Printer Friendly

Orhan Pamuk and the "Ottoman" theme.

EACH OF ORHAN PAMUK'S SEVEN NOVELS (the eighth, the Museum of Innocence, is forthcoming) contains a representation of unstable identity within a specific Ottoman or Turkish historical context. His oeuvre is a catalog of genres, moving from the realist Jevdet Bey and Sons to the modernist Silent House; from the postmodern allegory of The White Castle to the "Eastern" and "Western" intertext of The Black Book; from the Sufic metafiction of The New Life to the historiographic postmodernism of My Name Is Red and the violent ideological conversions of Snow. Pamuk repeatedly returns to history as a leitmotif in his work, focusing on four major areas: Ottoman history in a European context, the transition from Ottoman Empire to modern Middle East, the early-twentieth-century Kemalist cultural revolution, and the legacy of all three on present-day Turkey. Within this framework his fiction reveals characters, like the author himself, who are both orientalized and nationalized subjects with an inclination to question their (often imposed) identities. Such questioning and interrogation lead his protagonists to attempt to manifest (by writing or painting, for example) other narrative sites of identification. These attempts fail within the confines of the novel's plot itself but are redeemed by the author's act of narrative "suture" or, perhaps, redemption. Every Pamuk book is doubled: a major story of lament and failure is balanced by the quiet birth of a narrative of hybrid or multiperspectival authority. (1)

Not only does Orhan Pamuk question the metanarrative of Turkist secular nationalism (Turkism) in its various manifestations, he is thoroughly engaged in the work of interrogating the possibility of national transformations. This is most evident in his representation of Ottoman history, which broadly contains any number of secular national "taboos," including multiethnicity, multilingualism, cosmopolitanism, religion, and homosexuality, among others. Still, Pamuk is not interested in history with a capital H; he is in the writerly pursuit, rather, of new imaginative spaces. His technique of compounding points of view in narrative (the very medium through which identity is reified) to destabilize fixed identities has been a characteristic of his work since his third novel, The White Castle--which is also his first "Ottoman" novel.


WRITERS OF THE GENERATION after the last major military coup (September 12, 1980)--which affected all aspects of Turkish politics, society, and culture and broadly represented the transition between leftist-socialist and neoliberal worldviews--have been increasingly free to resurrect Ottoman history and "Ottomanesque" language. In literature, this led to drastic changes as writers responded to the political transformations by moving away from social issues and realism in a manner that questioned grand narratives of nationalism/Kemalism and socialism through aesthetic experimentation with content and form. Though these trends could be more generally labeled part of international postmodernism, their manifestation in the Turkish context can be further described and specified as expressions of post-Kemalism, postsocialism, and, most importantly, neo-Ottomanism.

In the Turkish case, the prefix post- should be read as signifying a movement away from long-held socialist ideals, Anatolian realism, and an ironic return to Ottoman/Islamic history. Postmodernism in Turkish literature was a movement of rewriting and excavating the model forms of the previous fifty years. In other words, it forecasted the shortcomings, failures, and idealism of various projects of modernization. It did not, as is sometimes expressed, indicate a dismissal or failure of modernism but rather introduced multiplicity to a rigid, universal, Eurocentric hierarchy of progress and development.

Neo-Ottomanism implied a reassessment and reappropriation of disregarded cultural history and identity before World War I, including manifestations of Islam. Understandings of style and aesthetics changed in this era as authors experimented with form while being drawn to the possibilities of multiethnic, multireligious settings and characters from various Ottoman walks of life and classes. In an authoritarian political context, the limits of nationalism were discursively transcended, historical and cultural borders were crossed. Thus, in the wake of the 1980 coup, along with nonrealist and fantastic genres, the Ottoman historical novel gained currency.


IN THE EARLY TURKISH REPUBLICAN CONTEXT, "Ottoman" and "modern" were juxtaposed and articulated as a binary that valorized the new, the future, and the history-less, or ahistorical, as fundamental to social and political progress. The "modern" was part of the ongoing project of progress, associated with an elite movement to rapidly "civilize" society that borrowed from both the Soviet example and Europe. Having come of age during the second or third generation of this secular movement, Pamuk began to question and challenge its excesses. By the time the author was thirty, he witnessed three military coups that were meant to pull state and society back into one or another parochial lines of (national/social) modernism begun in the 1920s. That is to say, the social and political paradoxes and contradictions that these upheavals unleashed presented specific challenges to the writer.

Pamuk's first two novels, Jevdet Bey and Sons and The Silent House, are historical reassessments of the republic in the twentieth century in distinct realist and modernist narrative styles, respectively. Tellingly, neither has appeared in English versions. Not until his third novel, The White Castle, with its Ottoman context, does he begin to write in an idiom and form that could be characterized as "transnational." The self-conscious juxtaposition of a seventeenth-century story set in Ottoman Istanbul to the post-1980 coup is significant and gives us important clues to what the Ottoman theme means to the author. Importantly, these two distinct historical times are sutured through the narrative structure in a way that makes an implicit argument.

