The Museum of Innocence (Vintage International)

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Orhan Pamuk’s Unlikely New Role 

In less than a fortnight, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Laureate in literature, made headlines in Turkish newspapers not once, but twice. It would have been an ordinary thing a few years ago when Pamuk, commonly perceived as one of Turkey’s major political dissidents, would make news with his comments on the killings of Armenians in 1915 or the Turkish state’s heavy handed treatment of its Kurdish minority. But this time newspapers seem to have discovered a new aspect of Turkey’s most famous writer: his private life.

When Pamuk, who has a daughter from his first marriage that ended a decade ago, started dating Indian novelist Kiran Desai in 2010, photographs of the couple walking on a Goa beach in India were published by a mainstream newspaper edited by one of Pamuk’s old political enemies. Pamuk and Desai were quickly named as a power couple, one journalist calling them Mr. Nobel and Miss Booker. But after two books (Museum of Innocence and The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, both containing Pamuk’s words of gratitude to Desai for helping him with the final English texts) and numerous interviews accompanying the Turkish edition of Desai’s Booker prize-winning Inheritance of Loss (all of them focusing on details of their relationship rather than Desai’s novel), Turkish media seemed to have lost interest.

That was until this December, when a young Turkish artist was photographed alongside Pamuk in New York’s Columbus Circle mall. The following week, newspapers were covered with pictures of her paintings and a full page interview in the daily Sabah, whose American version first published the photographs, had the very Flaubertian headline: “I am Füsun from Museum of Innocence!” This was a reference to Pamuk’s latest novel where the protagonist, engaged to be married, begins an affair with a younger girl, who journalists were now eager to identify as having been inspired by Pamuk’s new girlfriend. Among readers of the interview were Pamuk’s loyal fans who hoped to learn bits of information about his new novel which will reportedly be published in Turkish this year. It tells the story of a street vendor who sells “boza,” a traditional Turkish beverage, and there was speculation as to whether the cover of the book would be produced by Pamuk’s new girlfriend, who has painted portraits of boza sellers in the past.

The latest piece of news, the most surprising to date, was published on the last day of the year. It alleged that Pamuk had an “illegitimate son” from a German professor specializing in Turkish literature. Pamuk is claimed to have never seen his son, who is now five years old. These dramatic claims were made by “an old girlfriend of Pamuk,” whose name was carefully left out of the piece.

Turkish newspapers made life very difficult for Pamuk in 2005 when he was turned into a hate figure by the ultra-nationalist Ergenekon gang which is claimed to include, alongside retired generals, solicitors, and politicians, a number of journalists who orchestrated campaigns against Turkey’s dissident figures, labeling them as traitors and enemies of the country. During 1990s right-wing newspapers were notorious for their portrayal of Kurdish and socialist intellectuals: many artists, like the singer Ahmet Kaya, were forced to leave the country after editors made a habit of picking on them. Last year a Kurdish MP was forced to resign after photographs showing him with a girlfriend were published in the papers.

With their newfound “private” methods, editors seem to have inflicted a deep wound as they turned the famously reserved Orhan Pamuk, whose political views continue to disturb the ultra nationalists, into a playboy figure in just a few weeks. It looks like an attempt by editors to exact revenge by hitting him below the belt. For Pamuk’s loyal readers, all this surely reads like one of Pamuk’s own novels which always feature him as a character, but the serious point to be made here is that Turkish media’s attempts to trivialize dissidents by focusing on their private lives has a touch of the News of the World scandal about it, and this new tactic will probably be a new cause of concern for Turkey’s dissidents this year.

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

I read The Children’s Book, and I sort of didn’t like it that much.  But I’m putting at the top of my Year in Reading because it disturbed me profoundly, and that has to count for something.  I finished it late at night while my beloved was sleeping, and when I turned off the light I clutched him, feeling terrified.

I liked its Arts and Crafts conceit, but sometimes it seemed a conceit alone, an excuse for a nifty Morris-esque cover design.  Occasionally I found myself wanting to glaze a bowl, but I also found myself thinking: “This is no Possession.”

Then everyone started dying, and I thought, “Wow, A.S. Byatt is mean.”  And A.S. Byatt is probably not mean, but I was overwhelmed by the union of war’s indiscriminate horror with the steely moral judgment of her universe.  It’s a serious business, the kind that keeps you up at night.

Freedom, to echo Garth and Stephen and Dan. Freedom was a book that I read pretty much straight through, and when it was over I started again, only to find, for the nth time, that it doesn’t work that way.  You can’t have it again, there being no time like the first time and all that.  I also felt that way about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Museum of Innocence, as I’ve said before.

I unwittingly read wonderful books that turned out to be part of trilogies: The Lyre of Orpheus (Cornish) and Independence Day (Bascombe) and The Persian Boy (Alexander).  So that turned into six more books to read, and to date I’ve only finished Mary Renault’s Alexandriad.  But I’m all about Richard Ford for 2011.  And Robertson Davies–he’s kind of like a male Iris Murdoch.

I didn’t do my regular rotation of re-reads this year for some reason, except for Lucky Jim and The Corrections (which seems to have entered the biennial rotation).

I read non-fiction now, which has been an adjustment.  Non-fiction does not often leave me clutching my beloved in the night, although it probably should.  I liked Rebel Land, about eastern Turkey, Armenians, and Kurds, because it made more meaningful gestures toward readability than many works aiming to inform; in fact, in the end I think it turned out to be more enjoyable than informative.

It helps that Christopher de Bellaigue, in addition to having a life that generates maximum personal envy (speaking fluent Turkish and Persian; writing things in the NYRB), knows a thing or two about a well-placed vignette.  He might not be a bona fide historian, but there’s a story about a cardoon seed and a cuckoo that almost had me turning to the adjacent bus-rider to say “Lemme read you this part.”

A good year, all told.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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