(For the Business Standard, October 16, 2006)
“I don’t want to be an artist,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”
That is the last line of Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s haunted tribute to the city where he has lived for the last fifty years. The book is the biography of a city, written by perhaps the best-known of its citizens, and an exploration of the early years of a writer, but Pamuk closes the door gently before he comes to the works that made him famous. He was only a little past fifty when he finished writing Istanbul , and it may have seemed premature to look back when he had so much ahead.
When the Swedish Academy announced that Pamuk had won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, many assumed that the timing of the Prize was influenced by political considerations. At 54, Pamuk is a young Nobel laureate, and several pointed to older, equally suitable authors—Philip Roth, Adonis, Mario Vargas Llosa, for instance.
But there’s a reason why Pamuk’s name has come up for the last decade every time Nobel season comes around. There are many twenty-somethings who make the same pronouncement Pamuk did; there are very few who can live by his creed.
At 23, Pamuk had already tried and rejected several professions. He came from a family of well-off engineers, but declined to join the profession; studied to be a journalist but dropped out; studied to be an architect and dropped out. He dismayed his family by announcing he would be an artist—”we’re not rich like we used to be,” his mother said during one of their many arguments. He escaped from the endless rounds of supplication and arguments into the “mournful streets” of Istanbul: “The sublime, dizzying, pure anger I felt…would leave me after an hour of wandering…wherever I went, as I got colder and colder, I’d be warmed by the furious flame of my brilliant future.”
The one book by Pamuk I have never read is his first, widely considered a masterpiece in Turkey. Cevdet Bey and His Sons spans three generations of an Istanbul family, and is astonishing in its ambition according to those who have read the samizdat English translation. (Pamuk refuses permission to have this translated into English.) It reminds Western readers of the masters of the 19th century novel; from the few excerpts I’ve read, Indian readers would settle comfortably into Pamuk’s style, so close to that of Tagore and Premchand. He finished the book when he was 26; it was published when he was 30 and established his reputation immediately in Turkey.
Over the next two decades, it seemed that Pamuk had set out to rediscover—and, like Haruki Murakami, to transform—the modern novel. His second novel was Sessiz Ev, or The House of Silence , and instead of the sprawling canvas of Cevdet Bey , this spanned just a week in the riot-torn Turkey of 1980 and is seen from the perspective of three siblings mired in their grandmother’s crumbling house.
His third, The White Castle , was as different from his first two works as they were from each other. Pamuk had left the 19th century behind him—now he was operating in the realm of Kafka and Borges, with a nod to Cervantes. Set in the 17th century, The White Castle featured a captive Italian who is sold as a slave to a Turkish scientist who looks just like his doppelganger. This was followed by Kara Kitap , or The Black Book , in which a man roams the streets of Istanbul in search of his missing wife, ransacking her brother’s cryptic and brilliant newspaper columns for clues to her whereabouts. Pamuk was barely forty by the time he had finished these four works, and many contemporary novelists would give an arm to have written just one of them.
The books that made Pamuk famous in the West—the willfully obscure My Name is Red, Istanbul, and the unsettling Snow–were written over the next 14 years, and he is finishing yet another novel.
For those of us who discovered Pamuk in the same way that we discovered Murakami, with astonishment and delight, it doesn’t feel as though the Nobel Prize was bestowed on him prematurely. It’s just that Pamuk is a rarity: a writer who, having announced his intention to write at an early age, didn’t discuss the matter any further. Instead, he roamed Istanbul for inspiration and found it; he weathered controversy, and suspicion at his early success; he sat down in that famous study facing the Bosporus, the stretch of water where Europe meets Asia, and he wrote as though his life depended on it.