Orhan Pamuk and Modern Turkey

Not many writers in the world have the kind of relationship with their own country as the one that Orhan Pamuk has with Turkey. Murat Belge states that this is the result of dynamics in Turkish society.

By Murat Belge

A writer (or any artist or intellectual) who is at odds with the political authorities of his country is unfortunately still not an “unheard of” case in the world, though this has long ceased to be “heard of”, in the free democratic world. We did not see French authorities or politicians condemn Sartre for his condemnation of French politics or observe Steinbeck on trial for criticizing American capitalism. On the other hand, this kind of conflict between artist and state can be taken as the index of the level of democratic culture in a given society. There are many places in the world where the relationship is highly problematic, and in that sense Pamuk’s situation is not unique. However, not all persecuted writers are at the same time Nobel winners.

This is rare but it also happens. Pasternak had to refuse the Nobel Prize in 1958. It was quite obvious at the time that the writer did not want to face all the trouble that his acceptance of this international recognition was likely to heap on him in the Soviet regime. In 1970 it was time for Solzhenitsyn to get the same prize.

They were both writers whose opposition to the regime of their country, though expressed in different degrees, was well known, especially by the regime itself. On the other hand, this opposition was shared by many people in their country. So, although the Soviet regime took this Award as an attack on itself, Soviet society was not offended. Here, again, Orhan Pamuk stands on a different terrain, because voices of anger in society itself were much louder than those of celebration.

But at this point we have to ask whether this is an accurate description of the real situation. Orhan Pamuk is the one Turkish writer whose work has been translated into so many languages and warmly received; but he is a “bestseller” in Turkey. In this age of “mass-culture”, the concept of “best-seller” does not go with “literature of high quality”. What Orhan Pamuk has achieved in this regard had not been accomplished since the time of Charles Dickens, probably. Consequently, despite the loudness of contumely directed at Pamuk and the widely expressed belief that he was chosen for the Award not for the literary quality of his work but his insulting words about his country, we must note the fact that he has the largest readership by far, as a Turkish man of letters, in his own country as well as abroad. The opposition is loud, but support is wide, at least among the reading public.

Change and renewal

Orhan Pamuk was a successful writer from the first; but it was with his Yeni Hayat (“New Life”) that sales of Orhan Pamuk books began to soar. This book was published in 1994 and it got to be a turning point in the writer’s career. Hitting the 100.000 mark and getting beyond in a very short time, this book achieved something never seen before and not equaled since. It was followed by Benim Adım Kırmızı (“My Name is Red”) in 1995 and Kar (“Snow) in 2002, both highly successful commercially. As the writer reached this level of popularity, his earlier novels such as Kara Kitap (“the Black Book”, 1990), Beyaz Kale (“The White Castle”, 1985), Sessiz Ev (“The Silent House”, 1983), and Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (“Mr. Cevdet and His Sons”, 1982) also became very popular.

It is interesting that when his “New Life” came out, there was a newspaper, getting very popular in big cities and among a young readership, which was called Yeni Yüzyıl (“New Century”) and a new political movement, which actually called itself “The New Democracy Movement” and, led by a young businessman, was beginning to hold a position at the top of the political agenda. In the course of the ups and downs of Turkish socio-political history, this seems to be a period when change and renewal became attractive concepts. The period, however, did not last long. Symbolically, the newspaper closed down and the political movement (left-liberal in character) died down, after scoring a terribly low level in the election, so that only Orhan Pamuk survived among these three “new” items of the agenda.

This is probably not just a remarkable coincidence. Pamuk is not a particularly “political” novelist. He has his political commitments as a person, but his work cannot be taken as an example of “political literature”. In Sessiz Ev (The Silent House) and in Kar (Snow) the entire subject matter is political and most of the characters highly “politicized” people (and there is always something political in the “less political” novels as well). But “politics” in Orhan Pamuk novels is just like any other element of subject matter – it is, like sex or family relations, ambition or art, etc. part of life to be taken for its experiential value and plasticized to become the “literary content”, and not Stendhal’s “gun” that has to explode at some time. In spite of all this, however, Orhan Pamuk has been intricately connected with the political history of his country and the estimation of his work has often been done according to political – extra-literary criteria, to a degree that becomes annoying for the true “literature-lover”.

