Other Colours

pamukMontaigne was a writer to whom my father returned often, a writer he recommended to me. I would like to see myself as belonging to the tradition of writers who, wherever they are in the world, in the East or the West, cut themselves off from society and shut themselves up with their books in their room. The starting point of true literature is the man who shuts himself up in his room with his books.

– from Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Orhan Pamuk calls this volume a ‘novel of fragments’; a collected work of essays and journalism intended to work as a coherent whole. Pamuk succeeds in his aim: Other Colours can stand with Love, Poverty and War and Step Across This Line as one of the great collections of journeys and essays. One of those old and well-loved books that you can open at any page and somehow never get tired of.

There is a lot of bang for your buck: we get reminsciences of Pamuk’s childhood, family and travels, his views on Rushdie’s persecution and his own trial for mentioning the Armenian genocide (and if you’re reading this in Turkey… well, you won’t be, because WordPress is banned over there) and reflections on classic literature and Pamuk’s own novels.

When he talks of politics he is principled but also sounds confused: you can hear him thinking ‘I’m just a novelist… how the hell did I get mixed up with all this?’ He is particularly good on how local corruption exacerbates the ever-present earthquake threat and also on the glimmering details in life’s routine: you smell the dead hair in the barbershops and taste the street vendor hot dogs.

But Pamuk’s greatest strength is the ability to put into words what so many writers, myself included, have thought about the act of writing – only Pamuk says it with much more articulacy and style. The following passage is something I’ve always felt, yet never been able to understand:

Sometimes it surprises me that I have not been able to fit into my fiction all the thoughts I’ve deemed worth exploring: life’s odd moments, the little everyday scenes I’ve wanted to share with others, and the words that issue from me with power and joy when there is an occasion of enchantment.

Pamuk maps the writer’s urges: the urge to record, to get it all in there. He is also candid about the writer’s sins – he tells us that all the villains in his book are based on either his school bully or his older brother, something of a tyrant when the Pamuks were children. (There’s an excellent piece of fiction involving two sparring brothers near the end of this book.)

And the prose itself is excellent, even filtered through Maureen Freely’s translation. Pamuk writes like a dream, something ethereal, like Ray Bradbury if he had lived in the real world. Reading Orhan Pamuk you feel the breath of empty cities and hear the echoing footfalls of the lonesome European traveller.

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