Saturday, June 24, 2006

Orhan Pamuk: Weaver of Tales

One of my favorite contemporary authors is the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. His works have a delicious intricacy that I won't even pretend to describe here. As the old cliches go, he weaves his tales like a fine tapestry, with a depth that is profound but which doesn't interfere with the enjoyment of his stories on a simpler level. I have to admit that I have enjoyed earlier books like The Black Book, The White Castle, and The New Life more than the more recent novel, but the recently published memoir, Istanbul, is one of the finest autobiographies I have ever read, running second only to Nabokov's Speak, Memory.

Snow, Pamuk's most recent novel, is set in provincial Turkey in the 1980's. Its issues pertain to the dampening effect of the secular military on daily life in the Turkish hinterland, as well as the growing influence of a more fundamentalist Islam as a reaction to western influences. A group of young women in the town of Kars has been compelled by young fundamentalists to wear the Muslim head scarf. The question is one of choice: some girls choose to wear the scarf as a sign of faith, others are compelled due to threats of violence. A wave of suicides follows when the girls are forbidden to wear the head scarves by the secular government. A formerly exiled poet, Ka, visits Kars, ostensibly to write about the phenomenon. During his visit a snowstorm effectively cuts off access to the town and facilitates a minor military seige masterminded by the head of a travelling theater troupe. In addition, Ka begins an affair with the ex-wife of an old school friend, the beautiful, strong Ipek. The events of the visit are recounted by Ka's friend Orhan, who seeks to understand just what happened to Ka during his visit to Kars. Not my favorite Pamuk, but with a fair amount of suspense.

Istanbul: Memories and the City is a memoir of youth and coming of age in a decaying metropolis. Pamuk emphasises the melancholy (huzun) which permeate the city of Istanbul and underlies the lives of it's inhabitants. Lovely passages on the backstreets of the city, which Pamuk explored obsessively as a boy. The Bosporus, in its ever-changing constancy pervades the memoir. There is a gloom and tension in the book similar to that in Pamuk's first (translated) novel, The Black Book, and if one is new to Pamuk, I would suggest reading the two together. Istanbul comes to an end in Pamuk's early 20's, at the point when he abandons the visual arts for a life as a writer. Clearly, the door is open for future volumes of autobiography.

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