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The hunt for Pamuk's world

Not without reason, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk objects to the many cultural interpretations of his books.


[Nobel Prize winner] How should we understand the works of Turkish-born author Orhan Pamuk?

The question is updated after Svenska Akademien 12. October made 54 the Nobel Prize winner of the year in literature. According to the official rationale, the award is awarded to Pamuk, "who, on the lookout for his hometown's melancholy soul, has found new senses for the cultural struggle and intertwining".

This is the whole reason given, but the 17 words still tell a lot. First, Pamuk's books are linked to his hometown of Istanbul. Opaque considering his first five novels, yes, but somewhat funny considering that his latest work of fiction from 2002 – Snow in Norwegian, Kar in Turkish – takes place in Kars, on the border with Armenia in the northeast, so far away from Istanbul can come in Turkey.

Secondly, the Swedish Academy also believes that Pamuk writes about "the clash of cultures", or "clash of cultures" in English, albeit in a constructive way. This is how the cultural policy formulation from last year's book fair in Frankfurt is reproduced when he received the "Peace Prize" for books in which "Europe and Muslim Turkey find space for one another".

But is Pamuk's literature really about "cultural meetings"? When I called Rana Tekcan, professor of literature at the University of Belgium in Istanbul, she gave a different perspective:

"Pamuk writes about conflicts in the human interior, not about the struggles of cultures and religions. Rather, as most Turks and I interpret him, the theme is general human identity crises. ”However, she added that she understands that Northern Europeans today easily interpret Turkish writers into such a politicized cultural image.

Pamuk's own statements confirm Tekcan's analysis. For what happens when CNN, based on the Nobel rationale, interviews him after the announcement? Yes, he interrupts annoyingly, saying:

"I don't believe in the" clash of civilizations ". My entire literary production is a testament to the fact that cultures come together, that they produce something new. The idea of ​​a cultural clash is a dangerous idea. Rather, Turkey's history shows that cultures meet beautifully, and that is what my country's culture and my books are all about. ”

Exactly. Maybe that's why Pamuk chose the following Quran quote for My name is red (1998): "God belongs to both the East and the West."

And perhaps that is why "both the West and the East [are] completely irrelevant" to his alcoholic, Muslim grandmother and other Istanbulans, as we will see in the Istanbul chapter we print on the next three pages?

Like most other countries, Turkey carries on both the traditional and the modern. And, like other great literature, Pamuk's books are about other than cultural politics. His theme seems so happy to revolve around universal challenges we humans can recognize ourselves in. Beyond east and west. Far into the heart and mind.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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