The Novels by Orhan Pamuk and Russian Literature

Posted by on Mayıs 13, 2009 in Manşet, Rusyadan

Orhan Pamuk frequently speaks about his love to the Russian literature. The profound influence on work, art and creativity of the Turkish writer was exerted by such Russian writers as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, whom Pamuk extensively mentions in numerous interviews. In the first book, published in the West after the Nobel Prize – “Other Colors” – many pages are devoted to Dostoevsky and Nabokov, who made indelible impression on the future writer both in his youth and in mature years.

Mentioning Russian writers it is possible to say that the formation of Pamuk’s works occurred mostly under the sway of Fyodor Dostoevsky. So high is Pamuk’s appreciation for the great Russian novelist’s talent that he has named “The Brothers Karamazov” the best novel of the millenium,[1] and “Demons” the greatest political novel.[2] Pamuk is a modern writer, but the art methods of the Russian classic of the end of the XIX century – Dostoevsky – do not seem to the modern Turkish writer to be out-of-date, or alien. In the first, Turkish edition of “Other Colors” Pamuk writes: “…okuyucudan daha iyi bilen o çok görmüş baba yazar tavrını bıraktığı için belki de bugün Dostoyevski bizim gençliğimize sesleniyor, onun modern romana açılan ilk kapılardan biri olduğunu farkediyoruz”.[3] (English translation: “Probably, Dostoevsky presently addresses our young generation since he has departed from the image of the mentor who is informed on all more than his reader is”). According to Pamuk’s words, Dostoevsky’s heroes are sometimes similar to Turkish people; they are “like Dostoyevsky’s heroes, who use their imagination to cling to life even in the most hopeless circumstances”.[4]

Here we can make a small digression: Pamuk often mentions some spiritual liaison between Russian and Turkish cultures. Both our countries are former great empires, Ottoman and Russian, and in both of them one can see the memory about their bygone greatness. In both countries, perhaps, the today’s decline is felt. And maybe also some dreams of revenge.

Indeed, these are predominant perceptions both among Russian and Turkish intelligentsia. A lot of things that unite the Russians and the Turks are widely mentioned in recently written journalistic literature. Modern Russia is similar to modern Turkey in many ways. The market society is developing presently in Russia, like in Turkey. And the society is forced to accept the western lifestyle, western social and communicational models, attributes of modern Western culture and civilization, which are mostly alien and unusual both to Russian and Turkish national consciousness. Simultaneously there is a growth in the national self-identification both in Russia and in Turkey, and also a rise of national ideas; and the followers of religion sometimes join hands with the nationalists. But it seems that the main thing that unites Russia and Turkey is the middle position of both countries between East and West. Turkey is not a pure form of East, but still is considered to be an Eastern country. On the other hand, there are also a lot of European traits in Turkey, too. Russia, also being situated between East and West, has never been an Eastern country, but never has it been a European country, either. European traditions are always seemed alien, foreign in Russia, same as they are in Turkey. Recall Atatürk, who forced Turkish people to wear European clothes, to use achievements of the Western civilization, in many respects reminding the famous Russian tsar of the XVIII century, Peter the Great, who forced people to smoke, to wear European clothes and to read books upon penalty of death.

The Russians and the Turks have very similar mentality. Both to the Turks and the Russians, it is peculiar to experience “the daring revelry at one moment or hearty yearning at another” described by Pushkin. Another example of the affinity between these two cultures can be the concept of “the Russian yearning (melancholy)”. Many writers, and Pushkin among them, wrote about it comparing it with English “spleen”, (for example, Pyotr Tchaadaev (1794-1856)). Chekhov also wrote about this Russian melancholy, though in his pieces it is concerned with the decay of the society, future uncertainty, the personal decay of the heroes; this melancholy appears because of the depressing reality, a need for some highest idea of life. This concept seems to be close to Pamuk’s concept of “hüzün”, which is widely mentioned in “Snow” and in “Istanbul”.

