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Saturday, 1 February 2014

Pamuk packaged for New York's lower east side

In his meditative and saccharine portrayal of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, The New York Times' Joshua Hammer goes for a leisurely stroll with the famous man through the streets of Istanbul, picking up tid bits and folklore on the way. Finding something essential and unexpected in the tony streets where Pamuk lives, and in the neglected by-ways he frequented as a child Hammer comes up almost empty handed. The article would suit Vanity Fair; all that's missing is the Hollywood sign in the background, and you feel that Hammer would have preferred to see it at some point just to reassure himself that Pamuk is as westernised as many would like him to be. But the essential Pamuk exists elsewhere.

Hammer tells us that Pamuk as a young man would drive his father's car to the bookseller's district and load the car up with translations of European fiction, and that he passed up on participating in civil protests during his university days because he was too busy reading at home. There's little of a literary nature in Hammer's article although there's plenty of food. There's also little analysis of what Turkey really feels like today; maybe Pamuk doesn't know, although that's hard to believe.

For example the article ends up in a district populated by devout Turks - Sunnis - and Hammer and Pamuk then scuttle quickly home. You wonder how Pamuk is viewed by such people, and how he views them. In fact there's little about Pamuk's views at all in the article, just as there's little about what Pamuk apparently always loved the most: literature. What did it mean for Pamuk to read European literature in his youth? How did that place him as a member of his society? What kind of aspirations did he have in his youth and have those ideas changed with time? We learn nothing of this kind in Hammer's story. We're too busy sipping the caramel-coloured concoction from southern Russia and admiring the cup used by Kemal Ataturk.

It's a shame the article is so flimsy, although admittedly it's a travel article and appears in the appropriate section of the website. But Pamuk is an interesting person not only because he's a good writer but also because he writes in the European tradition of realistic novels. But how does he see his own country, which has been trying for decades - unsuccessfully - to become more closely integrated with Europe? What does he think of that project? What does he think of the Islamist project that is running concurrently, and apparently at odds with the first? We hear nothing of this kind from Hammer, which reminded me of the weird and sanitised appearance of Egypt's Mohammed Morsi in the New York Times a couple of years ago when he visited the city to speak at the UN. Islamic identity politics is a bridge too far it would seem for the newspaper's readers, more used to trying to understand Californians than Anatolians.

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