The White Castle represents a transformation in both form and content for Pamuk. This watershed novel transcended the Turkish national tradition, established the author as an "intellectual," and provided the first indication of his stature as an international writer. Here, Pamuk used Ottoman history as a means to interrogate self and society; though the novel is set in the seventeenth century, it is allegorical rather than historical, per se, and relies on the slippage between multiple narrators and narrative to establish its metahistorical themes and plot. (2) The White Castle emerges out of dispirited Faruk Darvmoglu's act of translating an Ottoman manuscript he has found in the archive of Gebze. His methods are telling: "After reading a couple of sentences from the manuscript I kept on one table, I'd go to another table in the other room where I kept my papers and try to narrate in today's idiom the sense of what remained in my mind." The image of having to shuttle between two desks in two separate rooms and record in the Turkish Latin alphabet only what is retained of the Ottoman-Arabic script is an apt metaphor to describe the unstable, in-between position of the nationalized body among other historical texts. But what kind of translation is this with which to frame a novel?

Darvinoglu's act of translation connotes the horizon of nationalism as manifested in the alphabet reform of 1928-29 and the state-controlled language reforms of the twentieth century. The novel is one of identification; the "gap" between "texts" is in a sense the elision and erasure of the Kemalist cultural revolution. The subtext is the messy, uncataloged archive or the seventeenth-century Ottoman Empire, a kind of wildly signifying unconscious. In the wake of the 1980 coup, Darvinoglu ("son of Darwin") is trapped: it is the third coup of his adult life, he has been removed from his position at the university, and he has taken to drinking. In this state of dejection, through his access to the Gebze archive, Darvinoglu engages in an act of redemption through a translation of Ottoman history. It is, seemingly, the only transgression left to him. The narrative of The White Castle removes us from the confinements brought on by the 1980 military coup. Pamuk, as stated, experienced three coups before he was thirty. His character, Darvinoglu, reminds us that the geographies that are crossed through translation are not just linguistic but political and social, historical and psychological. They involve navigating and trying to escape incarcerating discourses of Orientalism and nationalism, even using the former to subvert the latter (a narrative technique Pamuk makes more refined use of in My Name Is Red).

The two main characters in the primary story of The White Castle are, above all, translators. The Venetian slave translates his culture to his Ottoman master and vice versa. The two main characters mirror-gaze: "'Come, let us look in the mirror together.' I looked, and under the raw light of the lamp saw once more how much we resembled one another.... The two of us were one person! This now seemed to me an obvious truth." In fact, they are so adept at mimicry that they translate themselves out of fixed sites of identity. This process, the movement from division to unity and back, fundamentally questions distinct notions of "target" and "source," "self" and "other," or even "author" and "translator." Master and slave engage in sessions of communal writing, and finally they begin to pass for each other such that we don't know which is which. The point is not whether they do, indeed, switch (on which counts many reviews are misleading) but rather that they are indistinguishable.

It is perhaps no accident that The White Castle was the first of Pamuk's novels to be translated into English, for it contained such mediating metahistorical and metafictional ("postmodern") elements as a master-slave allegory, imperio-national historiography, an interrogation of narrative identity, the "clash of civilizations," intimations of autobiography, dramatic mystery, and so forth. These are all transnational elements accessible to outsiders.

In his subsequent work, Pamuk developed as a litterateur in two directions at once: as an experimental technician of narrative and as a psychohistorical anthropologist of national culture and identity. It was in no small part his techniques of narrative interrogation that ensured his ongoing translatability: The Black Book and The New Life make use of doubleness, imitation, neo-Sufic themes, cultural archaeologies, and allusions to "Eastern" and "Western" narrative traditions to establish a space of psychohistorical fiction that demonstrates the integral role played by narrative in the construction of individual, social, and religious identities. Not until My Name Is Red, however, does Pamuk articulate yet another level of Ottoman transnationalism.


IN MY NAME IS RED (MNR), the cultural component of Pamuk's work is expanded from the locales of Istanbul and Anatolia to include Venice, Persia, and Central Asia as well (though the main setting is still imperial Istanbul). In this case, his multivalent narrative interrogations reinscribe a latent Orientalism (albeit one that is part of the repressions of the national legacy that Pamuk excavates). These gestures contain an inclusive, outward-looking, "neo-Ottoman" cultural development in direct contrast to the exclusive inward-looking aspect of Turkish republican nationalism represented by the 1980 coup. (3) MNR exhibits its historiographic metafiction through visual expressions of Ottoman history, autobiographical self-reflexivity, fragmented points of view, the use of a miniaturist's aesthetic as a model of form, scholarly and philosophical treatises, intertextual use of "Eastern" forms of the Koranic parable, mystic romance, and fable, the revelation of the plot through detective work, the focus on the everyday, and frequent allegorical references to self and nation. It might be said that one of the subtle successes of MNR is that it manipulates the discourses of Orientalism in some measure to explode the limits of nationalism. (4)

