Swans Commentary » swans.com May 21, 2012  



Between Tradition and Postmodernism On The Bosphorus


by Fabio De Propris


Book Review


Translation from Italian by Peter Byrne



Pamuk, Orhan: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, translated from the Turkish by Nazim Dikbas, 2010, Harvard University Press, ISBN9780674050761, 190 pages.

Kemal, Yasar: Firat Suyu Kan Ak?yor Baksana (Look, the Euphrates is Flowing with Blood), 1997, whose English translation is pending, has already appeared in Italian, translated by Simone Abramo and Pinar GòkparGuarda L'Eufrate Rosso Di Sangue, 2012, Rizzoli, ISBN-13: 978-8817055062, 408 pages.
"Borges and Calvino liberated me. The connotation of traditional Islamic literature was so reactionary, so political, and used by conservatives in such old-fashioned and foolish ways, that I never thought I could do anything with that material. But once I was in the United States, I realized I could go back to that material with a Calvinoesque or Borgesian mind frame."
—Orhan Pamuk

"I don't write about issues, I don't write for an audience, I don't even write for myself. I just write."
—Yasar Kemal


(Swans - May 21, 2012)   In 2008 the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was invited by Harvard University to deliver six lectures on literary art in the Charles Norton series. Pamuk, Nobel Prize for literature in 2006, did not arrive in Boston with the composure of a master at the summit of his profession. There was no chance that he would reflect with Olympian calm on the overall significance of literature. Pamuk was in trouble at home. Turkish nationalists had brought him to court with the accusation of insulting the national identity. In an interview in Switzerland he had declared the genocide of the Armenians and Kurds to be historical fact. For part of 2009 at Harvard, he would not only prepare his lectures in the library, but shelter there from the hostility in Turkey. Even when the charges against him were finally dropped, hatred still raged.

He published a novel only months before, The Museum of Innocence, in which he observes his native city with the same extraterrestrial scrutiny that he lavished on it in his 2005 memoir Istanbul. Pamuk's Norton Lectures, published a year later as The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, are not, then, the work of a prudent and superbly above-the-fray intellectual but the testimony of a militant artist. The lectures were composed in the saddle, not in an armchair.

Pamuk's recourse to Friedrich Schiller's essay will surprise contemporary readers who may have only met the German Romantic at school. The manuals explicated his thoughts on how modern poets, having thrown off the age-old illusions of their predecessors, must be "sentimental," i.e., self-conscious, to be authentic. Pamuk has no difficulty in finding naiveté and sentimentality as two categories still present in his fellow writers and in himself. He believes, nevertheless, that the sentimental novelist armed with technical awareness prevails today.

Thoroughly to understand Pamuk, however, we have to pass over this too-neat conclusion and recognize his fundamental stance. He speaks of himself not only as a writer of novels but also as a reader of novels. This double role originates in a twofold challenge of some weight. As a boy, ignoring Islamic culture's refusal of images, he wanted to be a painter. In his twenty-first year he abandoned that ambition and determined to be a novelist, which is also a calling fairly new in the culture of Turkey. Turkish writers have been much more at home with lyric or epic poetry, a taste that continued right up to the time of the great Nazim Hikmet who died in 1963. Naiveté and sentimentalism will necessarily have a different meaning for a Western writer who has behind him decades of classic works written in his mother tongue than for a Turkish novelist who encounters Tolstoy and Dostoevski as fresh discoveries.

For Pamuk the reading and the writing of a novel are closely connected, which is one reason why his lectures are so amiable and confidential. His posture is very like the Argentine Ricardo Piglia's, another writer come to teach in America, in his case at Princeton. In his 2005 essay, The Last Reader (El último lector), Piglia doesn't hesitate to put the reader and not the writer at the very heart of literary action. Moreover he shares Pamuk's admiration for the character of Anna Karenina in the eponymous novel. Anna, disappointed by life, nonetheless is extremely attentive to the least details of existence, details that Pamuk sees as the primary building blocks of the novel. On her nervous train journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg, she tries to concentrate on reading a novel.

Given that writing novels is relatively new and wins little social recognition in Turkey, it shouldn't surprise us that Pamuk presents himself to his compatriots in a brotherly guise. He leaves aside the fact that he's a middle-class writer in the Western mould, and comes to his public as a reader just as they are readers, and as a reader even when he writes.

His reflections on the art of the novel start from this awareness and a corollary: In both reading and writing, Pamuk ever maintains a painter's eye. His tendency to create new work out of previous work, making use of old material, efforts surmounted and even abandoned projects, reminds us of Dante. In Istanbul, the book turns on the question of just how exactly we ought to look at the city. In The Museum of Innocence, love that can't be seen becomes visible through a collection of objects. In The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, a novel is declared to be a landscape. Reader and writer go forth on the adventure of discovering its center. Their method is to weigh up the everyday particulars seen in the picture made of words.

