Archives » Orhan Pamuk

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times – Translated Fiction

Time for Reader in the Wilderness’s meme again.

These shelves contain my paperbacks of fiction translated from languages other than English. Evidence here of my usual suspects – Bohumil Hrabal, Mario Vargas Llosa, Naguib Mahfouz, Diego Marani, Gabriel García Márquez, Irène Némirovsky, Orhan Pamuk, but nearly all of these have been worth reading. In fact I would say there are no real duds here. The English language books on the lower shelf belong to the good lady and are shelved there because they fit into the space:-

Translated Fiction Bookshelves 1

Several really large hardbacks are too big to sit on the above shelves so have to be kept separately. These are not all translations but there is more Orhan Pamuk, more Naguib Mahfouz, more Irène Némirovsky, and then the English language Salman Rushdie. The John Updike omnibus is the good lady’s:-

Large Books Shelf

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2015, 613 p including v p Contents, ii p Aktaş and Karataş family tree, v p Index of characters and vii p Chronology. Translated from the Turkish Kafamda bir tuhaflik by Ekin Orlap.

 A Strangeness in my Mind cover

This is the story of Mevlut Karataş who wanders the streets of Istanbul at night selling boza – a kind of fermented drink concocted so as Turks could believe they were not actually drinking alcohol even though they were – from the panniers hung from the pole across his shoulders. While the narrative is mainly carried by a third person account of Mevlut’s life and thoughts, the viewpoints of many of the individuals connected to Mevlut are interpolated into the text. All of these are written in the first person and introduced by that narrator’s name. Though all the details of Mevlut’s life from his arrival in Istanbul to help his father on his boza rounds, through his prolonged and ultimately unfruitful sojourn at the Atatürk Secondary School for Boys, his years conscripted in the army, the attempts to sell yoghurt, ice cream and cooked rice, the other ventures into employment, cashier in a café, car park guard, electricity inspector – residents of Istanbul seem to have been very creative in the ways they could steal electricity from the supply company – it is his love life which provides the book’s main thrust.

The first chapter depicts the defining incident in Mevlut’s life, and it is as magic realist as you could wish – only not magical at all. For three years Mevlut had been writing letters to Rayiha, a girl whose eyes he had stared into at the wedding of his cousin Korkut. Korkut’s brother Süleyman agrees to help Mevlut elope with Rayiha and arranges the deed. When Mevlut glimpses the girl in the back of Süleyman’s van that night he is bewildered to discover she is not the one he thought he had been writing to. Nevertheless, he marries her, comes to love her and have two daughters with her. Süleyman’s deception, of course, (he had designs on the girl with the eyes, Rayiha’s sister, Sadiha, himself,) has ramifications throughout the book.

Many observations about love are made within the text. Hadji Hamit Vural avows, “‘if you’re going to love a girl as deeply as your brother here … you’ve got to make sure to start loving her after you’re married …… but if you fall in love before that .. and you sit down to discuss the bride price with the girl’s father, then those cunning, crafty fathers will ask you for the moon … Most couples would not fall in love if they got to know each other even just a little bit before getting married …. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that … and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.’” Süleyman’s later lover Melahat (a stage performer under the name Mahinur Mehrem) lets us know that, “‘I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.’”

The changing face of the city into whose nooks and crannies Mevlut wanders plying his wares and the evolution of Turkish life become major themes, with the political ups and downs a background never fully occupying Mevlut’s mind; but a sense of the role played by emphasising the nation is never far away, “in this night, pure and everlasting, like an old fairy tale, being Turkish felt infinitely better than being poor.”

The more you read Pamuk the more it becomes clear that his real subject, his true love, is Istanbul; though Turkishness in the wider sense is also important and affairs of the heart never far away. Here Mevlut’s friend Ferhat tells us that, “What makes city life so meaningful is the things we hide.” Pamuk’s œuvre has probed into those hidden places – more so in A Strangeness in my Mind as his previous books have tended to concentrate more on middle class Istanbul, whereas here our hero (as Pamuk refers to Mevlut several times, this is a knowing type of narration) is one of those for whom getting on in the world has always been difficult, he does not know enough of the right people, never accumulates sufficient capital to become affluent.

Again in a Pamuk novel set in modern times there is an acute consciousness of football, but here no hint of anyone called Orhan Pamuk. If Istanbul itself were not enough, allusions to a journalist character from The Black Book would tie this novel in with previous works.

