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Archive for the tag “Umberto Eco”

Two Novels by Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle and My Name is Red

When I was living in Russia, I found a book left in my apartment by a previous tenant called Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I knew of the author because he had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature three years earlier in 2006. Unfortunately, after a few pages I put the book down, not because of any lack of quality on the book’s part, but because I could not really concentrate on reading a book entitled Snow while in the midst of a harsh Russian winter. This same thing had happened to me at least one time earlier, when I was in Afghanistan in 2007 for a 15-month deployment with the U.S. Army. I picked up the much-praised book The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini from a shelf and started to read a few pages. I could not continue because at that point I wanted my pleasure reading to take me far from Afghanistan, not delve further into it. Reading habits and moods change over time, and I would normally say that it is important to not give up on books too soon. By chance, this year I remembered Orhan Pamuk and, fortunately, I can say that it was well worth my reading time. I will review his early novel The White Castle and his masterpiece My Name is Red.

Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk

Pamuk is Turkish, hailing from the great city of Istanbul. His heritage is Circassian, one of those myriad peoples from the Caucasus that were nearly destroyed and then deported by the expanding Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pamuk, similarly to many intellectuals and free speech advocates before him, was charged and tried for remarks he made in 2005 that allegedly “insulted the honor of Turkey and Turkishness”. What he actually said, speaking about the WWI-era conflict between Turkey and its eastern neighbors, was that “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here [Turkey], and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.” The charges were eventually dropped, but this is indeed a sad state of affairs when in a country like Turkey a prominent writer (or anyone else, for that matter) cannot publicly state a proven historical fact without facing charges for denigration not of a living person but of an idea (Turkish national pride). Furthermore, in Turkey it is illegal to insult the name of Kemal Atatürk–I admire Atatürk and his great achievements, but such a counter-production restriction on free speech cannot be tolerated in a civil society. Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize a year later as the youngest winner (aged 54) since Joseph Brodsky in 1987 (aged 47), and only the second winner ever from a Muslim country (after the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz in 1988).

white-castle-2The White Castle, published in 1985, is set in 17th century Istanbul, a time when the Turks had long since stopped being invincible to the Europeans, and were actually in the midst of gradual long-term decline while the West was resurgent. The narrator is an Italian scholar who is captured by the Turkish fleet while sailing from Venice to Naples and becomes a slave in Istanbul. He claims to be a doctor and in fact his invented cures work so well that he is noticed by a powerful Pasha. He then comes under the control of a man known as Hoja (“master” in Turkish) who has an almost unbelievable physical resemblance to the narrator as well as being a scientist and scholar. The two men work closely together for decades on scientific and military projects and engage in philosophical discussions and competitions, always from their positions as slave and master. The titular fortress is one besieged by the Turkish forces in a doomed campaign against the Poles. Hoja spent years developing a great new tank-like weapon without help or advice from his Italian slave and convinced the Sultan to take it on campaign, which greatly slowed the progress of the Turkish advance. Things do not go according to plan and the master and slave depart ways permanently. The ending is somewhat predictable but still very intriguing and well done.

From the very beginning of the book I felt that it shared a great affinity of style and theme with fellow postmodern writers Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, all of whom were heavily influenced by Jorge Luis Borges. In fact, something of the story, style, and setting of Pamuk’s novel reminded me of Eco’s Baudolino. The book relies on the strength of its intellectual questioning more than the force of the actual narrative. There are many literary tools that seem to come from the Borges “kit”: a frame story written by a fictional historian, an unreliable narrator, the theme of the double or alter ego, and the ambiguity of identity and self. There are also themes which are particular to Pamuk: the conflict between East and West, specifically between the world of Islam and Christianity, the different rates of scientific and cultural development and modernization of the Ottoman Empire and the Christian West, and fraternal jealousy and competition.