To understand why this is the case it might be better if we shift our focus of attention away from Orhan Pamuk and to the social setting, of which he is a part.

Pamuk is not a particularly “political” novelist. He has his political commitments as a person, but his work cannot be taken as an example of “political literature”.

Traditional power elites

Turkey has been in a process of change in a changing world, especially after the Cold War came to an end. The growth and spread of the business community in Turkey coincided with globalization gaining momentum in the world and the possibility of joining the European Union in perhaps a decade and a half’s time. Such social and economic change necessitates significant revision and restructuration of the political apparatus and the role of the traditional power elite perched on that mechanism. Therefore, the thrust of the urbanized and urbanizing modern sections of society, including the new business class, has been in the direction of democratization and globalization in general. This thrust is countered by the fierce resistance of conservative forces. The whole thing can be likened to a contest of tug-of-war where neither side has the sufficient strength to pull the opponent over the line and win the game.

In the midst of such a social struggle, Orhan Pamuk, without any doubt, stands on the side of change and renewal and represents what is new in society. This is the reason why he becomes, every once in a while, the chief target of attack for the conservative front.

A fascist columnist in the mainstream Hürriyet, Emin Çölaşan, was the first to start a campaign against Pamuk. An elderly professor of Turkish literature had gone through Pamuk’s works, hunting for references to Atatürk. Çölaşan quoted his findings extensively, declaring Pamuk to be “an enemy of Atatürk”.

The founder of Modern Turkey
Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk): The founder of Modern Turkey

Making unfavourable remarks about Turkey in front of an international (foreign!) audience is considered a great crime in Turkey. It is criminalized in law but it is an almost unforgivable transgression in the social ethics – in a highly isolated society which has been fed with nothing but nationalism. Orhan Pamuk breached this several times, but really infuriated the nationalists, turning them into “sworn enemies of Orhan Pamuk” when he said that Turks killed a million and a half Armenians, in an interview he gave to a European magazine. In the kind of political struggle referred to above, and in the escalating tension created by this struggle, this comment had explosive effects. When later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the nationalists turned this into a single issue: Pamuk had made such statements to be awarded the prize and the “Westerners” (who hate and fear Turkey anyway) had given him the prize as the reward of his treacherous slander.

Again, this kind of reaction made more noise than its real import in society. Although the media in general played a negative role, many were won over to Pamuk’s side, in a society craving really hard for success and recognition. Pamuk’s success was quickly turned, by that group of people, into a success for Turkey, and we were all obliged to rejoice in this “national” pride – this was the “mainstream” response towards those who considered the award as somewhat of an occasion for “national mourning”. Few were ready to leave Pamuk in peace with his prize.

Pamuk had made such statements to be awarded the prize and the “Westerners” (who hate and fear Turkey anyway) had given him the prize as the reward of his treacherous slander.

But this realignment and recognition of Pamuk increased the intensity of the feelings of the Pamuk-haters. The President of the Republic did not congratulate him and made no statement about the event, ignoring both Pamuk and his award. (Incidentally, it is not the only one. Pamuk has won awards in Turkey and some important international ones as well so far). But the “fascist on the street”, encouraged by the stony immovability of this official level, was seething and frothing and calling for the death of Pamuk, together with all the others forming the long list of “traitors”. Not long after, Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist who worked for the recognition of the Armenian Massacre of 1915, not for punishing Turkey, but for effecting the real peace and mutual understanding of Turkish and Armenian people, was shot in the street, in front of his journal Agos, 19th January 2007.

The authorities decided to provide police protection, after this event, to other writers and intellectuals targeted by the fascist front. The criterion they chose to decide “who to protect” was the notorious article 301 of the new penal code, speaking in a very vague manner about “Turkishness” and the “denigration of Turkishness”. Those who were tried under this article (one of whom was Orhan Pamuk), usually after a formal complaint made by a group of ultra-right wing lawyers headed by one called Kemal Kerinçsiz, were picked up by the authorities and given police escort, as well as policemen in uniform guarding their houses. Hrant Dink had also been tried and condemned by this article.

