Sunday, July 19, 2009


Have been reading (indeed, almost finished) Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. It definitely reads like a translation from another culture, which of course it is. At times, Maureen Freely’s renderings are lyrical and flowing, particularly when snowy scenes of Kars are evoked; at other times, downright wooden. The transitions are at times awkward, the characters speak whole stiffly constructed paragraphs to each other; occasionally I’m reminded of what it’s like to read translations of Dostoyevsky. But the characters are real, passionate and substantial, and the novel driven by the intensity of its conflicts; in the process, the cultural richness and political paradox of Turkey is explicitly revealed. An adamantly secular state whose population nevertheless is 98% Moslem –- a deep contradiction in itself –within Turkey is a growing, radical Islamist movement that threatens to take it the way of Iran. The state, in defending "democracy", frequently resorts to draconian measures -- beatings, torture, executions.

Of course what is winning to me is that the main character, Ka, is a poet. We never read Ka’s poetry – but his poetic process is vividly evoked, and he’s a sensitive, tragic romantic witness; to his loneliness I can relate. For four years he was in exile in Germany, and was unable to write a thing; now, back in the most course and provincial of Turkish towns, he finds to his surprise his lifeblood is renewed, and the poems start to come. Here’s part of a dialogue with Ipek, a beautiful woman with whom he has fallen wildly in love. (That definitely does help.)

“What did you do when you were in Frankfurt?”

“I’d think a lot about the poems I wasn’t able to write… I masturbated… Solitude is essentially a matter of pride; you bury yourself in your own scent. The issue is the same for all real poets. If you’ve been happy too long, you become banal. By the same token, if you’ve been unhappy for a long time, you lose your poetic powers… Happiness and poetry can only exist for the briefest time. Afterward either happiness coursens the poet or the poem is so true it destroys his happiness. I’m terribly afraid of the unhappiness that could be awaiting me in Frankfurt…”

The Nobel Prize for Literature is often as much a political as literary award, and Orhan Pamuk’s 2006 award strikes me as example of that: with this novel and others he laid his life on the line, giving voice through his characters to Islamic fundamentalism, and having other characters respond in a way that could easily bring on a fatwa. His difficulties with the Turkish government, for contradicting the official line on the Armenian genocide, are renowned. Not to say that his novels themselves are not deserving of the highest recognition.

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