Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dissent - Orhan Pamuk and Modernist Liberalism

Dissent offers an appreciation of Orhan Pamuk and a review of his novel, Snow. I've never read anything by him, but he sounds interesting and the fact that he is often in trouble for what he has written is also intriguing.

Orhan Pamuk and Modernist Liberalism

by Orhan Pamuk, trans. by Maureen Freely
Vintage International, 2006 463 pages $14.99

Is there a global culture today? I think there is. Its images come from movies, old and new, and from television; its sounds are rock-and-roll, rap, and heavy traffic on the street. But only the novel has the Faustian chutzpah to try to connect all the dots, to put this immense world together. Orhan Pamuk, one of the world’s great novelists, lives and works within shouting distance of Dissent. The least we can do is shout to our readers that he’s here. I don’t know him, but it’s a thrill to know he’s nearby. He spends half the year in New York, where he teaches comparative literature at Columbia, the other half in his hometown, Istanbul, where he speaks truth and gets in trouble.

Even if Pamuk weren’t this physically close, he would be easy to connect with. Most of his books are easy to get and remarkably easy to get into. They are at once brilliant debates and psychedelic trips. All are set in Turkey, last year or five hundred years ago. Pamuk country is weirdly other, yet he makes us feel we’ve known it all our lives. Now in his fifties, he is working at the height of his powers. People worried not so long ago about “the Death of the Novel.” Pamuk’s books, along with Roberto Bolaño’s, reassure us that this is not true. The novel is still what D.H. Lawrence said it was a century ago: “The one bright book of life.” Only now the light and the life are coming not just from a few centers, but from all over the world.

Pamuk’s novel Snow appeared in the West amid widespread anxiety triggered by the attacks of September 11, 2001. It was easy for reviewers and readers to frame it in the context of what one author (Daniel Benjamin) called “the age of sacred terror.” Pamuk turned out to be a terrific writer of melodrama, and his melodrama got incorporated into our collective melodrama. Snow became an instant bestseller. Now, living in a saner time, we can read it again and see more and find more between the lines. One thing we can find is first-rate dialogue on the question of what it means to be modern.

“Don’t be afraid, these people are modern.” Sunay Zaim, a cultural bureaucrat of the Turkish Republic, says this just before the end. He says it to Ka, a self-consciously “modern” poet. Ka has been in exile in the West for years. He has come back to this miserable border town to write an investigative article on a wave of religious—or pseudo-religious—suicides among teenage girls. We never do learn what is driving these girls; but we learn that, in Turkey at the end of the twentieth century, out-of-control violence is erupting in everybody’s everyday life. Sunay says that if people have faith in the republic, it will all work out. But in Pamuk country, the primary crop is irony. It grows all year round, even when all other crops fail. The Turkish people live on it, but there is plenty left for export. So when any Pamuk character tells any other not to be afraid, we can see the author ringing alarms. When a character says being modern will make the Turkish people stable and happy, we can hear the author’s ironic laugh, even when we’re not sure we get the joke. The one thing that seems to resist irony here is the snow itself, layer piling on primal layer, smothering history, freezing life, blotting out the sun. Yet we know it’s Pamuk’s snow, as artificial and as modern as everything else in his work. This snow falls on the beach and in the jungle as much as it falls at the poles; global warming offers no protection against it; it envelops the world.

Sunay offers his reassurance at the start of one of Pamuk’s most brilliant scenes, which forms Snow’s dramatic climax. He is a veteran actor, producer, show-biz tummeler, and overall wise guy who somehow has found a niche working for the Republic as a provincial cultural bureaucrat. He is a broadly comic character, as if on loan from some road production of Pal Joey or Guys and Dolls; it is surprising to meet him in the solemn world of Snow. His job in Kars is to be a kind of public relations man for modernity, for the Enlightenment, for secular humanism. Sunay overflows with cliché versions of ideas that most readers of Dissent believe in, and that some of us would die for. (Probably so would Pamuk.) This makes his presence truly grueling. We listen to his spiels, and we think, Is that what I believe in? Oy! But once we read to the end, we see we have to feel for him, because of what he goes through—or rather what Pamuk puts him through. He transforms his comedy into tragedy.

