Mind the Gap

Turkey is everyone's idea of a "successful" modern Muslim state. A new novel will make you think twice

By Christopher Hitchens

Well before the fall of 2001 a search was in progress, on the part of Western readers and critics, for a novelist in the Muslim world who could act the part of dragoman, an interpretive guide to the East. In part this was and remains a quest for reassurance. The hope was (and is) that an apparently "answering" voice, attuned to irony and rationality and to the quotidian rather than the supernatural, would pick up the signals sent by self-critical Americans and Europeans and remit them in an intelligible form. Hence the popularity of the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who seemed in his Cairo café-society mode to be potentially "one of us"—even more so when he had the misfortune to be stabbed in the neck by a demented fundamentalist. There was a much lesser vogue for spikier secular writers, such as the late Abdelrahman Munif, author of the Cities of Salt quintet, and the late Israeli Arab Emil Habibi, whose novel Saeed the Pessoptimist is the favorite narrative of many Palestinians (and who also had the grace to win Israel's national prize for the best writing in Hebrew). In some ways those two were not quite "Muslim" enough for the purposes of authenticity.

Orhan Pamuk, a thoughtful native of Istanbul who lived for three years in New York, has for some time been in contention for the post of mutual or reciprocal fictional interpreter. Turkey is, physically and historically, the "bridge" between East and West, and I have yet to read a Western newspaper report from the country that fails to employ that cheering metaphor. (I cannot be certain how many "Eastern" articles and broadcasts are similarly affirmative.) With his previous novel, My Name Is Red, Pamuk himself became a kind of register of this position, dwelling on the interpenetration of Islamic and Western styles and doing so in a "postmodern" fashion that laid due emphasis on texts, figures, and representations. After 9/11 he was the natural choice for The New York Review of Books, to which he contributed a decent if unoriginal essay that expressed horror at the atrocities while admonishing Westerners not to overlook the wretched of the earth. In Turkey he spoke up for Kurdish rights and once refused a state literary award. Some of his fellow secularists, however, felt that he was too ready to "balance" his views with criticism of the Kemalist and military forces that act as guarantors of Turkey's secularism.

In a Bush speech to the new membership of NATO, delivered in Istanbul last June, one of the President's handlers was astute enough to insert a quotation from Pamuk, to the effect that the finest view of the city was not from its European or its Asian shores but from—yes—the "bridge that unites them." The important thing, as the President went on to intone from Pamuk, "is not the clash of parties, civilizations, cultures, East and West." No; what is important is to recognize "that other peoples in other continents and civilizations" are "exactly like you." De te fabula narratur.

Human beings are of course essentially the same, if not exactly identical. But somehow this evolutionary fact does not prevent clashes of varying intensity from being the norm rather than the exception. "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest," Albert Einstein is supposed to have said. This already questionable call to amnesia translates badly in cultures that regard Einstein himself as a Satanic imp spawned from the hideous loins of Jewish degeneration.

In his new novel Pamuk gives us every reason to suppose that he is far more ambivalent about this facile "bridge-building" stuff than he has so far let on. The plot is complex yet susceptible of summary. Narrated by Pamuk, with the advantages of both foresight and hindsight, it shows an anomic young Turk named Kerim Alakusoglu, a poet with a bad case of literary sterility and sexual drought, as he negotiates a moment of personal and political crisis in the city of Kars, on the Turkish-Armenian frontier. Disliking his given name, the man prefers to go under the acronym formed by his initials: "Ka." Having taken part in the violent and futile Marxist-Leninist student movement that was eventually obliterated by the military coup of 1980, and having followed so many of his ex-comrades into exile in Germany, Ka is a burned-out case. Pretending to seek a journalistic assignment in this remote town, which has recently witnessed an epidemic of suicide by young girls thwarted in their desire to take the Muslim veil, he is in fact magnetized by the possibility of seeing Ipek, the lost flame of his youth. As he arrives, a blizzard isolates the city and almost buries it in snow—for which the Turkish word is kar. One might therefore deploy a cliché and say that the action is frozen in time.

When frozen in the present, the mise-en-scène discloses a community of miserably underemployed people, caught among a ramshackle state machine, a nascent Islamism, and the claims of competing nationalist minorities. A troupe of quasi-Brechtian traveling players is in town, and it enacts a "play within a play," in which the bitter violence of the region is translated with shocking effect directly onto the stage. Drawn into the social and religious conflict, Ka seems to alternate between visions of "snow" in its macrocosmic form—the chilly and hostile masses—and its microcosmic: the individual beauty and uniqueness of each flake. Along the scrutinized axes that every flake manifests he rediscovers his vocation and inspiration as a poet and arranges a cycle of verses. This collection is lost when, on his return to Frankfurt, he is shot down in a street of the red-light district.