Famous moment when Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, described by the poet Nizami and painted here by an anonymous miniaturist

Famous moment when Khosrow discovers Shirin bathing in a pool, described by the poet Nizami and painted here by an anonymous miniaturist

My Name is Red, published in 1998, is set in Ottoman Istanbul in the year 1591, a century earlier than The White Castle during the reign of the Sultan Murat III, a great patron of the arts. It takes place over the course of nine winter days and tells the story of a workshop of competing artists, one of whom was murdered, and the detective work by one of their former members to find the criminal. There is also a delicate love story between the main character, Black, and his beautiful widowed cousin, Shekure. The book runs many different simultaneous threads: the main one being the building suspense of the search for the murderer, the love story which also involves Shekure’s aggressive brother-in-law, and a richly ornamented commentary on Islamic art and poetry. The rival artists, whose names are Olive, Stork, Butterfly, and Elegant, are miniaturists of the style brought to Turkey by way of China and Persia, and which is opposed to the traditional Islamic art of calligraphy. One of the most well-known stories in Persian literature is “Khosrow and Shirin” by the poet Nizami, which was a popular subject for these miniaturist painters (in this book Pamuk uses the Turkish spelling Hüsrev and Shirin). This story is alluded to throughout the novel and mirrors that of Black and Shekure. Many other classics of Persian or Ottoman art and literature, such as Firdawsi’s epic Book of Kings, are discussed at length and influence a large part of the plot.

Each chapter in the novel is narrated in the first-person by a different character. It begins with the recently murdered man’s monologue, and includes almost all of the characters in the book and even a dog, a coin, and the color red. The book also uses metafiction and frequently plays on the idea that reader knows more than the characters. This is once again reminiscent of the postmodern Borgesian style. The story also strongly reminded me of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in that they are both very intellectual and suspenseful murder mysteries set in medieval times and play on the jealousies and rivalries between men in a fraternal order. Overall, it was an extremely stimulating page-turner crafted with rare depth and skill. My reading list is long and I rarely have time or interest to reread books, but this will be an exception. In the meantime, now that my reading habits have changed again (and I live in sunny Italy rather than cold Russia), I can try again with Pamuk’s novel Snow.

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The Quotable Jorge Luis Borges

The writings of Jorge Luis Borges are so erudite that the reader often feels as if there can be found lurking, just under the surface of any given sentence, reference to and synthesis of entire volumes of obscure and unique encyclopedias (such as, for example, the seventeenth book of Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories, or Ivano Bastardo Reyes’ Succinct History of the Peoples of the Southern Cone). He happily admits as much himself, in this, his first quote of the day (taken from the foreword of his amusing The Book of Imaginary Beings), which famously expresses and encapsulates the essence of Borges: “There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” Borges, a lifelong bibliophile and polyglot, as well as librarian of the Central Library of Buenos Aires, was afflicted (rather ironically, one must admit) with blindness. He was paid tribute to in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in the form of that novel’s antagonist, the blind monk Jorge de Burgos. Eco also perceived the idealistic (philosophical, if not political or psychological) farsightedness of Borges when he wrote the following: “Though so different in style, two writers have offered us an image for the next millennium: Joyce and Borges. The first designed with words what the second designed with ideas: the original, the one and only World Wide Web.  The Real Thing.  The rest will remain simply virtual.”

It is true that there is to be found in the works of Borges a sort of preternatural sense of the power of seemingly-endless (pre-Internet) hypertextuality. References, whether real or invented (the distinction hardly matters), are hinted at and cross-referenced constantly, so that the reader imagines a macrocosm of metaphysical possibilities existing just beyond the text (and just out of reach). His predilection for subtlety, as well as many tendentious, yet sweeping, remarks allows the reader to conceive of and speculate on, along with the author, two of the most recurrent motifs: universal truths (or Platonic archetypes), and the infinite (often symbolized by a labyrinth).