Orhan Pamuk

It allies to suppose that some historical or, more exactly, social and cultural situations in Turkey sometimes seem to be a reflection of such situations in Russia, or conversely, even though they took place only in literature. Several examples: in “Other Colors”, Pamuk describes the event which occurred when he was a student of The Robert College in Turkey. Members of a revolutionary cell became convinced that one of them was a traitor and killed him. Pamuk remarks that they unwittingly imitated the plot of Dostoyevsky’s “Demons”.[5] Another example: in “The New Life”, the figure of “Coca-Cola” symbolizes all the Western, all the alien. The author writes that everybody who had drunk Coca-Cola, which gradually gets hold of the position of the Turkish mineral water called “Budak”, lost their minds.[6] By the way, in Russia an ad of the Russian national non-alcoholic drink called “kvas” was shown on TV with the slogan “No colanization, kvas is the health of nation”. And the most amazing, even fearful example is the performance at the National Theatre with the military coup in Kars, described in “Snow”, which incredibly precisely recreated the future capture of hostages at a Moscow theatre, in October 2002, when terrorists captured 912 people during a performance of a musical called “Nord-Ost”. 125 people died then…

Pamuk writes about Dostoyevsky: “… there was a dark space between Dostoyevsky’s rational mind and his angry heart – between his acceptance that Russia stood to benefit from westernization and his fury at the proud Russian intellectuals who peddled impartial materialistic ideas.”[7] It is peculiar also for Pamuk himself – the thirst for Europe, the aspiration to the European culture – it is well known that the writer has grown in a westernized family, and since the childhood had an opportunity to get acquainted with masterpieces of the European literature. On the other hand, all his books are penetrated with melancholy for the former greatness of the Ottoman Empire, left in past; for the aspiration to remain oneself, to keep the “face”, to maintain the individuality and the culture – this problem is the main idea of all his novels: both “The Black Book” and “My Name is Red”, “The White Castle” and “The New Life”, “The House of Silence”, “The Snow” and “Istanbul”. Pamuk lives in America for a long time, but at the same time he writes about Istanbul: “Why am I not leaving this city? … Because I can’t even imagine not living in Istanbul”.[8] He writes about his everyday life in New York City and also mentions how he likes religious Muslim holidays in his family circle.[9] On the one hand, the writer supports progress, the necessity to westernize his country, to understand that Europeanization and the European culture will bring progress and prosperity. At the same time, he writes – both in “The New Life”, in “Istanbul” and in “Other Colors” – what featureless are the Turkish cities filled with attributes of the Western man-caused civilization: plastic billboards, brands of transnational corporations and concrete undistinguished apartment buildings, which make all cities all over the world look similar. It is possible to assume that Dostoevsky counted Europeanization favorable for the Russian Empire, but at the same time he was against it. The analysis of Pamuk’s novels shows that the author, who would seem to be “shouting” about the blessings of Europeanization, sometimes shares this opinion.

Perhaps, the most famous Pamuk’s novel, “The Snow” is considered to be the most “Russian” one. The events take place in the Russian-Armenian town of Kars, with its Russian-style architecture, wide Russian streets and avenues and Russian snow. The general development of the events reminds us Dostoyevsky’s “The Demons”. Ka’s notebook with its green cover associates with the poetical notebook of Pasternak’s Jury Zhivago. However, Jury Zhivago’s notebook is the important and the last part of the novel, a sort of “last will” of the dead poet, while Ка’s notebook disappears in a mysterious way.

