Sunday, August 15, 2004

Margaret Atwood on Orhan Pamuk: Secularism in Turkey

Margaret Atwood reviews Orhan Pamuk's new novel in the New York Times.

For those of you who haven't read Pamuk's work, I would recommend it along the lines of Borges or perhaps (more specifically) Italo Calvino. The Pamuk novels I've read (My Name is Red and The White Castle) have dizzying reflexivity and a kind of floating allegorical structure -- where one isn't sure about the line between symbol and referent. If Pamuk has had any overriding concern, beneath the labyrinthine narrative play, it has probably been the line between self and other. In The White Castle, this line is also the line between east and west, Turkey and Europe. Though Pamuk is talking about a concern that many others share, his approach is obscure enough that Atwood's suggestion that Pamuk ought to become more famous is unlikely to be borne out anytime soon.

But that might change if what she says about the new book is true. It seems like Pamuk's new novel Snow is more pointedly addressing the cultural/political impasse (over "secularism") in contemporary Turkish society more than the earlier books. Here's a representative paragraph from Atwood's review:

For instance, the town's newspaper publisher, Serdar Bey, prints an article describing Ka's public performance of his poem ''Snow.'' When Ka protests that he hasn't written a poem called ''Snow'' and is not going to perform it in the theater, Serdar Bey replies: ''Don't be so sure. There are those who despise us for writing the news before it happens. . . . Quite a few things do happen only because we've written them up first. This is what modern journalism is all about.'' And sure enough, inspired by the love affair he begins with Ipek and happier than he's been in years, Ka begins to write poems, the first of them being ''Snow.'' Before you know it, there he is in the theater, but the evening also includes a ridiculous performance of an Ataturk-era play called ''My Fatherland or My Head Scarf.'' As the religious school teenagers jeer, the secularists decide to enforce their rule by firing rifles into the audience.

I will probably have to go pick this up in hardcover.


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