by morality or embedded in the world in a happy way, is more valuable than a sentimental person who is more concerned about style than content. I think that a good novelist must possess both the characteristics,” he says.
In a book that is quite free of critical jargon, Pamuk also warns his reader to be wary of naïve readers, who are constantly trying to locate the autobiographical in the novel, as also the sentimental one, who sees all texts as constructs. “They are immune to the joys of reading novels,” he points out in the book. The concept he introduces instead, is that of the ‘centre’: a “profound opinion or insight about life”.
Writing a novel, for him, is like “traversing a forest, devoting passionate attention to every tree…” If this does not befuddle enough, the definition of the ‘centre’ will, which is “like a light whose source remains ambiguous but which nonetheless illuminates the whole forest”. A ‘centre’ is the prerogative of a literary novel as crime stories or romances have a set, predetermined ‘centre’. “The ‘centre’ of a literary novel is the equivalent of ‘who is the murderer’ in an Agatha Christie novel,” says Pamuk.
Speaking about the genocide of Armenians in Turkey may have landed him in trouble in the past, but telling the truth cannot be a part of the aesthetic plan, Pamuk says. “Telling hidden truths about politics is the duty of WikiLeaks,” he says, winking and then bursting out into laughter. “Novels are about compassion, about putting yourself in the place of a person who might be different while politics is about not understanding people who are not like us,” he says.
Pamuk’s early vocation as a painter contributes the most important metaphor of the book: the landscape. The novel is the only literary form that allows that vast sweep before concentrating on the particular.
He is also hopeful about the future of the novel. “The novel never comes to an end. It is like Frankenstein[’s monster]; the more they kill it, the more it lives,” he says. As a form, the novel has immense elasticity, as also an egalitarian, democratic quality. “All that it needs is a pen, paper or a laptop. Maybe the real novel that people will enjoy in another 50 years has not been invented yet,” says the novel-loving novelist.