Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk to Speak and Visit with Students, Oct. 18

Claremont McKenna College will host a rare public appearance by Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Laureate for literature in 2006 and a controversial figure in Turkey’s human rights movement, on Thursday, Oct. 18.

Arranged by The Family of Benjamin Z. Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, and its director, Robert Faggen, the Barton Evans and H. Andrea Neves Professor of Literature, Pamuk’s visit is a significant demonstration of the Center’s efforts to bring authors to campus whose careers demonstrate the crucial intersection between art and politics, Faggen says. “Here is an opportunity for our students to understand what it means when an artist has a profound political outlook.”

Pamuk’s lecture, which is free and open to the public, begins at 6:45 p.m. on campus at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, 385 East Eighth St., with overflow seating available in McKenna Auditorium. (The dinner portion of the event, at 6 p.m., is restricted to CMC persons and invited guests.)

Currently a Fellow with Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought, Pamuk was the first writer from a predominantly Muslim country to win the Nobel Prize since Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz in 1988. Along with the Nobel, he has been the recipient of many other awards including the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (for the novel My Name is Red), the 2005 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, 2005 Prix Medicis Etranger (for the novel Snow) and, in 2006, Washington University’s Distinguished Humanist Award.

Throughout his career, Pamuk has not typically given many public appearances, preferring to let his works speak for themselves. But he accepted an invitation from the Gould Center through his American publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, which will publish Pamuk’s new book, Other Colors: Essays and a Story this month in the United States.

During his visit to CMC, Pamuk will be available for interviews with members of the media.

In his fiction, Pamuk travels his country’s history, describing its Ottoman past (My Name is Red) and the absurdities and violence of the present as the country struggles to embrace modernity (The Black Book, Snow). He has been a harsh critic of his country’s past practices, mercilessly pointing out the darkness in its history, and he has been an ardent supporter of the country’s secularization. In his work, one hears frequent calls for a rapprochement between East and West, and that includes the West’s ability to hear “the anger of the damned” throughout the world.

In an interview with a Swedish newspaper in 2005, Pamuk’s comments about historical atrocities committed by Turkey against Armenians and Kurds led to a trialand potential imprisonmentfor Pamuk for violating a section of the Turkish penal code that punished anyone for committing the crime of denigrating Turkish national identity.

Although the charges were ultimately dropped on a technicality, the incident highlighted the challenges facing artists in Turkey. It also thrust Pamukwhose activism previously included speaking out in defense of Salman Rushdie after the fatwa was issued in 1989 in response to his novel, The Satanic Versesto the front of the human rights movement in Turkey, a role which has grown for him over the years.

“What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe,” he wrote at the time of his trial, “while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk worldwide?”

The political dimension of Pamuk’s art, however, threatens to overshadow another considerable aspect of his work: his aesthetic craftsmanship. Firmly rooted in modernity, Pamuk is a writer of a bewildering, beautiful number of narrative strategies and techniques. A bestselling author in his homeland, Pamuk has taken the stylistic devices of Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges and others and created experimental, Western-style novels. Though they differ in plots, characters and styles, his novels all center on questions of identity and the role of art as they engage Turkey’s complex relationship with the West.

While, for instance, The Black Book (1990) takes a plodding lawyer on a search through the streets of Istanbul for his restless wifeand, by extension, deep into the city’s historyMy Name is Red (1998), winner of the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, transports readers to the Ottoman world of the 16th century and into the lives of artists walking a knife-edge between personal expression and adhering to the methods of past Islamic masters. To stray too far into creative self-expression, a murderous character explains, is pure sacrilege:

On the Day of Judgment, the idol-makers will be asked to bring the images they created to life. Since they will be unable to bring anything to life, their lot will be to suffer the torments of Hell. Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of God. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do as He does, who claim to be as creative as He.

In reading such passages, it is impossible not to think of Pamuk’s own clashes over self-expression. Taken together, his works including his most recent novel, Snowwhich describes the clash between secular officials and Islamic fundamentalists on the eve of a municipal electiongive us a comprehensive view of the changing nature of public and private life in Turkey. And the fact that the creation of art can have life-and-death consequences is a lesson which Faggen hopes students will appreciate after listening to Pamuk’s lecture.

“There are risks to being an artist in countries other than the United States,” he says, “and no one better illustrates this for students than a figure with the global importance of Pamuk.”

Also as part of the Gould Center’s plans this year, CMC has several other visits and programs established in addition to Pamuk’s visit. This fall the College welcomed political satirist Mort Sahl into the classroom to teach the course The Revolutionary’s Handbook. In spring 2008, the “Voices from China” series will feature several dissident artistsincluding Bei Dao, Kang Zhengghuo, Er Tai Gao (and, in 2009, Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian).

Also in spring, a symposium on China and Human Rights will include Harvard historian Roderick MacFarquhar, a leading expert on post-Mao China.

“In the West, art, especially literature, is seen by many as a commercial practice, a form of entertainment only,” Faggen says. “But Pamuk’s appearance and the Gould Center’s other plans should hopefully remind people that this just isn’t the case.”