4 Ekim 2011 Salı

The perils of ‘too successful’ marketing, or why Turks don’t like Orhan Pamuk

Alper H. YAĞCI

A foreign friend of mine has recently asked me the question and I am writing this essay as an attempt at an answer: Why is it so difficult to find a fan of Orhan Pamuk in Turkey? We have a veritable puzzle: The man is a Nobel laureate, considered worldwide as one of the major writers of his generation and, for that matter, he is a best-seller in the country in question. Yet, when you ask a literate Turk about Pamuk, the answer you are likely to hear is, “I gave up his book after fifty pages or so.” Who is buying all those books, and why don’t we like our only Nobel laureate?

The bitterest criticisms usually start with words of praise. Let me make it clear: This essay will begin by praising Pamuk, and will continue pretty much doing that all along. If I were to be asked, The Black Book alone would suffice to put him in the pantheon of the greatest novelists of all time. Despite that he has been phoning in his work a bit lately, the author still has a lot of credit to spend. I will address my criticism toward Turkish readers at large. And Pamuk’s commercial agents. And the media. Politicians will be blamed at some point, as well as certain characteristics of the Turkish language. Anyone besides me, basically, because I really am a fan of Pamuk’s literary work.

My first encounter with the author was through My Name is Red. The book had just come out in Turkey, with the provocative, puzzling title, and a hauntingly beautiful and curious cover. It looked like a thing that you would want to buy, take home, open and play with. This kind of book cover and the publicity that introduced it was not common in Turkey. Plain, grave, ascetic images was the norm as far as covering “high literature” was concerned, whereas Pamuk’s book looked like it belonged to the realm of entertainment. The content was difficult to classify, too. To me, it was appealing at various levels: the child in me was caught up in the mystery of what was at surface a whodunit story; the history geek in me enjoyed traversing the Ottoman world the novel constructed; and the adolescent philosopher that I was becoming was intrigued by the questions raised by the novel's central theme; creating a self by imitating others.

Few seemed to share my experience, with My Name is Red as with his other books. People found Pamuk’s writing style tedious, his sentences too long, his characters unlikable, and his references undesirably oriental – “he makes Turkey sound like a Middle Eastern country,” they would often complain. Pamuk was like nothing they read, and they didn’t like it.

Part of the answer to my question may be related to what they had read before. The Turkish readership had been treated to a completely different tradition. From the 1950s to around 1980, a politically weak but intellectually central left-wing weltanschauung (with variants ranging from all kinds of socialism to Turkey’s own anti-imperialist brand Kemalism) determined what reading was good for, and what was there to read. In this ideologically charged atmosphere, which penetrated universities more than anywhere else, reading literary fiction was part of the package that marked a cool young person. Not all kinds of literature, though: what was especially appreciated was the social realism and naturalism of mainly Russian and French writers. Not only Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Turgenev, Steinbeck but also those like Gorki, Zola, or the now largely forgotten Panait Istrati enjoyed considerable popularity. On the other hand, the incredibly rich English literature, for instance, was mostly untapped. Oğuz Atay’s now-famous novel Tutunamayanlar (1973), which introduced to the Turkish readership the intellectual games of the (post)modernist kind for the first belated time, went unnoticed. Reading fiction was an instrument in political cultivation, and a ritual in the making of what was a community with its own social codes. I don’t mean to draw a caricature; some of the best in Turkish literature, including Yaşar Kemal and Orhan Kemal, was produced and consumed in this milieu. But many others rode alongside these giants and made a following, not because they were of the same literary caliber but because they appealed to the same populist politics.

After the punitive right-wing military coup of 1980, this community was unmade. A lot of people were simply crushed: under torture, in prison, to exile. For others it was just an issue of growing up and finding other things to do in life, like establishing a middle class family. Among the former left-wing activist the most savvy TV commercial producers and the most unscrupulous businessmen would rise. In the meantime, the political regime decided to promote at schools a puerile nationalism blended with religious conservatism, while silencing subversive intellectuals. In the annals of state of the time, one can find literal commands aimed at keeping the youth from reading—not only from reading “dangerous” stuff, but from reading in general. Unfortunately, they were highly successful.

Orhan Pamuk began his career facing such unpredictable odds. The old tradition was lost, but there was no preparation for what could replace it. Pamuk was a writer of the unfamiliar type: He was intensely interested in himself and his own literary journey. His stylistic influences—his forebears Joyce, Borges, Cortazar, Calvino, as well as his contemporaries Rushdie and Eco—were largely unheard of in the country. To the boringly pro-Western literati of Turkey, his references to Ottoman and medieval Islamic scholars and poets sounded irrelevant at best and hostile at worst. His first three books, each achieving wider and wider critical success, were read by small communities of academic size. Then things got big in 1990 with the publication of The Black Book. While the standard novel in Turkey would be printed 2,500 copies (yes, the readership for fiction in Turkey remains embarrassingly small), The Black Book aimed much higher, and, with an accompanying publicity campaign hitherto unknown in Turkey, it achieved a sale of 60,000 in its first couple of years. Pamuk became something like the first best-selling author of post-1980 Turkey, and this was bizarre given the unfamiliar structure and the demanding content of his work. The same odd outcome was repeated with the following title, The New Life (1994). And with the My Name is Red (1998). The latter was printed in 50,000 copies in its first edition, as a commercial tour de force and a publicity strategy on its own right. It worked, and the number was raised to 100,000 for Snow (2002). And do not forget to add considerable amount of pirated copies to these official figures.

