Of Turkey, not the bird but the country, I know almost nothing except its largest city Istanbul, curves around a beautiful harbor called the Golden Horn which leads to the Bosporus, that narrow pathway into the Black Sea.
Yet listening to a reading Orhan Pamuk’s lastest novel, The Museum of Innocence, published in 2008, translation published in 2009, I feel as though I’m walking the streets of a familiar city, but in the guise of a pampered, rather dilitante young man. I fall in love at first sight with a beautiful girl, virtually half my age, and since we have known in the past as distant cousins, it is easy for me as the handsome older (but not too old) man to entice her into my arms. She “gives her virginity to me” within the first 50 pages of the book. It’s as if I, the narrator, savor her body like a feast–her skin like oranges, her mouth like dates.
What can come next? Ah, the hints are already there, as the narrator occasionally drifts forward to a much later period when he is actually recalling this idyll, and the sadness that will come.
Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006. That much I’ve known, but when I tried to read a translation of Snow, published in 2002, I found myself bored by the narrator’s self-preoccupation, and delight in complications. Of course, I dare not judge, but can only hope that the Museum of Innocence will not devolve as well into complex, twining pathways, where the narrator loses guilt in the play of intelligence.
This business of guilt tweaks a memory: years ago I found on the shelf of a writer’s room at Ragdale, the writers’ colony outside Chicago, a book with the odd title of Haremlik. It was written by an Anglo woman who was living in what was then Constantinople. Since the city’s name became Istanbul when the modern secular state of Turkey was created by the hero Ataturk in 1923, I assume Haremlik was published before that.
Haremlik was told in the voice of a cultured but poor young woman who was lodged in a harem. Over her ruled the “first wife,” if that would be the appropriate term. Let’s say the chief odalisque. Images of odalisques are rampant in 19th-and early 20th century French painting: Ingres, Delacroix, even a head portrait by Benjamin Constant, American 19th century. This is a male fascination, no question, but the book Haremlik also fascinated me, for its sense of a life confined, yet ready to burst forth. Which, I just discovered, actually happened.
For there, on the Amazon.com site, Haremlik: Some Pages from Life of Turkish Women is for sale in an affordable paper version. The author, Demetra Vaka Brown, was born a Greek Ottoman slave in Constantinople, somehow escaped the harem (one must read the book) and became a journalist. She published Haremlik in 1909.
Orhan Pamuk’s magic lies, I sense, in his careful, even minute depiction of a wealthy Istanbul family, and its wayward, sensitive son. (Already in the first 50 pages, there’s a vivid, grimy description of the city in the throes of lamb slaughter, in accordance with the patriarch Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command, then saved from this horror by the interposition of a lamb. As the narrator and the girl who will become his lover drive around Istanbul, they witness the slaughter of lamb after lamb until the reader is soaked with guilt, disgust, sorrow and blood.)
In the quiet, retrospective voice of the narrator, this moment attains the power of personal memory. As vivid and powerful as scenes from many books in English. Yet with a strangeness that cannot be denied. And a lingering question: what would the language be like, read in the original by a modern Turk?