Without further ado, I present to you, for your own edification, inspiration, and rumination, the results of my unenviable, but rewarding, task of selecting from each of Borges’ nine collections of fiction a mere 21 quotes which I find captivating (for various reasons known only to me–you will find your own reasons as you explore further):

From A Universal History of Iniquity (1935)

I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves…Reading, meanwhile, is an activity subsequent to writing–more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.  (“Preface”)

The earth we inhabit is an error, an incompetent parody. Mirrors and paternity are abominable because they multiply and affirm it.  (“Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv”)

From The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

There is no intellectual exercise that is not ultimately pointless. A philosophical doctrine is, at first, a plausible description of the universe; the years go by, and it is a mere chapter–if not a paragraph or proper noun–in the history of philosophy. In literature, that ‘falling by the wayside,’ that loss of ‘relevance,’ is even better known. The Quixote, Menard remarked, was first and foremost a pleasant book; it is now an occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical arrogance, obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form–perhaps the worst form–of incomprehension.  (“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“)

I reflected that all things happen to oneself, and happen precisely, precisely now. Century follows century, yet events occur only in the present; countless men in the air, on the land and sea, yet everything that truly happens, happens to me…  (“The Garden of Forking Paths”)

From Artifices (1944)

But then, all our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed; perhaps we all have the certainty, deep inside, that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do everything, know all there is to know.  (“Funes, His Memory”)

I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well.  (“Death and the Compass”)

Apart from a few friends and many routines, the problematic pursuit of literature constituted the whole of his life; like every writer, he measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he planned someday to do.  (“The Secret Miracle”)

From The Aleph (1949)

There is nothing very remarkable about being immortal; with the exception of mankind, all creatures are immortal, for they know nothing of death. What is divine, terrible, and incomprehensible is to know oneself immortal. I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.  (“The Immortal”)

To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully; battling savage beasts in Ephesus is less difficult (thousands of obscure martyrs did it) than being Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ; a single act is quicker than all the hours of man. The battle and the glory are easy; Raskolnikov’s undertaking was more difficult than Napoleon’s.  (“Deutsches Requiem“)

I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin is, in all truth, a panoply of possible futures. Money is abstract, I said over and over, money is future time. It can be an evening just outside the city, or a Brahms melody, or maps, or chess, or coffee, or the words of Epictetus, which teach contempt of gold; it is a Proteus more changeable than the Proteus of the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the hard, solid time of Islam of the Porch. Adherents of determinism deny that there is any event in the world that is possible, i.e., time that might occur; a coin symbolizes our free will.  (“The Zahir”)

From The Maker (1960)

One thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggests. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.  (“The Witness”)

For in the beginning of literature there is myth, as there is also in the end of it.  (“Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote)

From In Praise of Darkness (1969)

So long as remorse lasts, guilt lasts.  (“Legend”)

Forgiveness purifies the offended party, not the offender, who is virtually untouched by it…..The designs of the universe are unknown to us, but we do know that to think with lucidity and to act with fairness is to aid those designs (which shall never be revealed to us).  (“A Prayer”)

From Brodie’s Report (1970)

The craft is mysterious; our opinions are ephemeral, and I prefer Plato’s theory of the Muse to that of Poe, who argued, or pretended to argue, that the writing of a poem is an operation of the intelligence. (I never cease to be amazed that the Classics professed a Romantic theory while a Romantic poet espoused a Classical one.)  (“Foreword”)

The unquestionable if mysterious truth is that the person who bestows a favor is somehow superior to the person who receives it.  (“The Duel”)

It also occurred to him that throughout history, humankind has told two stories: the story of a lost ship sailing the Mediterranean seas in quest of a beloved isle, and the story of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha.  (“The Gospel According to Mark”)

From The Book of Sand (1975)

Irala, one of literature’s faithful, essayed a phrase: “Every few centuries the Library at Alexandria must be burned.”  (“The Congress”)

I felt what we always feel when someone dies–the sad awareness, now futile, of how little it would have cost us to have been more loving. One forgets that one is a dead man conversing with dead men.  (“There Are More Things”)

From Shakespeare’s Memory (1983)

The Stoics teach that we should not complain of life–the door of the prison is open.  (“August 25, 1983”)

A man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities. St. Augustine speaks, if I am not mistaken, of the palaces and the caverns of memory. That second metaphor is the more fitting one.  (“Shakespeare’s Memory”)

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