Sunday, October 21, 2007

In praise of reading: Orhan Pamuk

Other Colors: Essays and a Story by Orhan Pamuk

Leave it to Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk––author of the novels Snow and My Name is Red, and the nonfiction work, Istanbul: Memories and the City––to turn what could have been simply a solid essay collection into a beautifully spiraling, meditative sequence of memories, dreams, ideas, and reflections. By gathering some of the brief, quickly written lyrical essays he published in a weekly magazine in the late 1990s, portraits of his family, various speeches, literary essays, interviews, and responses to politics and events, including the terrible earthquake that struck Istanbul in 1999, Pamuk allows readers to get closer to his inner world than the authors of most memoirs. What comes across most hauntingly is the tension between Pamuk’s utter devotion to writing, and his recognition of how very few people share this passion, and of how very few books will stand the test of time. Pamuk is, accordingly, humble about what he calls the “clerkish” aspect of writing, the patience required, the long hours of solitude. But he is also exalted, believing that it is only through novels that we can truly understand what life is like for others.

Put on trial for having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity” by writing and speaking out about the Armenian genocide––a century-old denied crime currently stoking the worsening situation in Iraq and contributing to the controversy over Turkey’s role as an ally to the U.S. and potential member of the European Union––Pamuk is keenly sensitive to the full significance of freedom of expression, and writes with candor and valor about political matters. But, clearly, he is happiest recreating the atmosphere of his beloved Istanbul, reporting on his travels, and musing over the work of his favorite writers, among them Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Borges, and Camus. There is at wistfulness and grandeur in Pamuk’s essays, a mix of pain and joy that is at the heart of the human experience.

Pamuk writes so unaffectedly about the “pleasures of reading,” listing among them the way a book allows the reader to “escape the sadness of everyday life and spend some time in another world.” Pamuk also writes that reading, especially when he was young, “was central to my efforts to make something of myself, elevate my consciousness, and thereby give shape to my soul.” In comparing words to images and reading to watching a film, Pamuk, who initially dreamt of being a painter, admits that if he could find the same pleasures reading brings in film or television, he would “read fewer books.” But, “words (and the works of literature they make) are like water or like ants. Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps or life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things—the things that make us curious about life, about the world—can first be ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them. Good literature is a piece of wise counsel that has yet to be give, and as such it has the same aura of needfulness as the latest news; that is mainly why I still depend on it.”

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