Ka is also similar to classic heroes of Russian literature, like Pushkin’s Onegin, Lermontov’s Pechorin from “The Hero of Our Time”, who was not able to find application for his forces and abilities and did not have any vital purpose, aimlessly playing with danger and his life, just like Ka, who without any essential reason was dispatched from Turkey, ostensibly because of the policy. Like these heroes, Ka is not pleased with his life, neither is he capable to undertake anything to change it. He is not capable for any serious decision, and, being in really complicated situations, in many respects he becomes their hostage, when the destiny of many people depends on his decisions, acts and even words. Ka’s character is very similar to a typical character of the classic Russian literature of the XIX century: dissatisfied with the life, but incapable to undertake anything, preferring to live in the world of books, philosophy and dreams. Different events happen around Ka, life creates different situations around him and dictates him its conditions, but he is guided by his own sensations of snow and fog and can’t oppose any personal integral, coherent concept to everything what happens. Everything what he does, – especially his final betrayal, when his words caused the homicide of Lacivert, – he does it without bringing it to a logical end, maybe a little bit like Raskolnikov, who “killed, but forgot to consider the human’s soul”.

Pamuk is considered to be the “Istanbul” writer. In the world’s literature there are a lot of examples when many cities of the world are perceived by the eyes of this or that novelist. Paris is inconceivable without Proust, Buenos Aires without Borges, Dublin associates with Joyce. In the Russian literature, the “cult” literary city is Petersburg, where all great Russian writers worked, and especially Petersburg in the eyes of Dostoevsky. The action of most part of Dostoyevsky’s novels – especially “The Crime and Punishment” – develops in Petersburg, which plays an important role in all his novels. Like Gogol, Dostoevsky does not aspire to represent the shine and greatness of the imperial capital. On the contrary, for the most important scenes of his novels the writer frequently chooses the area of Sennaya square (i.e. “Hay Square” in honor of the market with the same name) – the dirtiest and poorest area of old Petersburg, where brothels and doss houses described in “Crime and Punishment” were settled down. Almost in all Dostoevsky’s novels, except for “The White Nights”, city landscapes are gloomy and sometimes fabulously terrible. Pictures of the city are drawn by the writer with documentary accuracy, the represented houses are easy to find even now. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is not only a topographically exact picture of capital slums, but also a certain independent mental substance influencing heroes and forcing them to think and operate in this or that way.

Istanbul in the novels of Orhan Pamuk is the real double of Dostoyevsky’s Petersburg. This Istanbul is not that well-known, familiar to a European reader, Eastern city with minarets, markets and palaces from “The Thousand and One Nights.” It is a labyrinth-city, in which bowel awful secrets and riddles hide; it is the city consisting from tiny, like in medieval Europe, streets filled with attributes of the “Western” civilization: cars, signboards, cinemas, business centers and apartment houses. In gloomy and dank Pamuk’s Istanbul it constantly snows, which reminds the eternal drizzling rain in gloomy, dank Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. The city landscape in both novels creates a certain social background of action, promotes creation of unified color and mood, presses on heroes, influences their ideas and acts. Gloomy, overwhelming character of both cities influences mental and emotional condition, and at the same time hopelessness and immense grief of the heroes, inhabitants of these cities, makes a living substance of literary Petersburg and Istanbul. Almost all that turns in ideas and feelings of Raskolnikov and Galip are connected by what they see and feel during their walks. For Dostoevsky, as well as for Pamuk, it is a custom to specify the routes of these walks, to indicate the names of the streets or even the number of steps from one house up to another.

The heroes of “The Crime and Punishment” can be partly compared to those  of “The Black Book”. First of all, all of them are unfortunate, offended people. The main hero of “The Black Book”, Galip, is a hapless, abortive lawyer, while “The Crime and Punishment”‘s Raskolnikov is an abortive student of The University School of Law. All inhabitants of these grey cities – both Pamuk’s and Dostoevsky’s – are unfortunate not because of the poverty, the humiliating condition, their insignificant position on the social ladder, but because they do not know who they are. Galip aspires to become Jelal, Raskolnikov aspires to become a strong, resolute person, capable to decide his own destiny and those of others. Because of her despair, in search of a rescue from a desperate situation, Sonya Marmeladova becomes the fallen woman, which means some kind of a death, while Ruya, trying to get rescued from spiritual emptiness, some kind of spiritual death, prefers escape and physical death.

