My introduction to Orhan Pamuk's work came through his ambitious novel Snow. It is by no means an easy read, but it is also capable of delivering ample rewards to the persistent reader. There is nothing straightforward about the 'plot' ' Ka's misadventures in Kars, 'Turkey's most remote and forgotten city'. As in real life, not only in Turkey but elsewhere ' France being just one example ' the covering of a woman's head with a veil becomes the starting point for a complex debate. There are no real winners here; there is always some loss involved, regardless of the camp the writer or reader is partial to. Not surprisingly, there is nothing clear-cut about the novel's take on intersecting, sometimes conflicting, views of the contemporary world, whether Islamist, secular, 'nationalist' or 'western'.
So it was with a sense of anticipation that I began reading Pamuk's recent book, Istanbul, intriguingly subtitled Memories of a City. The very first sentence assured me that this was not going to be either a literary tourist guide to Istanbul or an affectionate 'memoir' of the city Pamuk has lived in all his life. 'From a very young age,' Pamuk begins, 'I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double.' Things are not always what they seem; in fact things are almost never what they seem. Pamuk begins with this universal credo of a writer, then proceeds to a personalized ' and so highly selective ' account of a man and his city.
It is appropriate that the account makes use of Pamuk's childhood, and even more so, his growing-up pains, to contemplate Istanbul, past and present. The point of this memoir is to unravel strands of identity ' an overused but useful word. And what would be better for such a task than intertwining those confusing but exhilarating adolescent years (when one's sense of self is so mixed up with others' views of oneself) with the city's equally fractured identity' Pamuk, as a member of the 'Westernized and secular' elite, carries two people within him; or more precisely, a person with co-existing perspectives that sometimes breed contradictions. Pamuk's Istanbul seems equally vulnerable to shifting identities. The dead empire, or the city's memories of splendour, combines with current realities to provide eloquent testimony of the present: a present equally traditional and modern, poignant and banal.
Such a fate ' living in the banal present, like a son who has completely let down his illustrious father ' contributes much to the self-perception of Istanbullus, and to what Pamuk identifies as their pervasive mood, melancholy. Examining the nature of this self-perception allows Pamuk to grapple with the 'East-West question' in ways well beyond the reach of the set journalistic pieces we are fed with monotonous regularity. In a speech made at a book award ceremony in Frankfurt, Pamuk describes this ubiquitous East-West question in a context where there is no 'straightforward' colonial past to come to terms with. 'Istanbul has never been the colony of the Westerners who wrote about it, drew it, filmed it, and that is why I am not so perturbed by the use Western travellers have made of my past and my history in their construction of the exotic.' Indeed, these drawings and writings ' the Western gaze ' force him to face his own 'uncertainties about the city and (his) tenuous place in it'. As he shifts back and forth, now in thrall of others' perceptions of the city, now in the grip of his own awareness of its multiple histories, Pamuk sees the city ' and his own life ' from within and without. Sometimes he does not quite belong; but he is not a stranger either. 'This is how the people of Istanbul have felt for the last hundred and fifty years... caught in a stream of slippery, contradictory thoughts'
What are some of these slippery thoughts' There are the memories: the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the repeated defeats by European armies and the sense that this is evidence of superiority; the logic of a modern republic and the implications of Westernizing reforms; the complicated sense of shame, worthlessness and confusion, the opposite of shame, pride; and the continuing contests between 'tradition' and 'modernity' that form part of the legacy of this westward-looking movement. If these are the memories, and memories, after all, need not be conjured by the average citizen in his everyday life, there is also the physical evidence: the continual reminders of what once was. With words and photographs, Pamuk evokes a sense of the role this evidence plays in what appears to be poor and shabby lives in the midst of lost paradises.
'Whenever there is someone who feels deeply humiliated, we can expect to see a proud nationalism rising to the surface.' It is this complicated, sometimes violent dynamics ' of shame and pride, of a sense of defeat and anger ' that provide the writer with his 'dark materials', whether in his memoir of Istanbul, or in his novels.
What Pamuk wants to do, he says, is speak of this shame as 'a whispered secret. For it is by sharing our secret shames that we bring about our liberation: this is what the art of the novel has taught me.'
The irony is that speaking about these secret shames also provokes the other face of shame, anger. Even as I read Pamuk's memoir of Istanbul, he was on trial for speaking about another, bigger shame ' the killing of the Armenians during the First World War. One sentence in an interview has led to a writer being put on trial for 'anti-nationalism' and 'insulting Turkishness'. In other words, for questioning the official line. The past is always there, even if it is in ruins ' imperfectly known or contested. The book on Istanbul shows this, as the scarred but beautiful city grows both more modern and shabby. So does Pamuk's trial. More important, both illustrate that the focus of the debate is always the present, however embedded it is in the ruins and shames of the past.
The trial has now been postponed to February 2006. If convicted, Pamuk faces three years in jail. Meanwhile, the case has become an international cause, not only because of the issue of free speech and acknowledging the shames of the past, but also because of the vexed question of Turkey joining the European Union. There is no question that Pamuk's trial raises the usual troubling questions about free speech. But there is also the usual 'East-West' by-product, a paradox worthy of a Pamuk novel. We could argue that the English MP, Denis MacShane, represents those who believe that both Turkey and Islam are on trial. ('Turkey will not join Europe unless Voltaire wins, and the ayatollahs ' secular and religious ' lose.') Whatever those anxious about human rights violations in places far away from their homes think, very few of us are strangers to secret shames. MacShane's own government recently introduced a Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that could curb the right to ridicule religious obscurantism.