Turning Novel Ideas Into Inhabitable Worlds

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk gave an impassioned political speech yesterday at Georgetown University -- but it wasn't the overt kind Washington audiences are used to hearing.

The 2006 Nobel laureate, here to receive an honorary degree on what happened to be the 84th birthday of the Turkish Republic, said not a word about his country's treatment of Armenians or Kurds, the subject that got him arrested in 2005 for the "public denigrating of Turkish identity." (The charge eventually was dropped.)

Nor did he mention the war in Iraq, though he told a New York audience last year that "the heartless and tyrannical murder of almost a hundred thousand people has brought neither peace nor democracy" to that country but "has served to ignite nationalist anti-Western anger."

Instead, Pamuk talked of the "literary globalization of the world" and outlined the way the novelist's imagination -- when employed to evoke "the other, the stranger, the enemy that resonates inside each of our heads" -- can be a powerful, liberating force.

Late afternoon sunlight turned Gaston Hall's stained glass a golden red as Georgetown made Pamuk a doctor of humane letters in a full-pomp ceremony. Provost James O'Donnell welcomed him back as "an old friend." Pamuk first spoke at Georgetown in 2002, when all entering freshmen were required to read "My Name Is Red," his novel about the 16th-century clash between Eastern and Western ways of seeing and painting.

President John DeGioia introduced him by noting that "just as Turkey links and bridges Europe and Asia, Orhan Pamuk's work often touches on the encounter between East and West, between tradition and modernism, between the European and the Islamic."

Pamuk, 55, whose latest book is a collection of short pieces called "Other Colors," began by describing himself as a kind of literary hermit. "When I think of a writer, I think of a person who locks himself up in a room," he said, and patiently builds bridges of words to express himself, "just like a mason builds bridges with stones."

Then he talked about the research he did for his 2002 novel "Snow," which took him out of his room to Frankfurt, Germany, and the remote Turkish city of Kars.

Both are places inhabited by Ka, the protagonist of "Snow." Wanting to better know Ka and the people he would encounter, Pamuk "roamed around where Frankfurt's Turks have made their homes" and explored Kars "street by street, shop by shop," conversing with, among others, "the unemployed men who spend their time in coffeehouses without even the hope of ever finding another job."

He was telling the story, he explained, as a way into a subject he considers central to the art of the novel: How does a writer transform the "other" into someone with whom both he and his readers can identify? How can a novelist fully imagine "this creature . . . who is nothing like us, who addresses our most primitive hatreds, fears and anxieties" -- and by doing so, escape "the confines of his self"?

Here comes the political part.

Because evoking "the other" is -- by Pamuk's definition -- an inherently political act.

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