In this age of mass media, mass movement, and globalization it is likely that we will confront different cultures and different races as we go about our daily business. But Turkey, which straddles the intersection of East and West, has always had to deal with the problems and pleasures of diversity.
The best-selling Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has devoted his life to the study of mixture and plurality, and what is often called ‘the clash of cultures’. By concentrating on a specific country, and even narrowing his focus to one city – the teeming, chaotic city of Istanbul , caught between its desire for the West and its admiration for the East – Pamuk finds a way to talk about all kinds of identities. Individuals, nations, cultures, periods, even literary styles and genres, start to leak, multiply, change and slip. In White Castle, for example, an Italian slave finds he has a double in an Ottoman pasha: the two look alike and share a burning interest in science, but the Italian decides to stay in Turkey, while the Turk becomes disillusioned with his native country and moves to Italy. In My Name is Red, sixteenth-century Istanbul slips into modern Istanbul, fiction becomes confused with reality, and what we thought was a philosophical novel about the place of art in our lives slips into a detective story and a love story.
Pamuk’s imagination pulls things together so that we understand their similarities, and therefore their differences, more clearly. Western literary influences, such as Kafka, Borges and Eco, are mixed with Islamic literary influences, including popular Turkish folk traditions and classical Persian poetry such as the Shahnameh. His narratives are complicated tours de force, divided between many voices, but the tricks are used to make us see things anew and to make us think. Paradox is the key to his world, a world that is made up of unexpected combinations that impel us to think differently.
Pamuk wanted to become a painter, and when he was sixteen set himself the task of copying Persian miniatures. He once said that he wanted to paint Istanbul just as Pissarro and Utrillo would have done. He now paints through words, working assiduously, seven days a week. He writes slowly – with a pen, not a computer – and has never done another job other than being a writer.