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Book Review: Other Colours by Orhan Pamuk

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One of the wonderful things about reading books is that occasionally you get to read about something from a whole different perspective than the one you are exposed to normally. Our media report on the world from the perspective of our own society, which makes sense, as they have to represent the philosophies of those who buy their publications. But that gives us only one perception of events, only half a conversation, one side of the story. When we work up the nerve to leave our insulated shores and read something from a point of view other than the one that appears nightly on our television or continually in our mass media, it can be both a shock to our systems and an eye-opening experience.

For those who follow international events, i.e. the world outside the sphere of most Americans' interest, one of the bigger stories has been Turkey's application to join the European Union (EU). There's a lot of history between Turkey and Europe, dating back to the days of the Crusades, when the Europeans tried to reclaim the territory they called the Holy Land but the Turks called home. Open warfare only ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One and the capture of Jerusalem by the British.

Although mostly Muslim by population, the modern Turkish state has always taken pride in being secular, with complete separation of church and state. But the West's mistrust of the East, including Turkey, persists. In part, this is caused by what seems to be a state of continual political unrest in Turkey (the most recent coup having taken place in the 1980s) and the recent strong showing of non-secular parties in various elections.
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Therefore, the stories we do get in the news about the proposed entry of Turkey into the EU all express European concerns. Now, there is no denying that the concerns about human rights and religious tolerance can't be ignored, but what about opinions from the other side? Do we even know the people of Turkey, or anything about their country, their society, and how they go about their days? What image do we have of them, if any at all?

This is where literature can help fill the gaps in our awareness, especially if the writer in question is a recent Nobel Prize laureate whose political independence is unquestioned. Orhan Pamuk's newest release Other Colours (published by Random House Canada through its imprint Knopf Canada) may not be the definitive book on the opinions and views of the Turkish people, but it represents a perspective that we rarely see.

I have the impression that giving Westerners a Turkish perspective might have been Mr. Pamuk's intention with this book, because of the sections he's divided it into. He starts off with short essays under the title "Living and Worrying," which detail his day-to-day existence with family and friends. Predominant in this section are descriptions of adventures he has with his daughter, and the earthquake of 1999 that shattered Turkey.

We also get his ideas about writing, descriptions of living in his home city of Istanbul, and the overwhelming impression, which permeates all his work, of a melancholy of the soul that is pervasive among the city's inhabitants. Istanbul is a city steeped in history and haunted by its past, troubled by its future, and worried about the present. As in Los Angeles, its inhabitants sit and wait for the "big one" which will obliterate them, while playing the speculative game of "if it falls, will it land on us?"

There are also a couple of chapters that deal with Pamuk's relationship to other people's writing and his own, but the chapter that will interest those wanting a different perspective on the potential union of Turkey and Europe is "Politics, Europe, And Other Problems Of Being Oneself."

The picture drawn of Turkey in these pages is full of contradictions. In some ways Turks are cynical enough to believe that in the end, none of what they do or say will really have any bearing on their acceptance into the European Union. Why else would they prosecute a writer of Orhan Pamuk's reputation for speaking a truth that is universally accepted? In an interview with a European newspaper, Pamuk talked about the genocide of Armenians and Kurds by the Turks, and estimated that Turkey had killed around one million Armenians and fifty thousand Kurds. In Turkey this subject is not allowed to be discussed.
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For speaking those simple truths – facts written down in history books all over the world – he was charged under Article 301, "publicly denigrating Turkish identity." Pamuk writes very matter-of-factly about how during this period the ultra-nationalist newspapers called for his "silencing," and his books were burnt. Compared to some of his contemporaries the charges against him were slim, and he fully expected to win his case. The last thing he wanted or thought would happen was to become a cause célèbre and a poster child for the rights of authors.

He recounts how a fellow author and friend, on hearing the news of his being charged, congratulated him for finally becoming a real Turkish author. Pamuk says he wasn't at all surprised to find himself eventually put on trial, and it seems the only way an author will be honoured in Turkey is if he has spent time in jail. But he also places his arrest in the context of world affairs, showing how different the East's view of the world is from that of the West.

Pamuk says there is a dichotomy being faced by the people of countries like India, Russia, China, and Japan who have suddenly become members of the global economy. To compensate for their espousal of Western economic goals that contrast so much with their traditional learning, and to prevent being overly criticized for their newfound wealth, they sometimes resort to rabid nationalism. He doesn't spare the West, though – how can he sell its brand of freedom and democracy to his people when the war in Iraq and revelations of secret CIA prisons have so damaged its credibility?

It seems that the problem for people of conscience, like Orhan Pamuk, in countries on the cusp of a democratic system of government, is the question of what example they can hold up to their people of how life should be. That is what we never see in our news sources. No Western political leader of any stripe dares to get up in public and say what needs to be said: in spite of what you've been told to the contrary, nobody outside the United States sees the US or Britain – or Canada, considering its current government – as a shining example of freedom or democracy. The light cast by our governments' endeavours no longer serves as a beacon guiding anybody to anything except hostility and resistance.

If Pamuk thought his words made him unpopular in his homeland for speaking the truth, the ideas he postulates aren't going to go down as a treat anywhere else in the world either – neither in the United States, Britain, and Canada, where the beacons have sputtered out, nor in India, China, Japan, Russia, and Turkey, which are embracing Western economic ideals but becoming less tolerant of diversity and truth.

Other Colours is about more than world politics – it's about life in one of the world's oldest cities as seen through the eyes of a keen and passionate observer. But the world has intruded upon Istanbul – or Istanbul is stepping out into the world again – with results that look similar to what is happening elsewhere. How else, besides fear of change and compensation for embracing alien Western values, do you explain a secular country's sudden swing towards religious political parties?

Whatever the reasons, Turkey is experiencing profound changes, and reactions there are as good an indication as any of the moderate East's opinion of the West. I can't think of any man more sensitive to, and capable of documenting, these events than Orhan Parmuk, and if you care about the world beyond your borders, you would be remiss not to read every word of this book carefully. Somewhere within lies the secret by which we might all survive the next decade or so as the world's balance of power shifts. Pamuk might not come right out with the answer, but he asks the right questions to put us on the road to discovering it.

Readers in Canada can purchase Other Colours directly from Random House Canada or through Amazon.ca

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • bliffle

    Pamuk was interviewed by Charlie Rose this week, and there are several other interviews on youtube, some of them in english.

  • http://addictioninbox.org Dirk Hanson

    Not to mention his superb fiction, such as “My Name is Red” and “Snow.”

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!