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A Nobelist who ponders life's duality

October 14, 2006|James Marcus | Special to The Times

Back in April, when Salman Rushdie introduced Orhan Pamuk to a rapt audience at New York's Cooper Union, he joked about his Turkish colleague's growing stash of prizes. "Orhan is the winner of the heaviest award in the world," Rushdie noted, alluding to Ireland's IMPAC. "You can kill somebody with it." The crowd chuckled appreciatively. But now Pamuk has won an even weightier honor: the Nobel Prize.

Pamuk, who is currently a visiting fellow at Columbia University, has long been mentioned as a Nobel contender. Indeed, the oddsmakers at Ladbrokes in Britain initially tipped him as a 7-to-1 favorite -- no mean accomplishment for a writer whose work hadn't even appeared in English until 1991.

Some, to be sure, considered the 54-year-old Pamuk too young for an award that is customarily the capstone of a distinguished career. And his legal travails with the Turkish government -- which tried him earlier this year for "insulting Turkishness" before dropping the charges -- amounted to something of a wild card. The Swedish Academy likes to be seen as aesthetically fastidious, unwilling to wade into the political muck. Yet it did give the nod last year to Harold Pinter (a vocal critic of his native Britain) and, in 2004, to Elfriede Jelinek (a vocal critic of her native Austria), so Pamuk's recent history of dissent probably didn't hurt.

It would be a shame, however, to let politics eclipse the real reason for Pamuk's eminence: the power of his work. He was born to a wealthy and Westernized family in Istanbul and dreamed of becoming a painter. His early apprenticeship behind the easel is described in some detail in "Istanbul: Memories and the City" (2005). Next he tried his hand at poetry. (In his part of the world, Pamuk once explained, "you have to write bad poetry in order to become a good novelist.")

Still, after obtaining a journalism degree from Istanbul University, this rather unworldly figure turned to fiction. He published the first of his seven novels, "Cevdet Bey and His Sons," in 1982, and a year later followed up with "The House of Silence." These were autobiographical works, written in the shadow of such heavy-hitting predecessors as Thomas Mann and William Faulkner -- which is to say, in the tradition of Western modernism. But with his third novel, "The White Castle" (1985), Pamuk struck out on his own. Indeed, he latched onto thematic materials that would reappear, in various kaleidoscopic guises, over the next three decades.

Set in the mid-1600s, "The White Castle" is a tale of mistaken -- or deliberately blurred -- identity. Early on, the novel's Italian narrator is kidnapped, spirited off to Istanbul and enslaved. He spends nearly half a century in the company of a mysterious master, to whom he bears a striking physical resemblance. Together they build elaborate contraptions to tickle the sultan's fancy. When one of these devices -- an immense robot, surely one of the earliest weapons of mass destruction -- fails to work, master and slave change places. By the end, we're no longer certain who's narrating, so thoroughly have the two personalities mingled and merged. Such playful dickering with identity would resurface in Pamuk's next novel, "The Black Book" (1990). Here, an Istanbul lawyer, Galip, is searching for his vanished wife. He follows the trail to her lover, who's also vanished, and soon Galip adopts the missing man's clothing, habits and even his job. In subsequent books like "My Name Is Red" (2001) and "Snow" (2004), such ideas sometimes recede into the background. Yet Pamuk is always wrestling with -- and at least attempting to solve -- the riddle of the self, pairing each character with his or her opposite. Indeed, he may be the best doubles player in contemporary fiction.

Why is he drawn to this theme? In the past, Pamuk has chalked it up to his fiercely competitive relationship with his older brother, whom he calls "my alter ego, the representation of authority." Sounds convincing enough. There's no reason to assume that family dynamics are any less messy once you cross the Bosporus. But as the author has also acknowledged, the divided nature of Turkish culture itself, uneasily suspended between East and West, has led to a certain Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome among Turkish writers.

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