Orhan Pamuk: Nights of Plague

Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.

Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?

Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901. 

This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, revolutions, nationalism, the administrative and language reforms that ensue, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.

It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.

Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.

Sabahattin Ali: Madonna in a Fur Coat

“And what a pity that is: a dash of curiosity is all it takes to stumble upon treasures we never expected.”

This is true for people, and it is true for books including this one.

“For wasn’t there sufficient pleasure to be had in silent patience… When we walked side by side, did I not feel his humanity most profoundly? Only now did I begin to understand why it was not always through words that people sought each other out and came to understand each other, and why some poets went to such lengths to seek out companions who could, like them, contemplate the beauties of nature in silence. Though I did not know what I was learning from this silent man walking alongside me, I was certain that I was learning far more than I would have done from a teacher in years.”

In this little treasure of a book, there are traces of Before Sunrise in the manner of dialogue and hints of Stoner in the life of the main character that, had it not been written decades prior, I would have believed it to be inspired by both. And yet, it could very well be the other way around. That reading Madonna in a Fur Coat brought these special titles to mind should already say enough of its merits.

But we write about what we have read to simmer in the experience. To cling to the characters a little bit more as if to comfort them even though, in truth, it is us who seek comfort. To investigate their strengths and their flaws and hold them up against our own and consider if we would be as strong or as weak, whether we could love as much, love enough, or truly love at all. To write about how this particular book gently chides us for our superficial encounters and interactions, and how it nudges us to search into the loneliness of other people as much as our own. To untangle our thoughts and give them enough time to be rewired with whatever wisdom we just gleaned, because we know it is not exactly in the writing but in the thinking, and then in the living.

Traveling Companions in Uzbekistan

Samarkand, June 2022

On the question of loneliness: “Isn’t that lonely, what you’re doing?”

(I have just returned from a solo trip to Uzbekistan.)

Well, these friends came along for the ride: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk, for the long Istanbul flight; The Captain’s Daughter by Alexander Pushkin that was fortunate enough to have a photo at the Pushkin Metro Station in Tashkent and was enjoyed under the shade of the trees of Amir Timur Square; Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, read during those days at the Halva Book Cafe whilst waiting for the Bukharan sun to soften; and A Carpet Ride to Khiva by Turkish-British Christopher Aslan Alexander, which accompanied me through Khiva’s storied alleys.

As there is currently so much more outside book covers to commit to paper, I release myself from the discipline of writing book reviews this month. “Regular programming” will resume in this blog in July. Haha 

But I have to mention that Pamuk, who sacrificed painting and architecture school so he could paint with words, taught me a Greek word through this book — “Ekphrasis”. Simply put, ekphrasis is, “To describe something, via words, for the benefit of those who have not seen it.” This inspired me to somehow practice ekphrasis in my little way as I traveled through Uzbekistan, and doing so has allowed me to savor experiences twice.

Pushkin, although political, was not as existentially heavy as Dostoevsky and not as heavy literally as Tolstoy — a purely delightful travel companion!

A Carpet Ride to Khiva seems to have left no stone unturned about Khivan society. It is written in simple prose, bursting at the seams with honest observations, this book is an entertaining overview of the country’s history and politics — which is, perhaps, one of the reasons why the author is banned in Uzbekistan, and why I only brought the e-book with me. I, too, have my own observations, but will keep them to myself for the time being. But it has to be noted that along with reading, traveling is a most comprehensive education on geopolitics, among other things, if one cares to engage and observe.

Solnit, with a title perfect for a trip, shared this Eskimo custom of offering an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system by going in a line across the landscape; “The point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”

I, who had no anger to release, did mark the places that bore witness to the strength and length of… something else. I enjoy traveling solo. I would not keep doing it if I didn’t. It is almost like a sort of essential meditation for me and I always go home a better person. I do not feel sad with my own company. But I did mark those places, those experiences so ineffable I could think of only one person to share them with. I would prefer to call it love than loneliness. (But why is conquering anger about letting go and conquering something else the opposite? But I digress.)

