'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Orhan Pamuk: 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature 

UPDATE: Pamuk's acceptance statement:

I received word that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize early this morning by telephone. I was in bed in New York City. It was so dark that I thought it was the middle of the night. The phone rang, and it was Sarah Chalfant of The Wylie Agency, who told me that news of this award had been received in the agency's London office.

I was told that the Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, would be calling me, which in fact he did, a minute later; and he told me I'd received the Nobel Prize and that he was going to announce it in three minutes. He asked me whether I would accept. And I agreed joyously first as a celebration of Turkish language, of Turkish culture, which I'm part of; and second, personally, I accepted this prize gratefully as a recognition of my 32 years of humble devotion to the great art of the novel.

INITIAL POST: Orhan Pamuk, an author who has devoted his life to the study of mixture and plurality, wins the Nobel Prize:

Pamuk's novels, the best known of which are Snow and My Name Is Red, evoke modern Turkey's complex blending of westernized culture and Ottoman tradition. It is a mix, Pamuk said, that puts the lie to the simplistic notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.

"That is a fanciful, very dangerous idea," he said, "and so many people have been killed" because of it. His writing career, he added, is a testament to the fact that East and West can meet rather than clash.

My primary exposure to the work of Pamuk has predictably been these two novels, with Snow being most impressive, and it is no surprise that the eclectic Spengler of Asia Times Online has provided the most concise insight:

Suicide is the recurring theme of Pamuk's new novel. Franz Kafka's "K" provides the archetype for his protagonist, the poet "Ka", with characters and situations borrowed explicitly from The Trial and The Castle, down to the setting in a snowbound provincial town. But the town in this case is Kars, where Armenians outnumbered Turks 14-1 at the outbreak of World War I. After the extermination or exile of the local Armenian population, their monuments and churches remain as a ghastly admonition to the impoverished and largely idle Turkish inhabitants. The Turks of Kars live on foreign ground, buffeted by the Westernizing ideas of Kemal Ataturk and the Arabic ideas of the Koran. Ultimately they have nothing of their own, and dwell on the idea of suicide.

Ka is there to look up an old girlfriend, but as a pretext secures an assignment to report on an epidemic of suicides among young women. Female suicide is widespread in the Islamic world; such an epidemic occurred in Turkey during the early 1990s, and another one claimed the lives of several dozen young women in the Afghan city of Herat during 2002.

Not only the women want to die. Another character explains, "You see hundreds of these jobless, luckless, hopeless, motionless poor creatures in every town ... They've forgotten how to keep themselves tidy, they've lost the will to button up their stained jackets ... their powers of concentration are so weak they can't follow a story to its conclusion ... they watched TV not because they liked or enjoyed the programs but because they couldn't bear to hear about their fellows' depression, and television helped to show them out; what they really wanted was to die, but they didn't think themselves worthy of suicide," that is, unlike their women.

Not only the unemployed but the intelligentsia hover at the edge of a suicide's grave. Ka's love interest divorced her husband who embraced Islam after attempting to freeze himself to death in the street. The young seminarians who puppy-like approach Ka cannot understand why he, an atheist, wants to live: "If a person knows and loves God, he never doubts God's existence," one of them says to Ka. "It seems to me you're not giving me an answer because you're too timid to admit that you're an atheist. But we knew this already ... Do you suffer the same pangs as the poor atheist in the story? Do you want to kill yourself?"

Why are the inhabitants of Kars, even the transitory ones like Ka and another character, the Islamic terrorist, Blue, so fixated with death? There is no straightforward answer to the question, but it can be better understood by reference to one of the essential themes of the novel: the failure of utopian ideologies, such as Ataturk's nationalism, the Marxism of Ka and his contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s and the neoliberalism of the present, to provide the means for people to live personally and socially fulfilling lives. Instead, they are perpetually entrapped in one role after another, each initially infused with the promise of liberation, a promise that is invariably broken in the most demoralizing ways.

Through this inescapable process of disillusionment, the people of Kars have become sad and weary, and their emotional state is mirrored by the decay of the city around them, a city in which the remorseless advance of neoliberalism has rendered much of the populace superfluous, as there is no work for them and they lack access to the money and credit needed for consumerism. Neoliberalism is the nihilistic force that sweeps away the debris of the shattered dreams of the past.

It is so pure, so comprehensive in scope, such an annihilation of spontaneous self-expression that Ka can only perform sexually by duplicating acts that he has seen in pornographic videos, one of the original postmodern commodities. In such a world, Political Islam ignites the embers of unextinquished hope, and encourages people to believe, one last time, that fulfillment lies through violence and the embrace of death. Rejecting the hypocrisy of the secular world, the young women of Kars adopt Political Islam as a radical doctrine for change and kill themselves as a liberatory act to indict society. The allure is so strong that even the cosmopolitan Ka cannot resist and publicly adopts the faith.

It is through this interweaving of the personal, the political and the social that Pamuk displays his brilliance, and justifiably received this award. His ability to place Political Islam in the context of intimate individual experience is unique and compelling, at least for European and American readers. Evocative of the work of the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, Fassbinder, Pamuk possesses a similar culturally anarchistic sensibility, an ability to convey the sadness of our time in order to induce us to consider alternatives, to recognize that another way is possible.

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