A caricature of Pamuk dressed as a woman for the cover of his imaginary next book, as an allusion to his commercial rival Elif Shafak's pose as a man for her last book Iskender's cover. The caricature was published in Cumhuriyet , a nationalist-republican newspaper often critical of Pamuk.

By this point in the story, Pamuk was a literary giant at the world scale yet few in Turkey seemed to like his books. Many established writers complained, accusing him to be a writer of doubtful talent who rides on the success of marketing. Journalists tried to make allegations of plagiarism.[1] As I noted above, I do not doubt Pamuk as an author. But the complaint about marketing has a point: Publicity put books like The Black Book into homes where no other writer than Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie had entered before. Many who bought Pamuk’s books had never read anything of that caliber. Just as they would not have liked Mann or Proust had they tried to read them, they did not like Pamuk either. In this sense, he sold too many books to the wrong people.

To be fair in my criticism of Turkish literary taste, I should note for the foreign reader that the kind of uneasiness one feels when faced with a Pamuk text in Turkish is very much worth considering. Pamuk may often sound bizarre in his native language. He writes in long sentences that contain lists of stuff (events, people, things) in a cataloguing manner, constructed with “which” clauses. Because in Turkish verbs are found at the end of sentences, it may be quite taxing for the reader to decipher the meaning of such constructions, and for that reason few writers would prefer to use them as frequently. (Excessive agglutination that is characteristic of the Turkish language doesn’t help the reader in this either). Before fame Pamuk’s speech used to be stuttering; it is perhaps not surprising that he has never attained a very fluent Turkish in writing either. Yes, there is a certain lyricism in his novels but this effect is achieved mostly by the dramatic construction of the plot, resting on an unmistakably mathematical design, rather than by the musicality of the language that describes it. The voice is not that of an amusing troubadour pleasing to the ear; but that of a wildly intelligent and logical mind that has to struggle with the obstacle of linguistic expression in order to tell to people what he has to say. And sometimes he is not totally successful in that struggle. A critical reviewer found many grammar errors in The Black Book and declared Pamuk a deficient writer. He was asking, is it possible to be a bad writer yet a good novelist? I would answer, yes, apparently it is. But the question becomes irrelevant to foreign readership, who read Pamuk through polished translations and find his syntax suitable to the structure of the European languages anyway.

The world narrated in Pamuk’s novels is also unfamiliar ground for the conventional literary taste in the country. The foreign reader might think that Pamuk is reviving through literary imagination a country of majesty, mystery, and exotic peculiarities, and as such giving it back the charm that was lost to the culturally sterile Kemalist republican revolution. They might think that the author is recreating what was already there and suppressed by the secularist nationalist imagination. Actually Pamuk’s whole literary project can be said to amount to a parody of the idea that there is an essence of things (be it a personality, a city, or a whole nation’s culture) to be unearthed beneath the aspirations and masks found on the surface. Pamuk rather constructs a highly original Istanbul, one that he distills through readings of (post)modern mystery fiction, medieval Islamic romances, and urban architects like Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Joyce. More a collage than a palimpsest, the Istanbul that surfaces in his books is made up of pieces of literary imagination with such diverse sources, as befitting the multiple historical layers that are in an eternal contest with each other over the “real” identity of the city. In effect, Pamuk is singing a new Istanbul into existence, a fascinatingly rich, sad, and grotesque one.

To the sterile aesthetic sensibilities of the aspirant Turkish bourgeoisie, this is not a desirable project. This is neither the place they would like to imagine themselves living in, nor the place to show to their foreign friends as home. On the other hand, the more politically left-wing would be disconcerted by the fact that Pamuk substitutes his own Hegelian obsession with identity and difference for the bread-and-butter concerns that mark the everyday lives of common Turkish folk. Foreign readership with Orientalist preconceptions may think that Muslim people primarily eat, drink and breath identity but many Muslims would tell you otherwise, if only you were not listening to them through Pamuk’s novels. In Pamuk’s world, people do not worry about how to pay for things, they worry about what names to give to them, in constant anxiety over the cultural baggage that would come with it. In the meantime, they are often overridden with guilt, melancholy, even cynicism; whereas solidarity, inspiration, hope are scarcely found. Not all would think that “high literature” has to be this gloomy about what makes people tick.