As I reluctantly tuck in this unforgettable trip lovingly and a little bit pensively in the folds of memory, I am reminded that the Old Uzbek language had a hundred words for different kinds of crying. And I wonder, what about laughter? What about happiness? 

Elif Shafak: Black Milk

This is my ninth book by Elif Shafak, and I admit that I sometimes have qualms with her metaphors. Here, she personifies each of her personalities into tiny little women that argue among themselves and with whom she convenes, and it is comical at times. But this may have been necessary to lighten the mood, otherwise it would have been too weighty to read, especially for a woman. Besides, Shafak must always have her whimsy despite the gravity of her topics.

The best parts for me are the contemplations on the lives of other literary women and their differing views on motherhood; from Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Jane Austen, Anais Nin, Countess Sophia Andreevna Tolstoy, Louisa May Alcott, to Sylvia Plath of whom Elif Shafak writes so beautifully — “She was the mother to not only two children but to a thousand poems.”

All these women who either struggled or dealt with, longed for, or resisted motherhood. 

“After all, as even the smallest glimpse into the lives of women writers — East and West, past and present — keenly shows, every case is different. There is no single formula for motherhood and writing that suits us all. Instead, there are many paths on the literary journey, all leading to the same destination, each equally valuable. Just as every writer learns to develop his or her own unique style and is yet inspired by the works of others, as women, as human beings, we all elaborate our personal answers to universal questions and needs, heartened by one another’s courage.”

This book was closed with a lump in my throat. At times it felt like it was attacking me, and sometimes it felt like it comforted me. But it is a gift that came to me at the right time in my life.

Disclaimer: I am not with child. Haha! But being of a certain age, my many selves are warring against each other about the things discussed in this book. Summed up, it is mainly a witness to a journey of being at peace with all of who you are, including the conflicting voices in your head.

On the other hand, we see that maintaining a healthy sense of democracy among our many selves cannot be achieved without putting in the necessary work. 

Elif Shafak: The Bastard of Istanbul

Reading this is like walking into the vibrance of the color spectrum and ending up enveloped in its deepest and darkest hues.

But which caused the author to be put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. By lending voice to the Armenian characters in the novel, Elif Shafak risked being sentenced to prison. The charges were eventually dropped, but the incident highlights the fearlessness of a Turkish woman brave enough to write about something which, until now, the Turkish government denies — the Armenian Genocide during World War I. 

The dialogues between the descendants of the oppressed Armenians and modern-day Turks are moving and revealing on equal sides; the characters are relatable and human; historical facts and astonishing twists leave the reader no choice but to gasp; magic realism effectively subtle; all these, interlaced into the breathtaking and bewitching chaos that is Istanbul make it a triumph of unforgettable and disquieting beauty.

And because the two main characters are readers, there are ruminations on the power of the written word: “Though books were potentially harmful, novels were all the more dangerous.  The path of fiction could easily mislead you into the cosmos of stories where everything was fluid, quixotic, and as open to surprises as a moonless night in the desert… Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.”

Orhan Pamuk: A Strangeness in My Mind

February 5, 2021

The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”

For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.

Ever since I read My Name is Red, I have been looking for the Orhan Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. (I even looked for the actual Pamuk in Istanbul, persuading the whole family to visit his Museum of Innocence on the European side of the city in the hope of bumping into him.) I never seemed to find that Pamuk again.

But there is something in common with this book and My Name is Red. It is the way he allows different characters to gain control over the narration, thereby lending the reader a fuller grasp.

There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute.

It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.

Elif Shafak: Three Daughters of Eve

Peri, the Turkish; Shirin, the Iranian; Mona, the Egyptian; and a philosophy professor. Three women and a man whose lives intersect at the University of Oxford.