In terms of characterization the novel is disappointing, precisely because its figures lack the crystalline integrity of individuals. Ipek, for example, appears on almost every page yet is barely allowed any quality other than her allegedly wondrous beauty. The protagonists speak their lines as Islamists, secularists, conformists, and opportunists. And the author leaves no room for doubt that he finds the Islamists the most persuasive and courageous. This is true in spite of the utter nonsense that he makes them spout. A couple of Muslim boys corner Ka and demand that he answer this question, about a dead girl he never met:

Now we'd like to know if you could do us both a favor. The thing is, we can both accept that Teslime might have been driven to the sin of suicide by the pressures from her parents and the state. It's very painful; Fazil can't stop thinking that the girl he loved committed the sin of suicide. But if Teslime was a secret atheist like the one in the story, if she was one of those unlucky souls who don't even know that they are atheists, or if she committed suicide because she was an atheist, for Fazil this is a catastrophe: It means he was in love with an atheist.

I should caution the potential reader that a great deal of the dialogue is as lengthy and stilted as that, even if in this instance the self-imposed predicaments of the pious, along with their awful self-pitying solipsism, are captured fairly well. So is the superiority/inferiority complex of many provincial Turks—almost masochistic when it comes to detailing their own woes, yet intensely resentful of any "outside" sympathy. Most faithfully rendered, however, is the pervading sense that secularism has been, or is being, rapidly nullified by diminishing returns. The acting troupe is run by a vain old Kemalist mountebank named Sunay Zaim, who once fancied himself an Atatürk look-alike, and his equally decrepit and posturing lady friend. The army and the police use torture as a matter of course to hang on to power. Their few civilian supporters are represented as diseased old ex-Stalinists whose leader—one Z. Demirkol, not further named—could have leapt from the pages of Soviet agitprop. These forces take advantage of the snowstorm to mount a coup in Kars and impose their own arbitrary will, though it is never explained why they do this or how they can hope to get away with it.

In contrast, the Muslim fanatics are generally presented in a favorable or lenient light. A shadowy "insurgent" leader, incongruously named "Blue," is a man of bravery and charm, who may or may not have played a heroic role in the fighting in Chechnya and Bosnia. (Among these and many other contemporary references, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are never mentioned.) The girls who immolate themselves for the right to wear head-covering are shown as if they had been pushed by the pitiless state, or by their gruesome menfolk, to the limits of endurance. They are, in other words, veiled quasi-feminists. The militant boys of their age are tormented souls seeking the good life in the spiritual sense. The Islamist ranks have their share of fools and knaves, but these tend to be ex-leftists who have switched sides in an ingratiating manner. Ka himself is boiling with guilt, about the "European" character that he has acquired in exile in Frankfurt, and about the realization that the Istanbul bourgeoisie, from which he originates, generally welcomes military coups without asking too many questions. The posturing Sunay at least phrases this well.

No one who's even slightly westernized can breathe free in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than intellectuals who think they're better than everyone else and look down on other people. If it weren't for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them and their painted women and chopping them all into little pieces. But what do these upstarts do in return? They cling to their little European ways and turn up their affected little noses at the very soldiers who guarantee their freedom.

A continuous theme of the novel, indeed, is the rancor felt by the local inhabitants against anyone who has bettered himself—let alone herself—by emigrating to an undifferentiated "Europe" or by aping European manners and attitudes. A secondary version of this bitterness, familiar to those who study small-town versus big-city attitudes the world over, is the suspicion of those left behind that they are somehow not good enough. But this mutates into the more consoling belief that they are despised by the urbane. Only one character—unnamed—has the nerve to point out that if free visas were distributed, every hypocrite in town would leave right away and Kars would be deserted.

As for the past tense in which Kars is also frozen, I have to rely on a certain amount of guesswork. Although Ka's acronym could ostensibly have been drawn from any pair of consonant/vowel first and last names, I presume from Pamuk's demonstrated interest in codes and texts that K and A were chosen deliberately. There seem to be two possibilities here: one is "Kemal Atatürk," the military founder of modern secular Turkey; the other is "Kurdistan and Armenia," standing in for the national subtexts of the tale.

Pamuk supplies no reason for his selection, but the setting of Kars means that he might intend elements of both of the above. The city was lost by Ottoman Turkey to Russia in 1878, regained in 1918, and then briefly lost again to an alliance of Bolsheviks and Armenians until, in late 1920, it became the scene of a Turkish nationalist victory that fixed the boundary between Turkey and then-Soviet Armenia that endures to the present day. (This event was among the many negations of Woodrow Wilson's postwar diplomacy, which had "awarded" the region to the Armenians.) From Kars, also in 1920, the legendary Turkish Communist leader Mustafa Suphi set out along the frontier region, dotted with magically evocative place-names like Erzurum and Trebizond, and was murdered with twelve of his comrades by right-wing "Young Turks." This killing was immortalized by Nazim Hikmet in a poem that is still canonical in Turkey. (Hikmet himself, the nation's unofficial laureate, was to spend decades in jail and in exile because of his Communist loyalties.) The outright victor in all those discrepant struggles was Mustafa Kemal, who had helped defeat two "Christian" invasions of Turkish soil in his capacity as a soldier, and who went on to assume absolute political power and to supervise and direct the only lasting secular revolution that a Muslim society has ever undergone. His later change of name to Kemal Atatürk was only part of his driving will to "Westernize" Turkey, Latinize its script, abolish male and female religious headgear, adopt surnames, and in general erase the Islamic caliphate that today's fundamentalists hope to restore.