This brings to mind Carlo Ginzburg's essay of 1989, Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm. The historian believes that the discovery of the killer in a detective story has a parallel in "the oldest act in the intellectual history of the human race: the hunter squatting on the ground, studying the tracks of his quarry." Much closer to us, Stephen King makes an intriguing assertion in his On Writing, A Memoir Of The Craft of 2000. Writers of good novels, says King, always return to the same theme, however they might diversify the plot and story. Whereas by theme King refers to a rhythmic quality of the writing that makes every novel by the same hand similar to a musical variation, Pamuk's concern with landscape and its evasive center is a visual concept. Considering the novelist and the novel reader similar to someone who views a painting or studies a history book supposes that a center does exist, different from novel to novel, even if not immediately visible. Pamuk dwells on the idea of a novel's center or underlying subject.

To see a novel through his eyes becomes for Pamuk a founding principal of philosophy and anthropology. It takes for granted the capacity visually to perceive the reality of what defines a human being, just as we know this reality by compassion and love. In this light The Naive and Sentimental Novelist doesn't seem to offer reflections valid beyond the particular artistic undertaking of its author, Orhan Pamuk. We may even tax it with ingenuity, while all the same admiring its defense of the literary novel as the keystone of modern culture. Because it makes us ponder again the great Russian novelists, as well as Schiller, Coleridge, Proust, and Joyce, we can do worse than to take on for a few hours the viewpoint of Pamuk's book.

Pamuk's six lectures belaboring the contrast between naive and self-aware writers assign him necessarily, despite his demure, to a place among the savvy. It's almost with relief that we turn to another Turkish novelist who is proud of his naiveté. Yasar Kemal, following his instincts, can, as Wikipedia succinctly puts it, "lay claim to having recreated Turkish as a literary language, by bringing in the vernacular, following Atatürk's sterilization of Turkish by removing Persian and Arabic elements."

Kemal, whose 1997 novel, Firat Suyu Kan Akiyor Baksana (Look, the Euphrates is Flowing with Blood), has come out in an Italian translation and will soon, as has most of his vast production, appear in an English edition.

Using postmodern techniques familiar to the West, Orhan Pamuk is the writer who has most effectively projected Turkish culture into world literature. Yasar Kemal, older but still at work, has for his part succeeded in setting the popular cultures of Anatolia in an ethnic and historical framework. Oral storytelling, popular epics of robber heroes who take from the rich and give to the poor, an unending dialogue between myth and history, immemorial violence tamed by fable are all themes that return in the most recent work of Kemal, a tetralogy, not yet finished, to be entitled An Island Story of which Look, the Euphrates is Red with Blood, is the first volume.

The novel begins with a description of one Poyraz Musa's coming to an island. We are overtaken by the enchantment of nature, the sound of oars cutting water, the sight of the sun setting and rising. However, history quickly engulfs the story. Poyraz Musa is a young Turkish officer and war hero. After surviving bombs, bayonet charges, and frozen limbs, he settles on the imaginary Ant Island in the Dardanelles. No one wants to live there after the exodus of the Greeks in the 1924 exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. Musa's long talk with a barber on the coast marks the first encounter of a vast panorama teeming with the heroic actions and misdeeds of men roving from the Dardanelles to Mesopotamia.

Kemal's account proceeds in the concentric circles typical of oral tales, often returning to the same subject to reveal a side not known before. But the circularity doesn't spiral back on itself. Storytelling for Kemal means seeking a sense in the horrors of history and creating islets for shared compassion between enemies, whether Turks and Greeks, or Arabs and Yezidis, those worshippers of the sun whose blood made the river red. Kemal registers the tension between rootedness to one place and the fluidity of nomads that can at times be a thirst for a haven of felicity, like Ant Island, where humanity can begin afresh.

Yasar Kemal was born in a Kurdish family in the Taurus Mountains in 1923, the year the Turkish Republic came into being. He looks back now to marvel again at the infancy of the nation. His octogenarian's voice vibrates with nostalgia for a happiness that has been lost but can be regained, though perhaps only in the joy of storytelling. The symbol of that faraway time, a recurring image, is the mythic bird of Mount Kaf, the Smurg. Nobody has ever seen the Smurg, but someone like Poyras Musa, by dint of a lifetime of striving, can succeed in hearing the marvelous song of the fabulous bird. The quest for the Smurg is nothing less than the seeking after the sense of things. One can't help wondering what Yasar Kemal thought of Orhan Pamuk's Harvard tightrope dance between naiveté and postmodern literary awareness. As for Poyras Musa, he would look the other way, lean on his oar and dream of new shores.


The author thanks Peter Byrne for his help with this article and for its translation.


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio.   (back)


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Published May 21, 2012