Deep into this multi-layered novel, it gradually occurred to me that the characters are actually a microcosm of beliefs, sentiments, and nations: Peri’s father and mother represent both the secular and the religious in Turkey, but despite all their irreconcilable arguments they are bound to coexist; Shirin, the atheist, is the Iranian who believes that the veil stands for the religious fundamentalism that sent her and her family to exile; Mona, the Islam believer, is the Egyptian who is convinced that the veil is her choice and her identity; Peri, the confused, the Turk who always felt somewhere in between (very much like her city, that hinge between Europe and Asia) and whose past is a burden; and the dynamic Professor Azur who challenges not only his students’ beliefs but their unbeliefs, too!

There are too many significant passages to iterate that I have resolved to leave it to the next reader to find and treasure those penetrating lines for themselves.  In the acknowledgements, Elif Shafak writes, “My motherland, Turkey, is a river country, neither solid nor settled. During the course of writing this novel that river changed so many times, flowing with a dizzying speed… Motherlands are beloved, no doubt; sometimes they can also be exasperating and maddening. Yet I have also come to learn that for writers and poets for whom national borders and cultural barriers are there to be questioned, again and again, there is, in truth, only one motherland, perpetual and portable. Storyland.”

And yet this is a story that is not merely a story. It is a peephole into politics, stereotypes, philosophy, and life. The dialogues are a source of profound thought and it touches on relevant issues that are painfully ignored by the higher powers in government. But perhaps what I should be saying is that, nevermind my qualms with some metaphors, this is how stories should be — the kind that challenges the idea of what readers should be looking for in a book.

Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle

A re-reading.

My initiation to Pamuk was My Name is Red circa 2006. He opened up a whole new world of literature to me. Scouring bookstores for his other works was a natural aftermath.

It goes without saying that I found the writing spectacular, but fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.

I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”

The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.

Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.

Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.

By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?

On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”

And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!

And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!

Elif Shafak: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

“It happened all the time in this city that encompassed seven hills, two continents, three seas and fifteen million mouths… yet another cry that went unheard in Istanbul… Istanbul was no stranger to sexual abuse.”

These were fleeting lines from Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, but it is what takes center-stage in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

This novel is an act of activism. Beyond the pretty covers, Shafak always lends a voice to those who do not have any, or whose voices are weaker than others — social pariahs, the unwanted, the unworthy, the unidentified, cultural lepers, and women.

This is a difficult read, especially for women. For women to get emotional when reading this is an understatement. Its bitter truths are suffocating; and at the verge of tears, I often felt my heart constricting.

Shafak does not romanticize Istanbul. She shows us the Istanbul that the Ministry of Tourism would not want foreigners to see — a place where sexual assault, psychological abuse, and violence against women often go unpunished. Sure, it happens all over the world, one might reason; but it is worse for women in nations that do not honor their rights.

This is an especially apt read after Turkey’s President Erdoğan officially withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty preventing and combating violence against women, and domestic violence. That is what led me to read this. Erdoğan followed the withdrawal by unveiling an “Action Plan for Combating Violence against Women,” which includes goals such as reviewing judicial processes, improving protection services and gathering data on violence, but Turkish women feel unsafe and remain doubtful.

So, incase you have not read this yet and ask yourself upon reading the summary of this book, “What would I get from a story about a dead prostitute?”
The answer is awareness.
And hopefully, empathy.

Needless to say, it is certainly well-written, too.

Orhan Pamuk

November 2022

My Name is Red was unlike anything I had ever read that it drove a scimitar across my consciousness sixteen years ago. Its literary mischief, its bursts of color, and its contemplations on art and style ushered me into a whole new world of literature.

Since then I have been looking for the Pamuk I encountered there in each of his books. I admit that I even looked for the actual Pamuk and visited his Museum of Innocence, on the European side of that wondrous city straddling two continents, with the hope of bumping into him.

I never seemed to encounter that Pamuk again but I would instead go on to discover other aspects of him, other aspects of the city so inextricably entwined with his soul, and other aspects of myself.

