Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel

By McGaha, Michael | Insight Turkey, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel


McGaha, Michael, Insight Turkey


Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel

By Erdag Goknar

London: Routledge, 2013, 314 pages, ISBN 9780415505376.

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In this book, Erdag Goknar, the award-winning translator of Orhan Pamuk's novel, My Name Is Red, has set himself the task of explaining why Pamuk's novels have received comparatively little critical attention both in his native Turkey and elsewhere. According to Goknar, most of the educated reading public in Turkey disdains Pamuk because they believe he has betrayed Kemalism (the combination of French-style secularism and nationalism that has become a sort of state "religion" in the Turkish Republic) in order to curry favor with foreign readers. This is the "blasphemy" to which the book's title refers. At the same time, foreign readers have generally misunderstood Pamuk's work because they are unfamiliar with Turkish literary and the political context from which it emerged. Goknar's burden is therefore the dual one of clarifying Pamuk's real political views for Turkish readers and educating foreign readers about his indebtedness to earlier Turkish writers.

Goknar explains that Pamuk himself, far from being some sort of obscurantist reactionary, is in fact a member of Turkey's secular elite and a supporter of Turkey's modernization, from which he and his family have benefited greatly. He has been an ardent proponent of Turkey's admission to the EU. What Pamuk objects to is the "epistemic violence" with which Ataturk's cultural revolution was carried out--its violations of human rights--and what Goknar refers to as its "internalized orientalism." By this he means that the Kemalists accepted Western views of their culture and religion as inherently inferior. They therefore sought to suppress all connections with the Ottoman past. Furthermore, although they denigrated Islam, the Kemalists paradoxically defined being Muslim as a condition of Turkishness. Due to patriotism and respect for the truth, Pamuk includes positive portrayals of Islam--especially Sufism-and Ottoman art and literature in his novels. This constitutes blasphemy against the official Kemalist narrative, according to which the movement from Empire to Republic was simply a matter of choosing enlightenment and progress over ignorance and backwardness. As a native of Istanbul, a city which he deeply loves, Pamuk particularly resents the decline and neglect the city has suffered under the Republic and the loss of its former cosmopolitanism, finding that the more or less forced departure of the city's Greek, Armenian, and Jewish populations has seriously impoverished its cultural life.

I believe that Goknar overstates the political nature of Pamuk's novels. …

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