American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Orhan Pamuk

Dr. John Waterbury's speech
introducing Orhan Pamuk

I have a confession to make. I know Orhan Pamuk's older brother, Şevket who appears in various of Orhan's writings. In his book on Istanbul we learn of relentless and epic struggles in which Orhan is over matched but always irresistably drawn to another futile attempt to out wit or over power Şevket .

Sitting where I sit, all I see is two extraordinary intellectual talents surviving a sibling rivalry that probably made them both better human beings, and bringing to the world of academia and of creative writing an abundance of talent for which we all must be grateful.

For one so young, Orhan Pamuk has already compiled an extraordinary opus, with five internationally-acclaimed novels, his riveting portrait of Istanbul, a collection of essays, and in recognition of this achievement the Nobel prize for literature. He is at work on his next novel, The Museum of Innocence.

All great cities have their bards, sometimes one in each generation, and Orhan Pamuk is Istanbul's current interpreter and prose painter. One could no more take Orhan Pamuk out of Istanbul than Woody Allen out of New York, Naguib Mahfouz out of Cairo, or Fairouz out of Beirut. In his own mind, he sees himself doing to or for Istanbul what James Joyce did to or for Dublin. Because Dublin, like Istanbul, was on the margin of Europe, looking at it, yearning for it, but not, yet, legitimately part of it.

Pamuk contrasts himself with an earlier generation of writers whose mission and message are simpler than his. these were: "Authors who felt a social responsibility, authors who felt that literature serves morality and politics. They were flat realists, not experimental. Like authors in so many poor countries, they wasted their talent on trying to serve their nation. I did not want to be like them, because even in my youth I had enjoyed Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Proust - I had never aspired to the social-realist model of Steinbeck and Gorky. The literature produced in the sixties and seventies was becoming outmoded, so I was welcomed as an author of the new generation".

Orhan Pamuk takes us into complex psycho-dramas of confused identities refracted within and across characters and across different eras. His sibling rivalry becomes the implicit metaphor for Turkey's and the Ottoman Empire's complex symbiosis with Europe. "This theme of impersonation is reflected in the fragility Turkey feels when faced with Western culture. After writing The White Castle, I realized that this jealousy - the anxiety about being influenced by someone else - resembles Turkey's position when it looks west. You know, aspiring to become Westernized and then being accused of not being authentic enough. Trying to grab the spirit of Europe and then feeling guilty about the imitative drive. The ups and downs of this mood are reminiscent of the relationship between competitive brothers".

Finally, and again I can do no better than to cite Orhan Pamuk's own words, he draws his inspiration from living between mind sets or perhaps inhabiting them both simultaneously:

"What literature needs most to tell and investigate today are humanity's basic fears: the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations that are their next of kin ... Whenever I am confronted by such sentiments, and by the irrational, overstated language in which they are usually expressed, I know they touch on a darkness inside me. We have often witnessed peoples, societies and nations outside the Western world - and I can identify with them easily - succumbing to fears that sometimes lead them to commit stupidities, all because of their fears of humiliation and their sensitivities. I also know that in the West - a world with which I can identify with the same ease - nations and peoples taking an excessive pride in their wealth, and in their having brought us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, have, from time to time, succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid."

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