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Sunday, October 21, 2007

OTHER COLORS

By Orhan Pamuk

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Translated by the Turkish by Maureen Freely

Knopf. 433 pp. $27.95

Referring to Andre Gide's strong -- indeed, offensive -- distaste for Turkey and its people, Orhan Pamuk observes, "We admire writers for their words, their values . . ., not because they approve of us." Characteristically tactful and understated, Pamuk, who is Turkey's best-known contemporary writer and the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, in this new book underscores the perilous relations between Islam and the West while maintaining an even and witty tone. "My image of the West is a tension, a violence born of love and hate, longing and humiliation," he writes, while subtly showing the Western reader that his image of the East often is, like Gide's, fraught with prejudice.

Other Colors is composed of shrewdly arranged occasional pieces, fragments from journals and other miscellany, edited and at times rewritten to form a remarkably cohesive picture of a literary man. In sections devoted to his personal situation, his intellectual formation, the public issues that he cannot avoid -- most pertinently, the "question of Turkey" -- and his work as a novelist, he portrays a writer unapologetically rooted in Istanbul who can no more conceive of Turkey without Europe than Europe without Turkey.

By turns lyrical and reportorial, Pamuk shares insights gained from experiences that range from being a father to being indicted under the notorious Article 301 ("slandering Turkey") for remarks on the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish conflict. He can imagine living nowhere other than Istanbul, yet he feels at times a stranger in his own land where so few people share his interest in modern literature. He relates a charming and revealing anecdote about a highly educated lady who cannot understand why her son should want to be a poet, when all the (traditional) Turkish poetry is, by definition, already written. But Pamuk is aware that moving to one of the world's literary centers, as did the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who lives in London, and whom Pamuk deeply admires, would not change his sense of himself as an outsider looking in. Deftly he shows how this is the price a "Third World" writer pays for sharing in the universal appeal of literature. It is the paradox of being in and out at the same time.

Like Vargas Llosa, Pamuk is acutely interested in politics but views it as the expression of human passion rather than ideological conflict. The novel for which he is best known, Snow (2002, English translation 2004), deals with the confrontation between secularism and Islam, but Pamuk is not a political writer. He has no more sympathy for the radical Islamists who practice serial murder and throw nitric acid in women's faces than Vargas Llosa has for the Shining Path killers in the Andes, but of course he knows his task is to make them real human beings, however distasteful, not political caricatures. Writing non-fiction, Pamuk defends the "Westernizing" outlook that he believes is best for Turkey. At the same time, he shows clearly that the deep resentments in Muslim societies are born not of "underdevelopment" or poverty but humiliation, some self-inflicted, some inflicted, wittingly or not, by the West. Beyond its clever charm and its wise observations, Other Voices is a plea to stand back and consider the historical and psychological causes of today's alarming headlines.

-- Roger Kaplan lives in Washington, D.C.


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