Another Pamuk’s hero also reminds us Raskolnikov. It is Hasan, of the characters from “The House of Silence”. He is a young man from a rather poor family, living in a provincial Turkish town, who dreams of great destiny. This character is generally a very “dostoyevskian” one – he participates in political cells and organizations, dreams of great power, wishes he could change the world, but in practice his dreams are difficult to be separated from aspirations to authority and money.[10] The same idea is also important in “The Demons”. Hasan with his discussions about his future, his aims in life and the methods that he will use to make his wishes and plans real, reminds us very much Raskolnikov with his question: “Can I decide somebody’s fate or not”. The scene when he kills Nilgun, a girl from a rich family, whom he loves, is very indicative. If Raskolnikov comes on the most crowded place of Petersburg to repent, to ask people for pardon for his deeds, Hasan chooses the most crowded place of the town to commit a crime, for self-affirmation and challenge to a society. “The House of Silence” also seems very Russian in many points. Lots of literary critics notice that it reminds a little bit Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”. Both in “The Cherry Orchard” and in “The House of Silence” light grief and melancholy about the past are felt, as well as the grief caused by the inevitability of the incomprehensible future. Faruk, another hero of this novel, a historian and a university professor, also seems to be a typical hero of Russian literature who lives only this day. He lives only in the present, without thinking about future life. He observes all events in his life, in the life of people surrounding him, but he participates in all events passively, without showing a will. His ability and aspiration to philosophy covers his inability to live and to build a life upon decisions. Faruk constantly escapes from reality in the world of archival Ottoman manuscripts, preferring philosophizing and passive observation of a situation. He amazingly reminds us Ilya Oblomov, the main hero of the famous novel by Goncharov about an intellectual, who, being afraid of reality, omitting it, has spent all his life lying on a sofa with his books.

Another hero of “The House of Silence”, Doctor Selahatin is rather close to Turgenev’s Bazarov from “The Fathers and The Children”. In his youth, Doctor Selahattin was exiled from the capital, Istanbul, to the province because of political reasons. According to the plot of the novel, Selahattin had died long before the beginning of action; however, a reader knows about his life and the years of his youth from the memoirs of his wife, Fatma, an Ottoman aristocrat by birth, who shared with her husband the difficulties of the provincial life. Bazarov, like Selahattin, does not recognize the God. Kirsanov, who in Pamuk’s novel is close to Selahattin’s wife Fatma, is proud of his own aristocratism, and considers aristocracy as the most progressive layer of the society. But Kirsanov is focused on the creation of a family, on the common happiness and on a measured way of life of a landlord, occupied with his house and family, while Fatma lives only with her memories about the past life, the life during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, which she seems to be the most correct and genuine. Bazarov comes from a poor family of a doctor. He studied medicine and natural sciences, but he is a hapless, abortive doctor. On the contrary, Doctor Selahattin comes from a rich family; he was rich and expected an outstanding career before being disgraced and exiled. Selahattin is a real doctor, but finally his atheistic ideas cause him to loose all his patients in that small provincial town where they have moved. Finally he becomes a hapless, abortive doctor too. Bazarov and Selahattin are very lonely; both because of their ideas. Bazarov – because of his revolutionary ideas about struggle and nihilism, Doctor Selahattin – because of his dreams about science and Europeanization in Turkish province, where everybody is just afraid of him. Bazarov meets with different women for entertainment, but really falls in love with the woman of above-ordinary abilities and development, who has the same position is society. Such a woman was Anna Odintsova, a thirty years old rich widow. Selahattin, on the contrary, despises aristocratic women, equal to him in position, first of all, because of his callous and indifferent wife. He considers that only a simple, sincere and open woman, a woman from the people, can understand a thinker and scientist.[11] Fatma’s misunderstanding does not ruin Selahattin, who continue working over his encyclopedia, developing his ideas; it only pushes him in embraces of the servant. The refusal of Anna Odintsova means for Bazarov the loss of his last hope for the love and life, because it is almost impossible for him to meet an equal person. Fatma refuses to understand her husband, trying to keep her own habitual world and to live within the framework of her own ideas, while Anna does not wish to understand Bazarov, because she prefers her own rest and cares of the family instead of supporting Bazarov on his strange way.