Crisis of values

As tensions heighten and contradictions sharpen, a crisis of values begins to sink on society. Thugs from provincial towns embrace nationalism as one instrument to legitimize their violent instincts. An unholy alliance of these trigger-happy lumpen-nationalists and the pompous members of the praetorian guard of the republican state is formed to stop democratic liberal development in society. Problems, old and new, like the Armenian Massacre of 1915 or the Kurdish problem of the present day, are dealt with in the same rigid, inflexible manner and are consequently aggrandized beyond repair. While some of us walk for Dink, shouting “we are all Hrant Dinks”, there are others who happily identify themselves with the murderer.

It is to be hoped that this furor and this nationalistic frenzy, in which, among others, stands Orhan Pamuk, will fade away in time, leaving the man and his work in more clearly discernible lines.

We shall then be able to see a man, who, while working on a wide range of subjects, sensibilities and cultures, epochs and societies, and turning them into literary experience, also turns himself into the writer, the “man of letters”. No one in the history of Turkish literature until Pamuk ever was so entirely devoted to the art of literature and so determined to become the writer. This “writer” behind the “literature”, as well as the literature itself, is the product of the long and meticulous, planned and sustained effort of Orhan Pamuk.

He dabbled in painting as a young man and studied architecture in university. He did not engage in architecture as a professional career but we can say that he is an architect of the novel. Architecture is an art that cannot tolerate slackness. Collapse would be the inevitable consequence. In Orhan Pamuk’s novels everything, or almost everything, is carefully but not rigidly planned before the actual work begins to take shape. Of course, a lot is thought of, hit upon, improvised or invented in the act of writing, on the spot. But the gist of the work, the governing ideas, the problem to be tackled as well as the instruments to be employed to tackle, are orchestrated and put in order in the writer’s mind as he works on his project. Therefore, at the end, nothing sags, unless it is there to give an impression of “sagging”.

In all these respects, Orhan Pamuk is, as it were, almost an “antidote” to Turkish literature which usually makes a point of being emotional, structure-less and sometimes tends to be rather garrulous. Since The Black Book, Pamuk has been using the tools of postmodernism quite extensively. His books abound with all the doubles, sub-plots, catalogues, mysteries and intertextualities, but somehow the end-result is something that goes beyond this post-modernist machinery – as used by the best engineers of the mode.

Although Pamuk can be quite amusing and humourous when he wants to, his novels have a very serious theme or, let’s say, a “problem”, such as the “ways of seeing” we encounter in My Name Is Red, or the building up (or the failure of such building up) of a modern Turkish society in New Life. The private lives of the characters are intricately woven into the unfolding of the theme. In this sense, Pamuk’s writing is not very far from the mode defined by Fredric Jameson as “political allegory” when he talked about “Third World Literature”; but it is not far removed from the post-modernist contemporary Western novel either.

Orhan Pamuk had a contract with Columbia University in New York for teaching there for one semester, starting in 2006 and continuing for five years. As he came back from this job and after taking part in the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, he, together with the rest of the country, was shaken by the murder of Hrant Dink. He is now back in the United States.

I have briefly touched upon the traditional power elite in Turkey and upon their resistance to democratic change. Their attitude towards leading intellectuals, writers and artists, in Turkey, has not been very different. Nazım Hikmet, the first internationally known Turkish writer, after spending thirteen years of his life in prison, had to leave the country secretly and end his life as a political exile. There are other exiles and those who have remained in the country were always threatened by the prospect of prison, when not actually in prison. I mentioned the inflexibility of this praetorian guard and here, too, the attitude is adamant. However, the lynching mood of the nationalist throngs poses the major menace and threat today. It seems as if a longish time will have to pass until this society calms down and begins to appreciate arts and literature for what they are worth. But that cannot be possible without a decisive victory for democracy in the first place. Even then, it would take decades to counter-act the horrid ideological accumulation produced and reproduced by militaristic nationalism throughout all these years.