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On Pamuk and Pretension



Finally, someone who agrees with me that Orhan Pamuk is not all he is made out to be!

I have been going on about him for a while now, though in fairness, my rants against him have slipped of late. I have never read his breakthrough novel My Name is Red, but have read his exploration of his home city of Istanbul and his novel Snow.

I rather enjoyed Istanbul: Memories of a City, and found it a challenging book, one that transported me away from the dark wintertime Cashel to Cork bus a few years ago. I had hoped his novels would also live up to the hype, and so I turned to Snow, ironically reading most of it in the desert. Below is an old review of it I wrote in 2008.

When I read the first chapter of this book I thought it sounded good, nice descriptions told in such a way that you feel like you are there. The idea of the novel which I got from the first chapter was also good, intriguing, the idea of a man, a poet and a secularist who exiled himself from Turkey returns after all these years to a town on the edge of his country where politics and religion become much more serious, entwined and focused. He comes to investigate a series of suicides of young women and I found myself, like him, asking why they had occured. It made me want to read on. The idea that he would find himself trapped in this place due to the snow storm certainly added to my interest so read on expecting to read an interesting novel. After a while however, my perception of the novel changed. I did enjoy quite a lot the way political Islam was explained through the use of the characters which I thought quite skillful and well developed. I enjoyed that plot, the tension between east and west and how Pamuk showed in reality that the conflict is far too oversimplified in the minds of its protaganists. The complex relations between religion, state, history and politics in Turkey was well portrayed. These were the novel’s strengths.

Where it got lost and bogged down however was in what I will call the other plot (even though it is related to the main theme), that of the relationship between Ka and Ipek. There was far too much repetition of Ka’s emotional and physical longing for Ipek. His running around time and again, his longing to be with here, his daydreams of what their life together could be like. This part of the novel would have been welcome in my opinion but for the fact of its irrelevant excess. I understood the first and definitely the second time how he felt for her and how she felt for him. Their relationship was central to the plot and the theme of the novel and the conflict was played out quite well between them. They both embodied the complexity of the conflict between east and west, religion and secularism, perception and reality, and were a fine juxtaposition to some of the characters in the novel who viewed the conflict through a manichean lens. However it was spolied through too much emphasis on the emotional feelings of Ka. Overall a potentially good if not great book, but in my opinion spoiled.

I don’t mean to single out Pamuk in particular – his other works could genuinely be decent. What I am railing against is the dumbing down of literature and the pretension that goes along with the cosy club of book awards. In my opinion, most of the Nobel Prizes for literature seem well deserved, but this one, for a writer whose portrayal of love appears to have been written by an angst-ridden teenager, is not one. All those glowing reviews of Snow by expert opinions which it seemed only existed to justify the granting of the award are part and parcel of the current consumerist Tesco and Richard and Judy-esque book culture that is a particularly plague worthy manifestation of neo-liberal capitalism in the 21st century. We must raise the banner for a literature that engages critically with the world, that challenges assumptions and prejudices and raises the intellectual standards of common discourse. Enough of mediocrity. There is a wealth of experience out there and a wealth of talented people living it. The experts who pander to mediocrity in the name of consumerism only serve to push down and discourage those who have something genuinely interesting and eye-opening to say.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 12/03/2011 15:20

    Interesting. I recently read his latest novel The Museum of Innocence and while I enjoyed it for the way it portrayed Istanbul, Turkish sociey and the east/west conflicts, I did find the way he described the love affair, or non love affair really, quite a bit drawn out.

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