Readers who have had their Shreddies this morning will be keen to point out that this column is here for exposing underrated genres, and that I am abusing it no end by writing about a single author. True. But then just what genre will contain all of Orhan Pamuk, a writer at once simple and yet so complicated?
He is simple because he uses for his material the basic building blocks of human existence: cigarettes, raki (a foul aniseed spirit ubiquitous from Athens to Alexandria) and love. Simple, because in many of its truest points the Turkey he writes about could be anywhere. Simple, because he can reduce sprawling reflections on time or human suffering to the kind of words that an illiterate housewife would use. Simple, above all, because at rock bottom he is a storyteller.
Scratch the surface, however, and you will see a vast depth of thought and learning. From the little bricks of common experience Pamuk builds great architectures of feeling that stretch from the tabloids to Aristotle. My Name is Red is at once an electric thriller and one of the most lucid expositions of Islamic art theory I have ever read. Snow, a novel about fundamentalist Islam in Turkey’s easternmost reaches, has the feel of a film noir and the intellectual weight of an Economist leader. When he gives free reign to his vigorous erudition and intellect in his topography of Istanbul, the result is up there with the very best travel writing.
Pamuk also enjoys reflexive writing, playing in the shadowland between the writer’s life and his work. The White Castle dramatises the discovery of its own manuscript in a loft, while My Name is Red names characters after the author and his little brother. The Museum of Innocence takes this further: it features a greenhorn writer with bad nerves by the name of Orhan Pamuk, while Pamuk himself is apparently building a real-life version of Kemal’s fictional museum on the very site marked on the book’s map. Categorise that, if you will…
TO TRY: My Name is Red