Thursday, November 30, 2006

Orhan Pamuk: a great writer, a worthy Nobel laureate

Few weeks ago I published an article on Orhan Pamuk in the Jakarta Post (November 4, 2006, page 6, see And yesterday I revised this article with the help of novelist Diana Darling (she published a wonderful novel, called The Painted Alphabet, A Novel based on a Balinese Tale, which is published by Periplus). For more information on the Turkish writer Pamuk see:

Orhan Pamuk: a great writer, a worthy Nobel laureate

Orhan Pamuk deserved to win the Nobel Prize for literature; his books make him a worthy laureate. But it is unfortunate that his success is now being politicized. Matt Moore and Karl Ritter write in the Jakarta Post (October 13, 2006): “With its selection, the Swedish academy stepped squarely into the global clash of civilizations, honoring a Western-leaning Muslim whose country lies on the strategic faultline between east and west and whose people are increasingly unhappy with Europeans’ reluctance to accept them as full members in the European Union.”
Did Moore and Ritter make the effort to read any of Pamuk’s brilliantly constructed books? From their article it does not seem so. Why didn’t they write about the themes and literary qualities of Pamuk’s books? Now it seems he gets convicted after all: he is not Turkish enough (i.e. he is not a good Muslim, not a good oriental).
Is Orhan Pamuk a European because he admires Fyodor Dostoyevski? If one reads a book written by Pamuk one will see for oneself that he does not choose between west or east, between secularism or religion, between modernity or tradition. Pamuk takes a close look at his surroundings and tries to make sense of it by constructing a narrative with many layers and voices. As Margaret Atwood writes in a review for The New York Review of Books (August 15, 2004): “Stories, Pamuk has hinted, create the world we perceive: instead of ‘I think, therefore I am’, a Pamuk character might say, ‘I am because I narrate’.” Pamuk wants to show that our world is not a black-and-white world, and if we picture it as black-and-white not only it will not make sense to us but it can also become a rather unliveable place. Pamuk is Dostoyevskian in the sense that he tries go beyond simple representations: his narrations are inhabited by subjects like the honest thief, the tender murderer, and the superstitious atheist; people are never just this or that, they are both and neither.
In a response to the bloody situation in Iraq Pamuk says in an interview with Alexander Star (The New York Times, August 15, 2004): “In my books I always looked for a sort of harmony between the so-called east and west. In short, what I wrote in my books for years was misquoted, and used as a sort of apology for what had been done. And what had been done was a cruel thing.” And in response to 9/11 he writes (The New York Review of Books, November 15, 2001): “I am afraid that self-satisfied and self-righteous Western nationalism will drive the rest of the world into defiantly contending that two plus two equals five, like Dostoyevski’s underground man, when he reacts against the ‘reasonable’ Western world. Nothing can fuel support for ‘Islamists’ who throw nitric acid at women's faces so much as the West's failure to understand the damned of the world.” Pamuk’s position is subtle, so his novel ‘Snow’ carries an epigraph from Dostoyevski’s novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov’: “Well, then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent. Because the European enlightenment is more important than people.” This quote not only criticizes Turkish top-down modernization since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), it also criticizes the way many Europeans, for example the Somali-Dutch Ayaan Hirsi Ali, treat Muslims: modernization as such is more important than the lives of ordinary people, but what is liberty without a life? Enlightenment cannot be enforced, that is illiberal.
Pamuk infuriates Islamists and nationalists alike.
Orhan Pamuk is critical of Islamism, because it stifles freedom of thinking and expression. Pamuk was also one of the first to speak up against the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini which ordered the murder of Salman Rushdie, who was accused of blasphemy after publishing The Satanic Verses. Pamuk was recently also one of the co-writers of an open letter to the Iranian president Ahmadinejad urging the release of scholar and public intellectual Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo, who is being held for having contacts with foreigners.
Pamuk is also critical of nationalists, and for the same reason. He gave an interview to the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger (February 6, 2005) in which he said that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed.” Pamuk refers to the killings by Ottoman Empire forces of Armenians during the First World War. Turkey does not deny the deaths, but denies that it was genocide, i.e. according to a premeditated plan. Pamuk’s reference to 30,000 Kurdish deaths refers to those killed during the past two decades in the conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists. Debate is stifled by stringent laws; therefore Turkish history and identity are frozen.
Turkey should become a full member of the European Union sometime soon, says Pamuk. This must be possible; Turkey has long been a member of the NATO. It must be possible if the European Union stands for humanism. But it becomes impossible if Europeans out of fear of globalization deep-freeze a European identity as, for example, Christian.
But once again: Pamuk did not receive the prize for his political activities. He is no politician, nor is he an activist; he is foremost a luminous artist. His books enlighten us on the diffeculty of forming an essential identity, to be someone; we are like the countries we inhabit, i.e. complex and difficult to read. And Pamuk’s novel The Black Book shows that to make sense of the world and oneself, the reader has to become a writer. The clash of civilizations is not an interesting narrative. It is too colourless. It is time to change that record.
Roy Voragen teaches philosophy at Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung, West Java, and he can be contacted at

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Jakarta – Inferno/Paradiso?

Since 2003 I am in Indonesia, and I live in Jakarta since a year or so (while I still commute to Bandung to teach). To start of this blog I searched for some scattered bits and pieces of my relationship with this city – this megapolis (a city with a mind of its own, no stranger to megalomania): inferno or paradise? The strange thing is that while the feeling remains that I am out of place here (where is my heart? in Bandung?) I start to feel at home here – the dust, the heat, the dirt, the jams, the noise – the thrills for the urban junkie. Enough, enough. Here are some bits and pieces:

In Jakarta no birds sing. In Jakarta all birds are caved. And we? – We sing illusions. We go by air-conditioned taxi to a mall. To see a movie. To have some noodles. Or have a coffee with our peers. Here, equality means people like us. Strangers – we see them, we have nothing in common. We see without awareness. The public is invisible since it is privatized. We exhibit our trivial selves. No communication can be based on uttering mere me. No public is possible when our primal concern is ourselves. And the impossibility of a public makes democratic politics unattainable. (First published in 2003 at

And a poem inspired by a poem of the Indonesian poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad (see his poem ‘Dingin Tak Tercatat’):

De hitte

Een zonder weerga
weergaloze warmte

Deze stad, slechts stoffige hitte

Een licht langs de straten jaagt weg
stuurt heen, wij, echter, blijven

standvastig daar. Ook als

de hitte verdwijnt
en het licht wijzigt

mijmer ik met schaduwen

en ik vraag, waarom toch
waarom toch gelukzaligheid?

And a photo. I am a walker, a wandering walker. Which is considered odd. They say things. “You will get suntanned.” You will get robbed.” “You will get dirty.” I can confirm the last one. And yes, I get dirty, sometimes I slip and get all muddy. The pollution is a brilliant sunblock though. And so far I have been lucky when it comes to being robbed (and I have to say, I feel safer here than in Amsterdam). Still, I walk. And sometimes I get my hopes up, by the sight of a sidewalk being constructed. To beautify the city, they say. And by the time the sidewalk is finished they plant huge flower pots on the sidewalk. At the end, I still have to walk on the street. And a pedestrian is like that animal at the bottom of the foodchain – politeness and traffic seem not to be a matching pair in this city (the good part is that I don’t have to go to a lunapark to release stress by screaming foul language).