Through all his modern novels – and arguably in those set in historical times – Pamuk has been picking away at the threads of Turkish life, the tensions between religion and the secular sphere, the restrictions set on the people by political, societal and religious dictats. It is almost possible having read enough Pamuk to feel you know something about Turkey, and especially about Istanbul. This may be a delusion but it’s closer to the truth than those without that experience can ever have.

Pedant’s corner:- no start quotation mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, shopwindows (shop windows. Is it one word in Turkish?) “enormous billboards that look up one whole side of a six- or seven story [sic] building” (took up makes more sense,) “thirty two liras” (isn’t the plural of lira just ‘lira’? Many instances of liras,) “he would open at random to a page” (‘he would open a page at random’ sounds a more natural construction,) the text refers to Argentina and England being at war, and to ‘English’ ships (that of course should be Britain and British respectively,) occasional omitted commas before and after direct speech, “provide the overhead” (in British English it’s ‘overheads’,) “the lay of all the neighbourhoods” (the lie.)

The Museum of Innocence Museum

I thought I had posted about this shortly after I published my review of Orhan Pamuk’s book The Museum of Innocence, to which I alluded two posts ago.

However, I have searched for such a post on the blog and can’t find it, so it seems I did not.

What there is, though, is an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

It was set up by Orhan Pamuk at the same time as he was writing the novel, to reflect upper-middle class life in Istanbul from the 70s to the 2000s.

Immortality by Milan Kundera

faber and faber, 1991, 391 p. Translated from the Czech Nesmrtelnost by Peter Kussi.

Immortality cover

In the first chapter the narrator tells of seeing a gesture by a woman who was just leaving a swimming pool and which inspired him to write the novel. I was struck by the ageist perspective with which Kundera treats this incident. Be that as it may, gestures and their meanings, their particularity or otherwise, are a feature of the book.

Set mainly in Paris (where Kundera settled after leaving Czechoslovakia) the meat of the book lies in the relationships between Agnes, her husband Paul, and her sister Laura. There are similarities here to the writing of Irène Némirovsky, also an exile in Paris, but at an earlier time. Unlike Némirovsky though, Kundera delves into the deeper past in order to interrogate the means of achieving immortality, in the sense of remaining famous after death, by examining the relationship between Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim) and Goethe, which has mostly been seen through the lens of Brentano’s accounts. Ernest Hemingway too makes appearances – notably in discussions with Goethe in the afterlife – as does Beethoven, and there is a disquisition on Don Quixote. The author himself also features as a character. (Perhaps it was this book which gave Orhan Pamuk that idea.)

The narration comments on itself at various points, and at times does not so much foreshadow as give the later game away. We are told of the death of one character and explore its consequences long before being shown it and that in Part Six a new character will appear and then vanish without trace – as indeed he does; but only to present us with a connection to another that had hitherto not been mentioned (or deliberately hidden.)

The narrator/Kundera notes a historical transition in the toppling of Richard Nixon not by arms nor intrigues but the mere force of questioning, the power of the Eleventh Commandment “Tell the truth.” (Sadly that power no longer seems to work.) He also tells us that nineteenth century writers ended their novels with a marriage not to protect their readers from marital boredom but to save them from intercourse. “All the great European love stories take place in an extra-coital setting…. there was no great love after pre-coital love, and there couldn’t be…. Extra-coital love: a pot on the fire, in which feeling boils to a passion, and makes the lid shake and dance like a soul possessed.” How much of this is an echo of Kundera’s own attitude to intercourse is a matter for conjecture. (Compare “The Unbelievable Prevalence of Bonking” as Iain Banks, in The Crow Road, characterised another of Kundera’s works.)

In amongst all the narrator’s philosophising are sprinkled some bons mots, “A person is nothing but his image” and “I think therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid.”

While at times the prose had the feel of a history book and of the literary work in general – one incident in particular reminded me of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the ScriptwriterImmortality was never difficult to read – a tribute to the translator, Peter Kussi, perhaps.

Pedant’s corner:- Saint Vitus’ dance (Vitus’s,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) assininity (asininity,) Avenarius’ (Avenarius’s,) Hals’ (Hals’s.)

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

Vintage International, 1998? 176 p. Translated from the Turkish, Beyaz Kale, by Victoria Holbrook.