MNR is set in the sixteenth century yet still informed by a multivalent gesture that recalls present-day Turkey. In its multiplicity of narrators and aesthetic self-consciousness, the novel becomes Pamuk's "large canvas." Here, the "translations" are multifold, occurring furiously and incessantly between image and text, life and death, God and man, man and woman, color and speech, object and consciousness, miniature and portrait, second and third dimension, etc. The redeeming unity in MNR, however, is an aesthetic one of style-in-narration. The failed creation of the illuminated manuscript in the plot is compensated for by the author's creation of a text that is "beyond depiction": the novel he has written. Narrative redemption is the moral of Pamuk's world. Many of his works contain the leitmotif of a failed or "missing" book or manuscript, whether a source of inscrutable inspiration (The New Life, Snow), failed or incomplete (My Name Is Red, The Silent House), or translated/rewritten (The White Castle); this absent text is, of course, coupled with the doppelganger of the Pamuk "best-seller."

Pamuk's authority emerges from his act of setting up an aesthetic relation between narratives: the Ottoman manuscript/The White Castle, a mysterious book/The New Life, the sultan's secret book/My Name Is Red, a book of poems/Snow, a draft/its revision, an encoding/a reencoding, the original/its translation, etc. Like Darvinoglu, Pamuk "translates" post-1980s Turkish dilemmas through the medium of an Ottoman context.

This relates to an important theme in MNR: the tension between a two-dimensional surface (the painting, the mirror, the page) and three-dimensional self-reflexivity (looking at the self/object from an outside perspective). The third dimension is hermeneutical. It is often a metahistorical or metafictional interpretation provided by the reader or perhaps the narrator. Ottoman historian Cemal Kafadar describes the sixteenth-century diary of a dervish as being part of a tradition of Ottoman arts and letters that did not develop a third-dimensional, self-reflexive perspective but rather was "characterized by a miniaturist's flat depiction of neatly contoured figures that are not quite distinguishable from each other except in their social functions." Elsewhere, referring to the third dimension of interpretation, he states: "There is no third dimension in any of these narratives, no obvious distance between the narrator and the narrated self." The horizon of identification implied in Kafadar's analysis is a group, social, or corporate identification. If individuality emerges at all, it is only a partial, half-born emergence. Pamuk emulates this tradition. By structuring his novel with this aesthetic guide, Pamuk is coming back to the overarching problematic of what it means to translate the individual or artist out of one single society or nation, out of the restrictions of guild or religious sect. (5)

Pamuk uses the Ottoman past to achieve his triangulating perspective, to take a critical look at the present. By so doing, he is naturally playing with Orientalist expectations and redirecting them toward national themes; yet what is ultimately revealed in his novels is not an exotic world but a lesson in how to "read and understand" the other. (6)

In short, the "Ottoman" theme in Pamuk's work refers not only to history or the historical but, more importantly, to aesthetic concerns of form and content, including: (2) identity subversion or new understandings of selfhood; (2) the critique of Turkist national culture, in particular, and ideology in general; (3) the establishment of contemporary literary forms inspired by historical models such as mesnevi mystical romances, meddah commedia dell'arte stories, or miniature paintings; (4) new narrative styles that mix Perso-Arabic and pure Turkish; and (5) the creative possibilities inherent in "Eastern" and "Western" intertextuality. Taken together, Pamuk's "Ottoman" theme has little to do with Ottoman history or historical problems per se but, rather, creates a liberating or triangulating discourse with respect to nationalist and Orientalist representations. (7) The "Ottoman" theme, in short, is a space of opportunity, a meeting place of the real and the imaginary, self and other, a space of negotiation, transgression, and even "the sublime."

Duke University


Kafadar, Cemal. "Self and Others: The Diary of a Dervish in 17th Century Istanbul and First-Person Narratives in

Ottoman Literature." Studia Islamica 69 (1989): 121-50.

Pamuk, Orhan. The Black Book. Tr. Guneli Gun. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

--. My Name Is Red. Tr. Erdag Goknar. New York: Knopf, 200l.

--. The White Castle. Tr. Victoria Holbrook. New York: George Braziller, 1991.

