Monday, October 06, 2008

Sadness in Pamuk

I have always found it hard to explain why I become so absorbed in Pamuk's writing. I would have to say that it is the atmosphere of melancholy and aimlessness. It is the sadness experienced by the male protagonist, in these novels, that draws me into a world which reflects sadness as a human attribute.

All the books of Orhan Pamuk, in their own way, breathe certain sadnesses. Their plots are wandering and discursive, their tones reflective yet distant, their styles making curious use of an oxymoronically comic melancholy. The settings of his books seem to underline this which clings to every line of Pamuk's prose: the gentle despair and nostalgia of the Venetian prisoner in tristesseThe White Castle, the tea-salons and bus-stations of lonely Turkish provincial towns in The New Life, and of course, the 'sadness of Istanbul streets in the rain' in The Black Book. Perhaps most keenly of all, it is the endings of Pamuk's novels that expresses this modern post-Romantic version of melancholy, a sadness which seems to combine the pain of unrequited love with the discovery that there are no grand narratives - or, rather that there are only narratives, stories whose only secret is that there is no secret, no supernatural source, no cosmic meaning beneath them.

All three of the above novels end on similar moments of silence and indifferent resignation;
The White Castle's closing image of the swing swaying gently in the wind, the glare of the headlights as the oncoming truck approaches the bus in The New Life, the (almost) inconsolable solitude of the widowed Galip as he stares out into the Istanbul night. All these endings mirror the sadness of a protagonist who has finally realized that he doesn't have a self, that his narratives possess no transcendental significance, that his life no longer has an object of adoration.

The success of Pamuk as a novelist lies in the skill with which he explores the metaphysical echoes of certain sadnesses - homesickness, aimlessness, unhappiness in love - a skill which transmutes sequences of concrete events and sufferings into speculatively post-metaphysical parables.

The New Orientalist by Ian Almond pages 110-111

Perhaps the explanation for why Pamuk's books are so appealing is that they represent in his two selves both rationality, his clear exposure of certain religious traditions as myth; and the sense of regret at the loss of myth. Here is how Ian Almond summarizes it,

Pamuk admits to two selves: a Western secular, pro-Enlightenment rationalist, and an alternative self, implicitly Eastern, more closely linked with feelings and pleasure. Ibid page 113

Almond analyses Pamuk's writings as a tension between East-West, Feeling-Reason, Spirit-Matter. These dichotomies, so often talked about in the west as gendered dichotomies, come to rest in one male protagonist in Pamuk's novels. This provides a certain resolution for the feminist western reader, a chance to reconfigure duality in new and less gendered ways.

And for those who love the history of books and art, I would highly recommend His Name is Red, which curiously has a happy ending. It is a little long, however, so perhaps better for summer reading.

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