The White Castle cover

Apart from a present day introduction which frames the tale within as a found manuscript, The White Castle, Pamuk’s first novel, is set in the 17th century, narrated by an educated man from Empoli who is captured by the Turks and taken to Istanbul where he is given into the care of someone called Hoja (‘master’) who could be his double. The intention is that his learning will help Hoja in his efforts to produce better fireworks. Hoja also uses his captive’s knowledge to impress the Sultan, eventually gaining the post of royal astrologer. The two become involved in the question of why they are the way they are, the narrator confessing his past faults (which Hoja cannot.) In the process Hoja learns all about the narrator’s past. This makes the narrator increasingly uneasy, imagining Hoja, armed with this knowledge, being able to travel to Italy and take his place there, though of course in the meantime also learning about Hoja. They work for years on an “incredible” weapon – a wheeled, armoured contraption that gets bogged down when attacking the white castle of the title. This failure leads to Hoja vanishing (to Italy?) and the narrator taking his place as court astrologer, even marrying and having children. The subtlety of this is that it is possible that it is either of them who is actually narrating the story, the Italian – or Hoja. Have they really swapped places, or merely pretended to? If someone can give a realistic, convincing, appearance of being someone else, living as that person, do they actually become so? And does it matter if they are not?

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2002, 508 p. Translated from the Turkish Benim Adim Kirmizi by Erdağ M Göknar.

My Name is Red cover

Well, this is an interesting concoction. The events take place in Istanbul in the time of Sultan Murat III. The first chapter is entitled I am a Corpse and is narrated by a murder victim. This sets up the novel as a whodunnit but Pamuk is far too subtle a writer for that to be his sole concern. The remainder of the book is narrated from a wide variety of viewpoints; several manuscript illustrators, the effectively widowed daughter of one of them, her son, her suitor, their go-between, the corpse, a dog, a tree, a counterfeit gold coin, death, the colour red, a horse, Satan – and two dervishes. In various of these the reader is occasionally addressed directly. The non-human narrators turn out to be parts of a manuscript illustration designed to show the splendour, magnificence and power of the Sultan, to impress Westerners, especially Venetians. Not a simple read then, by any means. Add to this the fact that three corpses undertake narration duties since during two of the relevant chapters the particular narrator is also killed – and describes the experience – and the artistry becomes evident.

In ways this reminded me of The Name of the Rose as it is the manuscript that is at the heart of things. So we have passages dealing with the philosophy of illustration and miniaturism, its place in the Islamic traditions, on whether or not it is blasphemy to ape the Venetian/Frankish form of realistic painting and use perspective, to show Allah’s view of the world, or the world as it is. The murders are direct consequences of this conflict. Plus there is a meditation on the acceptance of blindness as Allah’s reward to the miniaturist for his years of devotion to his art and frequent references to the Persian tales of Hüsrev and Shirin, and of Sohrab and Rüstem. There are, too, several instances of characters telling stories from the perspectives of folk named Alif, Ba and Djim. Some of these interpolations verge on the tedious but perhaps to Turkish readers they have more resonance.

The above may make it sound as if the book is difficult, but it isn’t if you are prepared to go with the flow as I was. I certainly will be reading more Pamuk, who clearly has considerable self-confidence. In what has been a feature of all his novels I have read so far there is a character named Orhan. This time it is not “Orhan Pamuk” though, but the Orhan within is eventually revealed to be the overall “author” of the book we are reading.

In the background but providing some impetus to the plot at times a preacher from Erzurum is blaming apostates and infidels for the supposed catastrophes of the last ten years and stirring up the mob. Casting blame on the other. Does this sound familiar to anybody?

Among Pamuk’s bon mots here are, “Only imbeciles are innocent,” “A letter doesn’t communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it and fondling it” and “Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight.” He has the old miniaturist Osman say, “Painting is the act of seeking out Allah’s memories and seeing the world as He sees the world.” The book’s main love interest, the illustrator’s daughter, Shekure, tells us, “Marriage douses love’s flame, leaving nothing but a barren and melancholy blackness,” but, “The truth is contentment. Love and marriage are but a means to attaining it,” and that painters “substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

The translation is into USian and there were several curiosities or infelicities within it. Iron smiths may be a direct translation from Turkish but the English word is blacksmiths. Then we had, “your sympathy and understanding are much obliged,” “the both of you,” “artists who are discontent with,” “a superior element as all of you are familiar,” “would’ve hid that picture,” a use of “plenty” where “greatly” made more sense plus the misspellings “guilded,” “descendents,” “practice” as a verb, the “pitfulls” of love and women, “imposter,” “quandries.”

Best of the Year

It’s traditional at this season of the year to list what has most impressed over the past twelve or so months. Except I’ve only done it once before. Twelve months ago.

