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Wanting to Be Something Else

January 6, 2010

by Adam Shatz

Who could resist the charms, or doubt the importance, of a liberal, secular, Turkish Muslim writing formally adventurous, learned novels about the passionate collision of East and West? Orhan Pamuk is frequently described as a bridge between two great civilisations, and his major theme – the persistence of memory and tradition in Westernising, secular Turkey – is of a topicality, a significance, that it seems churlish to deny. His eight novels, the most recent of which, The Museum of Innocence, has just appeared in English, perform formal variations on that theme. Though his work fits into a Turkish tradition most closely associated with the mid-20th-century novelist Ahmet Tanpinar, one needn’t know anything about Tanpinar, or even about Turkish literature, to appreciate Pamuk, who writes in the Esperanto of international literary fiction, employing a playful postmodernism that freely mixes genres, from detective fiction to historical romance. Much of Pamuk’s fiction reads like a homage to his Western models: Mann, Faulkner, Borges, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Proust and – in The Museum of Innocence, the tale of a doomed, obsessional love affair between a man in his thirties and an 18-year-old shop girl – Nabokov. Indeed, his affection for the European tradition is as crucial to his appeal as his Turkishness, and his books pay tribute to values deeply embedded in the liberal imagination: romantic love freed from the fetters of tradition; individual creativity; freedom and tolerance; respect for difference. more

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