Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reading Pamuk

I bought 'Snow' by Orhan Pamuk as a part of an exercise to read more contemporary fiction and started reading it as an antidote to 'The Diaries of Franz Kafka'.I read the first few lines of 'Snow' as I was travelling in a bus where the driver felt that lowering the temperature of the air conditioner would bring passengers more comfort. The freezing interior of the bus coupled with Pamuk's prose,to put it crassly, set the mood for the melancholic 'Snow'. When I picked up books by Lessing and Pamuk at a book exhibition, it was with a great deal of skepticism. I vowed, that after reading them, I would sell them at a second hand bookstore in exchange for classic 19th century literature (little wonder that my friends think my taste in books is 'archaic').

There are usually two very predictable reactions to Pamuk's work. I personally know people who've never been able to get past the tedium of the first few chapters of his books, and then there are folks like yours truly who can't stop reading his work. There are no in-betweens or gray areas to this rule.To me, reading Pamuk's work is like unraveling an impressionist painting. Superficially, it appears like something you may have seen before (Pamuk's influences include Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann and several other 19th century authors), until you decide to undo the novel layer by layer. Pamuk tells stories through the landscape of his hometown,Istanbul (with the exception of 'Snow' which takes place in Kars). He engulfs his characters in the spirit of the city, its 'Huzun' or melancholy, and its many contradictions.

Pamuk's characters grapple to come to terms with themselves, their surroundings and their place in time. One can liken each person in his books to a map; with textures, contours and fissures, like hidden wounds, running across the length and breadth of his being (to date all of Pamuk's protagonists have been male). He creates a gossamer web that underlies all his novels, delicately mixing fact with fiction till the reader loses all sense of what is real and what isn't.

Pamuk writes and thinks in Turkish. Readers in the non-Turkish-speaking world are left to the mercy of translation. Pamuk, by his own admission, says that a lot is lost and gained in translation. He works meticulously with his English translators to ensure that the spirit and voice of his books are replicated in a foreign tongue. We English readers are lucky to have Maureen Freely whose lucidity gives readers the impression that they aren't missing too much.

I leave you with a video of Maureen Freely discussing what it is like to work with Pamuk and the challenges of translating from Turkish to English.