As serendipity would have it, his books have been present in life’s significant moments to vivify specific memories. On the way back home from Turkey in 2016 and while inside a cafe waiting for someone, I attempted to finish reading Istanbul in Manila. I soon found out that the book would not exactly become a favorite — the consolation is that the person I waited for would be.

While I cannot say that every single work by Pamuk wholly appeals to me, he bottles the sounds, the smells, the sights, the tastes, the textures, the realities, and the melancholies of Turkey; and allows me to be, as he would say, “In possession of another world”.

Pamuk has, in some measure, shaped my mindscape, and I would have remained a much poorer reader and traveler had I not stumbled across that mass market paperback copy of My Name is Red one fateful day at the Fully Booked branch at Greenhills Promenade. I have since upgraded my editions to two different trade paperbacks and then to hardcover, re-reading it each time a new edition fell into my hands.

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion… open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.” — Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

Nights of Plague

November 2022

Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.

Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?

Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about present-day Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901. 

This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, and revolutions, nationalism, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.

It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.

Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.

Other Colors

“Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps of life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things — the things that make us curious about life, about the world — can be first ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them.”

The White Castle (a re-reading)

June 2021

Fifteen years ago The White Castle meant nothing more to me than a tale set in the 17th century about an Italian intellectual who sets sail from Venice to Naples only to be captured by Turks and brought to Constantinople where his master would turn out to be his doppelgänger. I knew it was a novel about identity, but it did not leave a lasting impression back then.

I had even forgotten that this was set during a pandemic wherein people lived in fear of the plague! “Janissaries guarded the entrances to the market-places, the avenues, the boat landings, halting passers-by, interrogating them: ‘Who are you? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?’”

The same questions that each doppelgänger would often ask the other and himself — the same questions that confront the reader.

Through my re-reading, I discovered nuances that were lost to my younger mind; and passages that I previously failed to mark with a pencil leapt up from the pages with intensity.

Over the course of time, the two characters’ lives would become inextricably entwined, they would embark on engineering projects, study astronomy, work on other branches of science, write books and and share a life together. As soon as Pamuk tricks us into thinking that one is inferior to the other, and into making us think we have a good grasp of who is truly master or slave, their roles would be reversed until it becomes difficult to tell them apart. And yet, their likeness is something that they do not acknowledge openly.

By and by, the question of who is superior? fades into oblivion and metamorphoses into who is who?

On one occasion, the Sultan asks them, “Have you two never looked at yourselves in the mirror together?”

And there it was, the very point that I missed hiding in plain sight — East and West personified!

And who else more qualified to write about their tumultuous but inevitable relationship? But of course! A man from that city perched on both East and West!

A Strangeness in My Mind

February 2021

The first page of this book quotes a passage from William Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
“I had melancholy thoughts…
A strangeness in my mind,
A feeling that I was not for that hour,
Nor for that place.”

For someone who has felt like an anachronism all her life, I felt like I owned these lines. It was as if I was meant to read the book just for this, and having come across it right at the start, the rest of the book was an additional literary present.

There are things Pamuk writes that make me uncomfortable, but these simultaneously compel me to admire a straightforwardness about life that only the most courageous writers can execute. It is only through this book that I have seen for myself what all his works have in common — aside from providing details that escape the average consciousness, perhaps a result of having gone to architecture school — every book is a love story, no matter the plot or the characters: A love story between a writer and a place; between a writer and Istanbul, or Kars; between a writer and Turkey; a love story about the effects of the bittersweet passing of time on a place; about someone who recognizes a nation profoundly inside out, from its complicated politics to its inner conflicts and issues, its customs and traditions, from its spectacular buildings to its impoverished slums, from its most magnificent cities to its humble villages, from its splendid past to what it is now; a love story with a viewpoint only a lasting lover can deliver who, after having seen its glories and deepest flaws and undesirable secrets, remains and continues to love.