Once again I find ten books stood out over the year.

In order of reading they were:-

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon
Empty Space by M John Harrison
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Spin by Nina Allan
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky

4 are translations, 4 are SF*, 3 are by women. Make of that what you will.

*If you count the last section of Girl Reading, that would be 4 and a bit.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Faber and Faber, 2005, 436p. Translated from the Turkish, Kar, by Maureen Freely

Turkish poet, Kerim Alakusoğlu, who dislikes his name and wishes to be known only as Ka, has returned temporarily from Germany to undertake an investigation for the Istanbul newspaper Republican into a spate of teenage girl suicides in the remote city of Kars in Anatolia and also to report on an upcoming election there. The suicides are by girls who were being forced to remove their headscarves in order to attend state run school. Also on Ka’s mind is the possibility of reacquainting himself with the beautiful İpek, recently divorced from her husband.

The situation he finds himself in unlocks Ka’s writer’s block and poems flow from him – 19 in the few days the story encompasses. He notes these down in a green notebook and assigns them to positions along three axes, Memory, Logic and Imagination, on a diagram of a snowflake.

The narrative is mostly third person from Ka’s viewpoint but chapter 29, where the snowflake appears, and the concluding ones are first person by the author.

Kars is one of those unfortunate places which has seen many upheavals and changes of country in its history. Local factions include Kurdish nationalists, Islamists, secularists, even a few die-hard communists from the Soviet era. Ka’s visit coincides with a snowstorm cutting Kars off from the rest of Turkey giving opportunity for the various simmering discontents to come to the boil. In the middle of a live TV broadcast of a stage show dealing with the headscarf issue a local coup takes place.

The importance of football in modern Turkey is underlined by its several mentions in this book (as it was also in the other two Pamuk novels I have read.) Not a typical reference to find in a literary novel. Imagine the guffaws were the Beautiful Game to feature with any prominence in a British novel by a Nobel laureate.

Another presence here common to those two previous books is the appearance in the narrative of a certain Orhan Pamuk, a friend of Ka and telling his story for him. Is this the secret to winning the Nobel Prize? Put yourself into your books as a character?

Due to its history the tension between religion and secularism is particularly intense in Turkey and it is no surprise the story turns on this. The propensity for such disagreements to turn into violence is given due weight here as is the potential for long memories and grudges to be held.

There is more incident in this novel than in The Museum of Innocence but the background of Turkish society continues to be fascinating and as in that book the translation flows admirably.

Silent House by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2012, 334p. Translated from the Turkish, Sessiv Ev, by Robert Finn

 Silent House cover

Silent House is Pamuk’s second novel (from 1983) but not published in English till 2012. The book centres round the visit from Istanbul to her home at Cennethisar of the grandchildren of Fatma Darvinoğlu. Fatma’s husband, Selahattin, was a doctor who, long before World War 2, frightened off his patients with his atheism and consequently squandered her inheritance of jewellery as a result of his lack of income. Their unusual surname was taken at the time when Atatürk forced though the adoption of the practice for Muslims in 1934 and Selahattin opted for “Son of Darwin.” Fatma recollects her husband’s catalogue of unacceptable behaviours in interior monologues while present day life goes on around her. Other viewpoint characters are Fatma’s grandson Faruk, an historian with a failed marriage; his brother Metin, who thinks he’s in love with a girl called Ceylan; her servant, the dwarf Recep, who is her husband’s illegitimate child; and Hasan, son of Recep’s likewise bastard brother Ismail, who has become involved with right wing petty agitators and is smitten by Nilgün, sister of Faruk and Metin.

As in The Museum of Innocence the tensions between Turkey and “the West,” tradition and modernism, religion and the secular, loom large. The political situation in 1980s Turkey is also important here. While I was not familiar with that background enough was conveyed for that lack of knowledge not to matter.

The translation is into USian which is fine for the most part but occasionally led to me being hauled away from Turkey by the intrusion of a particularly USian usage (eg “not a cent” – would a Turkish coin denomination not have sufficed here?)

The five narrative viewpoints do not provide as sustained a focus as the all-but single one of The Museum of Innocence but do give a broader picture of Turkish society.

In one of the newspaper reviews of books of the year I saw Silent House described as a comic satire. I must say I did not find it particularly comic; the tone certainly isn’t light and there is a dark tinge to proceedings. There are also hints of why Pamuk would win the Nobel prize.

free hit counter script