(1) This multilayered aestheticization characterizes Pamuk's work in a way that I theorize elsewhere as "post-Orientalism." Associated with the conditions, paradoxes, and dilemmas of postcolonialism, "post-Orientalism" is a critique of the historical function of orientalism (and nationalism) in the construction of identities. Furthermore, post-Orientalism foregrounds political and cultural representations that are not delimited by the forces of colonialism per se. Thus, as the late Ottoman state fell into the position of being semi-colonized, the legacy of this semi-colonization, or colonial encounter with Europe, informed the breadth, scope, and severity of the Kemalist cultural revolution that gave shape to the Republic of Turkey. And though it is a commonplace to hear modern Turks boast that Turkey--meaning both the Ottoman state and the republic--was never colonized, history presents us with quite a different account. It is by subverting the orientalist-national binary through new practices of narration and intertextuality that Pamuk establishes what I term "a post-Orientalist aesthetic." The motif of the incomplete, failed, or "absent text" of the Pamuk novel, for example, is redeemed by the very text Pamuk has written. Read together, these narratives identify, critique, and subvert the processes of overdetermination articulated by discourses of orientalism and nationalism. The "Ottoman" theme is none other than this, a process of hermeneutic triangulation.

(2) I use the term metahistorical in allusion to the theorization of Hayden White, who analyzes the function of linguistic structures in historical narratives to uncover ideological forces. Metahistory, in the case of Pamuk, both refers to the manner in which history is fictionalized and to the presence of tropes that mediate between cultures and are, in a sense, agents of translation.

(3) This paradox between the Ottoman imperial legacy and the nation constitutes a theme in Turkish republican literature that can even be traced back to the canonized writers of Turkish literature. This is why MNR is even comparable to works like Adivar's The Clown and His Daughter or Tanpmar's A Mind at Peace in terms of gender, aesthetic structure, and the transnational/cosmopolitan.

(4) This is, in one provocative sense, a historico-cultural parallel to the ongoing emergence of the republic into the transnational arena of international and EU geopolitics. Such a transgression, as recent events have revealed, brings with it the wrath of the reactionary secular-national establishment. But Pamuk has allowed us to see another irony of our age: no longer are religious traditionalists reactionaries of change, but, in a curious inversion, patriotic secularists are. In other words, the fundamentalists of the day are secular public prosecutors and judges, not religious reactionaries. What can this spell but perhaps an uneasy return to faith, a problem the main character Ka reluctantly struggles with in the novel Snow?

(5) This act is necessary to manuscript/novel production (doesn't the author always "emerge" at the end of a Pamuk novel?). The murderer in MNR both desires and eschews style. His motivation for killing Enishte Effendi is a combination of self-doubt and the revelation that the aesthetic past will not persist in any meaningful way, but will be lost to history due to a host of political and social forces--one style gradually replacing another. The murderer's motive for killing Elegant Effendi the guilder is that he claims the murderer's aesthetic is blasphemous. The murderer has two victims: he kills one for being overly bound to Eastern tradition and one for being too slavish to Western innovation. Much like Pamuk himself, he tries to juxtapose, synthesize, or transcend both. Once these obstacles are out of the way, the murderer moves on to the real task at hand: trying (and failing) to depict himself in an aesthetic experiment with portraiture. Pamuk's own "mixed style" in Turkish, at times pushing the bounds of grammar, reveals his response to the presence of a number of stylistic options: mix them as if you were mixing colors to produce an unusual hue.

(6) The "other," for example, is embedded in the miniature, which on first glance seems "off" because it lacks a familiar perspective. Master Osman's lament at the end of the novel, the anxiety and lament of obscurity, is what Pamuk is writing against: "Hundreds of years hence, men looking at our world through the illustrations we've made won't understand anything. Desiring to take a closer look, yet lacking the patience, they might feel the embarrassment, the joy, the deep pain and pleasure of observation I now feel as I examine pictures in this freezing Treasury--but they'll never truly know" (315). The melancholy of remaining unknowable permeates the narrative. The dilemmas experienced by the characters, issues of style, ideological affront (whether to Islam or the nation), breaking with aesthetic tradition, money and fame, family, love, authority, belonging, jealousy, rage, all relate to present-day Turkey and, specifically, Orhan Pamuk's world of the Turkish author. As for Pamuk's aesthetic, more than love story, detective story, philosophy of art, or historical fiction, it's a narrative of transnational postmodernism that liberates the self from constraints of modern-day time, geography, history, and ideology.

(7) The tensions between Orientalist and nationalist representations is a theme present in much of modern Turkish historical literature.

ERDAG GOKNAR is Assistant Professor of Turkish Studies at Duke University. In addition to My Name Is Red, he has translated Pamuk's "Famous People" for Granta's "Love Stories" issue (Fall 1999) and Atiq Rahimi's novella on the Soviet-Afghan war, Earth and Ashes (2002). His rendition of A. H. Tanpinar's A Mind at Peace is forthcoming from Archipelago Books in early 2007.
COPYRIGHT 2006 University of Oklahoma
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:SPECIAL SECTION
Author:Goknar, Erdag
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Previous Article:A translator's tale.
Next Article:The Melancholies of Istanbul.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2015 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters