17 October 2005

The Turkish dilemma

By Tapani Lausti

Orhan Pamuk, Snow. Translated by Maureen Freely. Faber and Faber 2005.

"Essential reading for our times", declares a quote from Margaret Atwood on the front cover of this English translation of Orhan Pamuk’s superb novel. One couldn’t agree more. One feels grateful to the author for helping us to understand the contradictions of modern Turkey. He does this in a way that only a good novelist can: by giving life to events and situations which foreigners can only partly comprehend by reading newspaper reports of life in Turkey.

In an interview in the Spanish daily El País (24 September 2005), Pamuk emphasises that his novel does not serve any cause. He says that the book tries to describe people who have been completely overtaken by problems of secularism, political Islamism, modernity, tradition, love of family and the imposition of certain ways of thinking, dressing and doing things. As a writer he can look at these phenomena with dispassion but not without empathy.

In the remote northeastern town Kars (Snow), which the narrator, poet Ka, visits, the events revolve around the right of young women to wear a headscarf to school. Tensions between Islamists and republicans, nationalists and Kurdish rebels abound. It triggers a local military coup, launched theatrically by a travelling actor with a huge ego and an ambition to become a great historical figure.

The coup’s death toll is not funny but its participants are part of a tragi-comedy brilliantly described by Pamuk. All parading of power is ridiculous but when unimaginative men in uniform are the performers, the farcical nature of it all would have us in fits of laughter if it wasn’t for the death and suffering that they are capable of inflicting.

Another dilemma is fundamentalist Islamism. In a meeting of various religious, national and political groupings, the leader of the fundamentalists, Blue, turns his anger towards the "West" or "Europe". Ka tries to reason with him that the West does not have one single point of view. Blue is not impressed: "But that’s how it is. (…) There is, after all, only one West and only one Western view. And we take the opposite point of view." (p. 233)

Blue’s religion has a child-like quality, in spite of his apparent intellect. The same characteristic is shown by fundamentalists who are ready to burn books which they have not read but which they are sure insult their deeply held beliefs. There is something mystifying about this kind of attitude. Every morning many of us read newspaper articles which insult our deepest convictions but it doesn’t create a will to burn the newspaper. There is something strange about the now widely trumpeted need to "respect religious sensitivities", especially if the people in question are ready to inflict bodily harm on other people. What kind of sensitivity and conviction is that?

Having said that, one can understand the feeling of rage caused by the West's way of humiliating people in Muslim countries with military interventions and support of oppressive governments. A. Sivanandan is perhaps right in saying that Islamic fundamentalism is a passing phase. He forecasts "a profound and desirable shift in the anti-imperialist struggles waged by the Muslim world: away from individual acts of terror, to mass, collective action that finds common cause with the anti-globalisation, anti-imperialist movement beyond it". (Why Muslims reject British values by A. Sivanandan, The Observer, 16 October 2005)

Life is too complicated for simple notions of religious belief. In Pamuk’s novel it transpires that even a fundamentalist like Blue in the end longs for love and affection and other ordinary pleasures of life in spite of all the religious fervour. In its fanatic certainty, the fundamentalist mind-frame probably reflects a deep uncertainty. If the whole world view is based on something which cannot be proven to be true, one perhaps has to follow two different instincts simultaneously, i.e. to believe and not to believe. Thus extreme fundamentalism often comes close to mental (and often material) corruption.

It is as if these people experience real psychological trauma in the pressure between understanding the modern world and escaping to some simple dogmas which seem to alleviate the pain of uncertainty and lack of direction.

On another level, Pamuk’s characters reveal a love-hate relation with Europe which many Turkish people seem to hold. They are fascinated by the material and other enjoyments which the West seems to be capable of offering. When it is not available to them or is denied from them, they become bitterly resentful. Some people turn these temptations down completely and resort to either religion or anti-European nationalism. They feel that the Europeans have only contempt towards the Turks.

The events in Pamuk’s book take place in the mid-90s. In the El País interview the author says that since then the alignment of forces has changed. Now many, if not all, Islamists and representatives of the military have together turned against the European Union.

About his forthcoming court case, in which he will be accused of demeaning Turkishness, Pamuk says that it will be political rather than judicial.


See also:

The trials of Orhan Pamuk and Turkey by Can V. Yeginsu

The Times, 1 February 2006

On Trial by Orhan Pamuk

The New Yorker, 12 December 2005

As others see us by Orhan Pamuk

The Guardian, 29 October 2005

Orhan Pamuk: 'I stand by my words. And even more, I stand by my right to say them...' by Maureen Freely

The Observer, 23 October 2005

How can a country that victimises its greatest living writer also join the EU? by Salman Rushdie

The Times, 14 October 200

European mission unearths torture claims in Turkey by Helena Smith

The Guardian, 10 October 2005

Turkish discontent by Bruno Waterfield

spiked, 7 October 2005

Taking it out on Turkey by Josie Appleton

spiked, 4 October 2005

Freedom of speech is non-negotiable by Robert McCrum

The Observer, 18 September 2005

Trial of novelist 'shows Turkey not ready for EU' by Amberin Zaman and Tony Paterson

The Sunday Telegraph, 11 September 2005

Turkey hands its enemies an own goal by Maureen Freely

The Independent, 31 August 2005

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