Female characters of Orhan Pamuk’s novels also remind in many respects the well-known characters of the Russian classic literature of the XIX century ─ the strong-willed, resolute women, capable to manage their own destiny, in contrast to the main man characters. Images of Ipek and Kadife from “The Snow”, Canan from “The New Life”, Shekure from “My Name is Red”, Nilgun from “The House of Silence” are very similar to Tatyana from Pushkin’s “Eugeny Onegin”, to Liza from Turgenev’s “A Home of the Gentry”, to Sonya Marmeladova from “Crime and Punishment”, to Natasha Rostova from “War and Peace” and others.

Certainly, it is incorrect to speak about any similarity between Pamuk’s style and plots and the novels of any Russian authors. It is impossible to speak about the only influence of, for example, Dostoevsky’s novels, on Orhan Pamuk’s writing style. In fact we should not forget about such of his novels, which are rather distant from the Russian literature ─ “The White Castle” and “My Name is Red”.

The Russian influence, the influence of Russian literature and culture on the Orhan Pamuk’s works is often discussed in Russia, but it seems to be primarily the influence on Orhan Pamuk himself, and then, through the medium of that, on his books.

Unfortunately, the Turkish literature was rather closed for Russian readers for many years. In the Soviet period such authors as Nazim Hikmet, Sabahattin Ali, Aziz Nesin and Reshat Nuri Guntekin were widely translated. One of the most popular Turkish novels in Russia is “Çalikuşu” by Reshat Nuri Guntekin, which first translation appeared in 1950’s. Different collections of Turkish short stories and plays, folklore fairy-tales and jokes were published, too. However, in Soviet period most of Turkish writers, novelists and poets, were published just according to their political correctness.

Presently one of the most popular writers in Russia is Orhan Pamuk, who is known not only as a Turkish writer but as one of the greatest writers in the world. At the same time owing to the efforts of Turkish publishers, not only collected works of acknowledged classical Turkish writers (such as Reshat Nuri Guntekin and Nazim Hikmet), but a lot of Turkish novels by modern authors were recently published in Moscow and Petersburg (among them are Perihan Magden, Bilge Karasu, Mehmet Murat Somer and others). The deep interest to the Turkish culture in Russia give us hope that further acquaintance with the Turkish literature in Russia, and the further interference of the cultures will continue.

(Dr. Apollinaria Avrutina is a member of the Saint-Petersburg State University, the Department of Oriental & African Studies, Chair of Turkish Philology. She has also translated books by Orhan Pamuk, Bilge Karasu, Sabahattin Ali and Perihan Magden to Russian.)


[1] O. Pamuk, “Öteki Renkler”, Istanbul, 1999, P. 66; “Other Colors”, New York, 2007, P. 151-152.

[2] O. Pamuk, 2007, P. 143.

[3] O.Pamuk, 1999, P.66.

[4] O.Pamuk, 2007, P. 310.

[5] O. Pamuk, 2007, P.145.

[6] O.Pamuk, “The New Life”, New York, 1998. P.128.

[7] O. Pamuk, 2007, P. 140.

[8] O. Pamuk, 2007, P. 103-104.

[9] O. Pamuk, 2007, P. 214.

[10] O. Pamuk “Sessiz Ev” (“The House of Silence”), Istanbul, 2006, P. 322-323.

[11] O. Pamuk, “Sessiz Ev”, P. 218.

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