Pamuk is at his best in depicting the layers of the past that are still on view in Kars—in particular the Armenian houses and churches and schools whose ghostly reminder of a scattered and desecrated civilization is enhanced in its eeriness by the veil of snow. Nor does he omit the sullen and disaffected Kurdish population. The price of Kemalism was the imposition of a uniform national identity on Turkey, where ethnic and religious variety was heavily repressed, and where the standard-issue unsmiling bust of Atatürk—pervasive in Pamuk's account of the scenery and most often described as the target of terrorism or vandalism—became the symbol of military rule. (Atatürk was a lifelong admirer of the French Revolution, but Turkey, as was once said of Prussia, is not so much a country that has an army as an army that has a country.) In these circumstances it takes a certain amount of courage for any Turkish citizen to challenge the authorized version of modern statehood.

However, courage is an element that this novel lacks. Some important Turkish scholarship has recently attempted an honest admission of the Armenian genocide and a critique of the official rationalizations for it. The principal author in this respect is Taner Akcam, who, as Pamuk is certainly aware, was initially forced to publish his findings as one of those despised leftist exiles in Germany—whereas from reading Snow one might easily conclude that all the Armenians of Anatolia had decided for some reason to pick up and depart en masse, leaving their ancestral properties for tourists to gawk at. As for the Kurds, Pamuk tends to represent them as rather primitive objects of sympathy.

Ka's poetic rebirth involves him, and us, in a comparable fatalism and passivity. Early in the story he is quite baldly described as feeling a predetermined poem coming on, and is prevented from completion of the closing lines only by a sudden knock at the door. I managed to assimilate the implied allusion to Coleridge's Kubla Khan. But about fifty pages later, when another poem was successfully delivered from Ka's subconscious, I was confronted with a full-out deadpan account of the person from Porlock who had interrupted Coleridge at the critical moment. Pamuk's literalism and pedantry are probably his greatest enemies as a writer of fiction; he doesn't trust the reader until he has hit him over the head with dialogue and explanation of the most didactic kind. Throughout the remainder of the novel, though, we are invited to believe in the miraculous rather than the mundane: Ka quite simply sits himself down at odd moments and sets out near faultless poems (never quoted) on whatever paper is handy. The necessary cliché about "automatic writing" is eventually employed, somewhat heavily, to account for this. But I was inevitably put in mind of the Koran, or "recitation," by which the Prophet Muhammad came to be the supposed medium of the divine.

Ka is presented to us as a man who has assumed or affected his atheism as a kind of protective epidermis. His unbelief is of a piece with his attempt to deaden his emotions and decrease his vulnerability. His psyche is on a knife edge, and he is always ready to be overwhelmed by the last person he has spoken to. Yet he can watch an educator being shot in cold blood by a Muslim zealot and feel nothing. Only when in the company of beaming Dervishes and Sufis—those Islamic sects that survived Atatürk's dissolution of clerical power—does he become moist and trusting and openhearted. Yet "rising up inside him was that feeling he had always known as a child and as a young man at moments of extraordinary happiness: a prospect of future misery and hopelessness." Like the Danish prince who had a version of the same difficulty, Ka finds a form of cathartic relief in helping to produce the violent stage play that expresses his own fears and dreads. Pamuk drops in many loud references to Chekhov, and the gun that is on the mantelpiece from the beginning of the action is at last duly and lethally discharged. (It is described as a "Canakkale" rifle, Canakkale being the Turkish name for the Dardanelle Straits and the site of Gallipoli—the battle that was Atatürk's baptism as a leader.) The handgun that goes off later, and extinguishes Ka's life, is heard only offstage. But it is clear that Islamist revenge has followed him to the heart of Europe and punished him for his ambivalence.

Prolix and often clumsy as it is, Pamuk's new novel should be taken as a cultural warning. So weighty was the impression of Atatürk that ever since his death, in 1938, Western statecraft has been searching for an emulator or successor. Nasser was thought for a while to be the needful charismatic, secularizing strongman. So was Sadat. So, for a while, was the Shah of Iran. And so was Saddam Hussein … Eager above all to have a modern yet "Muslim" state within the tent, the United States and the European Union have lately been taking Turkey's claims to modernity more and more at face value. The attentive reader of Snow will not be so swift to embrace this consoling conclusion.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/10/mind-the-gap/303487/