Exploring the Human Condition with Book #18 Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colours

I know. I know. I’m really behind on my posts and I need to catch up asap. The number of books I’ve written about simply does not match up to the number of books I’ve actually read. But posts will be more frequent very soon. Certain major changes are happening in my life and before long, I’ll have enough time to write more on the blog. Until then, I can only ask my handful of regular readers to be patient.

Two years before his death, my father gave me a small suitcase filled with his writings, manuscripts and notebooks. Assuming his usual joking, mocking air, he told me he wanted me to read them after he was gone, by which he meant after he died…the first thing that kept me distant from the contents of my father’s suitcase was, of course, the fear that I might not like what I read. Because my father knew this, he had taken the precaution of acting as if he did not take its contents seriously. After working as a writer for twenty-five years, it pained me to see this. But I did not even want to be angry at my father for failing to take literature seriously enough…my real fear, the crucial thing I did not want to know or discover, was the possibility that my father might be a good writer…If true and great literature emerged from my father’s suitcase, I would have to acknowledge that inside my father there existed an entirely different man. This was a frightening possibility. Because even at my advanced age I wanted my father to be only my father – not a writer.

From Orhan Pamuk’s 2006 Nobel Lecture

I have read almost all of Pamuk’s works that have been translated into English, and much as I admire his lucid, evocative prose in fiction, I think I prefer his non-fiction; more specifically, his 1999 work Other Colours.  I like to float along with the gentle, contemplative tone he maintains, no matter what the topic – a massive, destructive earthquake, his trial for having ‘publicly denigrated Turkish identity’, the question of Turkey’s position vis a vis Europe. Pamuk may not have travelled much (he’s spent most of his adult life in the same area of Istanbul), but he’s read widely and he’s thought deeply about what he’s read. The reason he’s such a widely-loved and respected writer is because, no matter what he writes about, he is persistently exploring the human mind and heart. It may be a novel about lookalikes set in the Middle Ages, or it may be a love story set in post-Ataturk Istanbul, but Pamuk always links his subject to the essential human question: Who are we and why do we think and feel the way we do?

Let me illustrate this with an example: In his essay on Andre Gide, the great French writer and Nobel Laureate,  Pamuk starts out by talking about the idea of the personal journal and how it provided writers with another avenue with which to reach out to their readers. Gide was one of the first to realize the power of this new literary form. Journal is part of the Gide canon, and contains some of the writer’s most honest and heartfelt essays. Many writers worship the great Frenchman, including some Turkish novelists. These latter worthies – Pamuk calls them westernizers –  hail Gide as a great writer, despite being aware of the many derogatory, and racist, comments about Turkey that he recorded in his Journal. Pamuk uses this peculiar situation to explore the question of the Turkish identity: the clash between the country’s pride in its history and culture and yet its deep need to be seen as ‘more European’.  Amid recollections of how his table manners and sexual ethics were influenced by the constant argument that ‘that’s how they do it in Europe’, he says:

The Westernizer is ashamed first and foremost of notbeing European. Sometimes (not always) he is ashamed that he has lost his identity in his struggle to become European. He is ashamed of who he is and of who he is not. He is ashamed of the shame itself; sometimes he rails against it and sometimes he accepts it with resignation. He is ashamed and angry when his shame is exposed.

I’m sure many developing countries, which were once colonized or deeply influenced by Europe, will identify with this analysis of odd co-existence of national pride and shame.  Similarly, even when he discusses his favourite writers and their books, he prefers to link his literary explorations with human psychology. In his essay on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, he analyzes the Russian’s novel in terms of the human tendency to take pleasure in one’s own degradation. Here again, he’s not afraid to probe one specific work and find that it applies to all of humanity. He says:

Even as we tell ourselves we are worthless – over and over, as if repetition will make it true – we are suddenly freed from all those moral injunctions to conform and from the suffocating worry of having to obey rules and laws, of having to grit our teeth as we strive to be like others.

I would like to wrap up this post by saying something befittingly wise and profound. But it’s almost 1 am and anyway, I’m no Pamuk. All I can say is that I, for one, felt deeply connected to the writer as I read his essays. And I can’t say that about too many other writers.


One thought on “Exploring the Human Condition with Book #18 Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colours

  1. Pingback: Questions for a Bookworm | Bibliofanatique

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