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A Turkish Novelist Faces West

BY J. Bottum

November 16-22, 1997 Issue | Posted 11/16/97 at 2:00 PM

 

In The New Life, Ohran Pamuk addresses the strangeness of writing Western-style novels to explain the non-Western Turks to themselves

The New Life by Orhan Pamuk; translated from the Turkish by Guneli Gun (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997, 296 pp., $24)

“IREAD A book one day and my whole life was changed,” begins The New Life, the postmodern Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's latest work. “Even on the first page I was so affected by the book's intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table.”

If this awakens echoes of the conversion of St. Augustine—reading the New Testament when a child's voice drifted over his garden wall saying, “Take up and read”—that was intended. Or if the reader remembers Dante's Renaissance account of conversion in La Vita Nuova, that too was intended. Reading and rebirth have been intertwined in Western civilization since the Apostle Paul first wrote to the Thessalonians.

The problem is—as Pamuk well knows—that Turkish culture has never fit comfortably within Western civilization. It did not fit in those late medieval days when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and made all of Europe tremble. Nor has it fit in more recent times since the young Turk leader Kemal Ataturk, seeking a solution to “the Sick Man of Europe” that was the late Ottoman Empire, imposed in 1923 the radically secularized regime that created modern Turkey and has virtually outlawed any religion ever since.

Even the writing of novels is an essentially European activity, borrowed by other cultures as much as the telephone or the voting booth, and born in Europe from a fundamentally Christian experience of the power of reading a book. With the Koran, Islam has its own written scripture—scripture that recognizes the significance of reading when it identifies Christians and Jews as “People of the Book.” But it was only with the Bible in the West that reading—and by extension, writing— became invested with the kind of spiritual gravity that might lead one to begin “a new life.”

Pamuk is the author of two previous postmodernesque novels, The White Castle and The Black Book. Both of these, upon their translation from Turkish into European languages, led many critics to make extravagant comparisons with such major figures as Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Salman Rushdie. Many even suggested the likelihood of eventual recognition from the Nobel Prize committee that is always on the hunt for major authors from outside the West. But The New Life may be his most telling work, for in it Pamuk at last faces up to the strangeness of his activity of writing Western-style novels to explain the non-Western Turks to themselves.

The narrator of Pamuk's tale is Osman, a 22-year-old Turkish student, whose sudden discovery of an unnamed book tears him away from school into a new life. Searching for the book's meaning, he falls in love with an architectural student, Janan—who, with her lover, Mehmet, has also become a reader of the book. Such readers are in danger, Mehmet warns just before he is apparently shot and disappears together with Janan. Pursuing somehow both his new life and Janan, Osman takes to the road, busing across Turkey, stopping only to take another bus in no particular direction, hoping that buses will lead him to the book's meaning and Janan.

Reading and rebirth have been intertwined in Western civilization since the Apostle Paul first wrote to the Thessalonians.

After he emerges unhurt from a collision, he begins to think bus wrecks may hold the clues he seeks, and it is in fact at a crash site that he finds Janan, who joins him in riding buses across Turkey. And at a third crash site an injured young woman reveals herself as a reader of the book. She asks Osman and Janan to impersonate her and her lover, going to stop a mysterious “Dr. Fine,” the man behind the attacks on readers of the book.

Fine turns out to be an extremely wealthy man whose son, after reading the book, turned against him and subsequently died in yet another bus crash. In revenge Fine has vowed to destroy the book and all its readers. It was one of Fine's agents who shot Mehmet, who is discovered now to have survived. Furthermore, another agent murdered Uncle Rifki, a friend of the narrator's family who is, perhaps, the author of the book.

Leaving Janan behind to rest, Osman sets out to find Mehmet—and discovers him alive and well, living contentedly in a small village under the narrator's own name. In fury at his refusal to come back to Janan, Osman shoots down this impostor and returns to Fine, only to find that Janan has disappeared yet again. Finally stripped of hope, he turns his tired steps back home to school and his mother. Janan, he learns years later, lives in Germany with a doctor who read the book but somehow managed not to suffer from it. Now 35, Osman is left with a quiet, injured, and empty life.

The novel might have ended here, a strange little story about love and the illusions of youth, significant mostly for its close observations of rural Turkish life. But in its final pages, Pamuk puts his novel through a weird kaleidoscope of postmodernesque changes as we discover the impossible fact that the book we have just been reading is itself the book that changed Osman's life, and Pamuk the author is also Osman the participant—somehow magically both inside and outside the novel.

Such postmodern inversions are not to every-one's taste, and they in many ways damage The New Life. But if the reader considers the strangeness of the activity at which Pamuk spends his life—forcing a Western-style novel to explain a non-Western country that has for nearly 75 years forced an exaggerated Western-style secularism on its unwilling and primarily Islamic people—then these postmodern posturing of the author, as both inside and outside his work, emerge as the most profound aspects of the book. For the Catholic reader, they are even more important, revealing what Pamuk himself must recognize: that the very significance of a book—any book—derives ultimately from the experience of conversion-by-reading promised in that one book on which the entire West is founded.

J. Bottum, associate editor of the journal First Things, is based in New York.