Add to all this Pamuk’s persona as a public intellectual, and his political quibbles. An upper-class Istanbulite by birth and by hearth, the author has been silent when it comes to populist concerns that Turkish literary figures are often expected to assume in a Narodnik pose; and outspoken only in those questions like the Turkish state’s treatment of intellectuals and Kurdish insurgent activists, in addition to being adamant about the protection of intellectual property against piracy. Now, this is not quite the formula for success if you want to be well liked in Turkey. The low point in his popularity came when he said, in an interview with a German magazine in early 2005, “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” The reaction from Turkey was swift and damning. Some were worried that he was assigning a number so easily (and so high) to the much-contested size of the Armenian population killed during the forced deportations of 1915. Some others were disturbed by hearing the number of the Kurdish guerilla casualties (most of whom were killed in combat) put, without any explanation of the context, alongside the massacred Armenian civilians. Probably many more were just angry that he dared to report these issues to foreign media. Pamuk easily became a hated figure among those who never read him. And to the many who tried to read and didn’t like him, the incident provided an easy way to get around the question of his talents as an author. “He is one of those intellectuals who is trying to be famous by insulting his country, because that’s what foreign media likes to hear,” would be their answer, if asked about Pamuk and the Nobel Prize he received.

We are left with the awkward situation that we mostly don’t understand our only Nobel laureate, don’t like him when we do understand, and he doesn't seem to care about being liked by us, either. Something must have gone terribly wrong and I genuinely don’t know whom to blame: Pamuk? Turks? Swedes? One thing we know for sure, because I told you that in the beginning: It could be anyone besides me.


[1] Popular history writer Murat Bardakçı’s claims have been the most well-publicized. Bardakçı noted similarities between the plot in The White Castle, where an Italian falls captive to Ottoman corsairs and lives in Istanbul for years as a slave, with a 16th century autobiography of a Spaniard with a similar experience. This, of course, is plagiarism in the sense that Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra plagiarized the actual lives of Antony and Cleopatra. (Some editions of White Castle included a bibliographic note enlisting such sources of inspiration). Bardakçı also thought My Name is Red was a plagiarism of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings, because both novels were historical (though they were set about twenty seven centuries apart) and they both relied on a point-of-view narrative structure. But historical novels and point of view narratives were known to humanity long before either publication. To escape embarrassment, Bardakçı later dropped Mailer’s name and kept accusing Pamuk of plagiarizing a “well-known American author.”

I benefited from Kara Kitap Üzerine Yazılar, edited by Nükhet Esen, while writing this essay. The pencil on paper drawing in the beginning, reportedly, belongs to Phong Bui, and I took it from http://www.brooklynrail.org/2008/02/express/orhan-pamuk-wih-carol-becker.

6 yorum:

yasemin dedi ki...

Don't you think that the quality of his writing has changed a lot? Ok, I'm one of those whom to blame. I don't like his political stance, I won't talk about it though. But I loved his early novels, Black Book, My name is Red, actually pretty much anything he wrote until the Snow. Starting from Snow, his writing got simpler and I think he purposely started to target 'wrong' people. I would even say wrong people has become right to him. The Museum of Innocence is an insult to his own past and the peak of commercialization of his literature I think.

TipnoT dedi ki...

bu yazının türkçesi de olmalı sanki.

Alper Yağcı dedi ki...

Yes, I am also unhappy with the literary direction he lately took.

Nana Fredua-Agyeman dedi ki...

This is a thorough analyses of a man I am yet to read. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Balıkpazarı dedi ki...

Two more reflections on this:
- Here there is a news story (in Turkish): http://www.radikal.com.tr/Radikal.aspx?aType=RadikalDetayV3&CategoryID=77&ArticleID=1072948
It’s about a scientific study that demonstrates that the mental processing of Turkish sentences takes almost twice as much brain activity as of English and German ones. The researchers explain this difference by the Turkish syntax and the agglutination of verbs, which, together, require the reader to first run the sentence until finding the verb (which typically is in the end) and then recall the whole sentence again to dress it up in light of what the verb reveals.

- I’ve just discovered the alleged ‘non-readability’ of Pamuk in Argentina as well! Fabian Casas, a poet and essayist, and an admirer of Pamuk it seems, complains that people find it hard to finish Pamuk’s books. Himself having read Pamuk only in Spanish, he then goes on, ironically, to ask “How would it be to read Pamuk in Turkish, in his original language? It’s one thing to see a star in the sky and feel the influence of its cosmic pressure or its beauty in the dusk, it’s another thing to walk along the grand Martian valleys and dwell over the red soil that has thrilled our imagination so much.”


Balıkpazarı dedi ki...

I've just come across a better-written piece about the same topic, from the viewpoint of a foreigner: https://nplusonemag.com/issue-6/reviews/orhan-pamuk-and-the-turks/