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In The New Yorker

The New Yorker never fails to surprise me. I'd have expected to see Orhan Pamuk's "Nobel Lecture" in, say, The New York Review of Books, but it sits very nicely in this year's fina issue of The New Yorker. As it's online, you ought to have no difficulty accessing and reading it. It happens to be an excellent introduction to the writer's themes, but it also makes an important declaration: Istanbul is the center of the world.

Having been lucky enough to visit Istanbul, I have no trouble going along with this proposition (which Mr Pamuk intends to be taken figuratively, as we'll see). Istanbul is a socket from which both the West and the Middle East swing. A Turkish, quasi-secular, quasi-Islamic city today, it has left many traces of the West uneffaced. There are, of course, the great Byzantine remains, most notably Ayya Sofia. There are also the souvenirs of more recent Western influence, dating back to the nineteenth century and the final decades of the Caliphate. The fact that Turkey's modern capital sits at Ankara has had a preservative effect on Istanbul as well - if too often, as Mr Pamuk points out in his book about the city, in the form of neglect. To a greater extent than any other city that I have visited (and I have never been to Rome), Istanbul appears to exist on several time-planes at once. Some of the bizarre things that theoretical physicists say about the world feel a little less unlikely by the banks of the Bosporus.

When Mr Pamuk was growing up, in the Fifties and Sixties, Istanbul happened to be about as backwatery as it is possible for a major city to be. No longer acknowledged by the rivals who begat it, the city limped along with a rudimentary, somewhat embarrassed cultural life. To be a Turk, one crossed the water to Anatolia. To be a writer, one went to Paris. Mr Pamuk's father, an amiable bon viveur who invested his inheritance in a string of failing enterprises, spent some youthful time in Paris, where he filled up notebooks with "poems, paradoxes, analyses." Two years before he died, the father gathered up his notebooks, put them in a suitcase, and delivered them to his son, in whose success as a writer he had never had any doubt, going so far as to predict that Mr Pamuk would win the prize that occasioned "My Father's Suitcase." The idea was that, at his convenience, the son would go through the notebooks, and see if there was anything that might - and this was left wide open.

In the event, Mr Pamuk did not find anything that might conceivably appear anywhere but in his father's notebooks. Reading them appears to have been a very unpleasant experience, because Mr Pamuk loved his father deeply but could not pretend that his writing was not that of an amateur. Early on in "My Father's Suitcase," Mr Pamuk writes,

By this time, I had been working as a writer for twenty-five years, and his failure to take literature seriously pained me. But that was not what worried me most: my real fear - the crucial thing that I did not wish to discover - was 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 a man who was entirely different from the one I knew. This was a frightening possibility. Even at my advanced age, I wanted my father to be my father and my father only - not a writer. 

But, knowing what I know from Mr Pamuk's work, that "real fear" concealed a real hope. I expect that the contents of the suitcase were bitterly disappointing, because they were the work of a provincial writer, someone working far from the center. A writer without faith.

Orhan Pamuk has made Istanbul the center of the world by taking its complexity as seriously as possible and trying to set it in prose.

... for the past thirty-three years, I have been narrating its streets, its bridges, its people, its dogs, its houses, its mosques, its fountains, its strange heroes, its shops, its famous characters, its dark spots, its days, and its night, making them a part of me, embracing them all. A point arrived when this world that I had made with my own hands, this world that existed only in my head, was more real to me than the city in which I actually lived. That was when all these people and streets, objects and buildings seemed to begin to talk among themselves, interacting in ways that I had not anticipated, as if they lived not just in my imagination or my books but for themselves.

Equal parts courage and obsession, Mr Pamuk's identification as a writer of Istanbul constitutes exactly the commitment that every great writer makes to what we call his "material." His belief in its importance transcends argument; it even transcends love. And it signifies that, however familiar the writer may be with Dostoevsky or Kafka, he is not a provincial who wishes that he could write about Paris or New York, where the "real writers" are. The real writers, he knows, are wherever they believe in what they're writing about. There is nothing easy about this faith, because it is essentially a faith in one's own creative powers. Mr Pamuk doesn't write about Istanbul, he creates it. He displaces the physical city with the literary city, which is a thousandfold more accessible. It is a miracle that writers writers of his caliber conjure out of bravado and hard work.

The question remains: does accepting the greatest literary prize that the West has to offer make Orhan Pamuk a "Western" writer? Don't look at me. It's a litmus-test sort of question, its answer pre-determined by the prejudices of the inquirer. In a way, all writers whose work reaches the Swedish Academy's attention are "Western" writers, toiling in that capacious and cosmopolitan tent in which capturing life in words is the only real project. At the same time, the grain of Mr Pamuk's outlook is distinctly "foreign" - Turkish. That's the most important part of his faith: that he write as a Turk. Not as someone who, like his father, ran into Sartre in the streets of Paris. I expect that, at least to all fearful and ungenerous minds, Mr Pamuk will appear to aspire to both titles, "Western" and "Turkish," and to be unworthy of either.


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