Sunay tells his friends not to be afraid. In Pamuk country, this message sets off every alarm. What disaster lies ahead for this poor man? Snow is almost over, so at least we know we won’t have long to wait. But in another way we’ll have to wait forever. Pamuk’s answer will only raise more questions and will open up a Moebius strip of what he calls “secret meanings.” It is typical Pamukian irony that this PR man for clarity and openness is about to become a mystery case that will never be closed.

Snow is set in a time of troubles that culminate in a military coup d’état. Some of my Turkish students think Pamuk means the coup of 1980; others deny a precise date, and say his point is to create a “typical post-1970s coup.” But first, Sunay wants to put on a theater piece that will rally the people of Kars to the republic. He thinks it can overcome their troubles—economic depression and mass unemployment are the worst—if they will only believe in it. He has faith that in the end they will. When he says the people are modern, he means they are self-aware, they are willing to fight for the right to think for themselves, for the right to love, for the right to be happy. Even if conflicts arise between modern people, or between modern values, “Don’t be afraid.” This is a classical humanistic vision of modernity; it could have been embraced by Stendhal, by Emerson, by Victor Hugo, by George Eliot, by John Dewey, by Margaret Mead. Sunay sees the pre-coup Turkish Republic as a realization of this classic vision.

Sunay says not to be afraid, and at once we worry. There is trouble with Kedife, his leading lady and old friend. He has composed a weird, disturbing script where his character urges her character to throw off her Islamic headscarf, in the name of human freedom. She resists, then hesitates, then gives way, and then after she does it, she turns on him and shoots him to death. For the curtain call, the actors will appear hand in hand, the best of friends.

Kedife is reluctant to take the role. There are nasty and belligerent people in the house, and she is worried about provoking them. But Sunay bullies her and she lets him and, at last she agrees to go on. Everything goes smoothly until the climactic moment: then it turns out that the gun is loaded, the bullets are live, the blood that drenches the stage isn’t stage blood, and Sunay really dies. People start screaming. Soldiers come in, a little late. The house is in a state of chaos and pandemonium. We know that if anything like this were to really happen, Pamuk the man and citizen would be horrified. But in a dramatic scene where ordinary life morphs into bloody horror, Pamuk the author is happily at home.

Many of Pamuk’s readers will find themselves as mystified by this climax as the people on the spot, or as the authorities trying to piece the case together later on. How could Sunay not have known about the gun? Are we meant to think he arranged to be killed? If he did, he didn’t let the killer in on it. Pamuk makes it clear that once Kedife sees what she has done, she is distraught. But even if she didn’t mean to kill him, the fact that she did will destroy her life more effectively than any religious veil.

What was he thinking? What inner demons drove this man who denied the demonic? In this mystery one thing is clear: these shots have blown to pieces Sunay’s sunny vision of modern life. The night has turned out to be, as he planned, a display of the modern. But it is a nightmarishly twisted modern, largely unconscious of itself, dense with psychic reversals and existential traps like landmines, where people become suicide bombs and destroy people they love as they destroy themselves. Sunay meant to show the glories of modern life; but somehow modern death steals the show. In fact, that irony haunts much of twentieth-century history. (Will it be better in the twenty-first? It’s too soon to know.)

As Sunay’s vital powers ebb away, his visionary power grows. He gets only one line before he dies: “They’ll never be modern,” he says, “they know nothing about modern art.” This is a great piece of black humor, dead serious. But why should a people want to know modern art? What can it give them? Pamuk doesn’t offer a single ringing answer, but here’s a start: A global horizon and an expansive flow of empathy, a feeling for irony and complexity, a capacity to embrace contradictory ideas and believe and love them both. The poet John Keats, as he lay dying, called this power “negative capability.” The anguished last sentence in Sunay’s life is also his first work of art. The heavy changes that Pamuk puts him through can help us see how modern art could be something to die for—or to live for.
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