Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red

Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name Is Red is that rare book: a contemporary work that can already be thought of as one of the truly essential novels. Although the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Pamuk last week, is given not for a single book but for a body of work, there can be little doubt that My Name Is Red stands at the centre of Pamuk's oeuvre.

The first chapter of the novel is narrated by a corpse. "I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of the well […] no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what's happened to me," he begins. There is no one to hear the corpse, yet his words assume a listener. That listener is the reader, and My Name is Red is full of such speakers who, like agitated and unruly witnesses at a public hearing, jostle each other to press upon the reader the stories of their lives and the shape of their feelings.

Pamuk's novel is set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, at the time of the zenith of the Ottoman empire, and it is at different levels a murder mystery, a love story, a meditation on the significance of art in man's life, a parable of the relationship between the East and the West, and an experiment in narrative plurality.

The novel's cast of characters (most of whom are also narrators) include the clever and beautiful Shekure, whose husband has gone missing in war and who therefore may be a widow; Shekure's father 'Enishte' ('Uncle') Effendi, a senior functionary of the Sultan's court; and Black, Enishte's nephew and the protagonist of the story, back in Istanbul after having fallen in love with Shekure when younger and being rejected by her and banished by Enishte from his home. There is also Hasan, Shekure's brother-in-law, also obsessively in love with her; and a band of calligraphers and illustrators employed in a thriving art, the production of illuminated manuscripts illustrating old tales and legends under the Sultan's patronage.

The back-story of My Name Is Red is the encounter of some of the men at the forefront of Ottoman art with an entirely different style of art just beginning to take hold of the human imagination in the West: the art of human portraiture. The clash between two views of artistic practice could not be more total. Ottoman art is above all a religious art. Conscious that idolatry - and by extension painting - is forbidden by the Koran, it produces pictures mainly as illustrations of well-known tales and stories, as ostensible aids in their understanding, and with due care taken to portray the world from "an elevated Godlike perspective," as if leading us to "God's vision."

But the new Western art of portraiture, which Enishte Effendi first encounters on an official visit to Venice, privileges the human subject, depicting the unique and individual characteristics of each face it portrays, and treating painting as an end in itself and an attempt to replicate reality. Enishte describes this art to Black as appearing to embody "a sin of desire, like growing arrogant before God, like considering oneself of utmost importance, like situating oneself at the center of the world." But he is also utterly fascinated by it for the same reason: it seems to immortalise each man it depicts, perpetuate in remarkable fashion his finite life. Enishte remarks with wonder:
If your face was depicted in this fashion only once, no one would ever be able to forget you, and if you were far away, someone who laid eyes on your portrait would feel your presence as if you were actually nearby. Those who had never seen you alive, even years after your death, could come face-to-face with you as if you were standing before them.
His Sultan is equally fascinated by the new art of portraiture. Desirous of having his portrait painted in this fashion, he instructs Enishte to prepare in secret, using his workshop's best artists, a book about his reign on the occasion of the thousandth year of the Hegira, to be presented to the Venetians as a marvellous symbol of the Sultan's power. It is to help him with the book - as also the management of skilled and sensitive artists who must now work in secret, and both personally consider as well as provoke in their wider society the question of blasphemy - that Enishte has recalled Black to Istanbul. And Black, still lovestruck after all these years, is obviously keen to re-explore the question of whether Shekure, now probably a widow, is interested in him. Observing the specimens of portraiture shown to him by his uncle, Black thinks:
Had I taken Shekure's portrait with me, rendered in the style of the Venetian masters, I wouldn't have felt such loss during my long travels when I could scarcely remember my beloved, whose face I'd left somewhere behind me. For if a lover's face survives emblazoned on your heart, the world is still your home.
Black is a solitary, ruminative sort: his troubled life leads him to assert that "for men like myself, that is, melancholy men for whom love, agony, happiness and misery are just excuses for maintaining eternal loneliness, life offers neither great joy nor great sadness". But he pursues Shekure enthusiastically, and all of a sudden she agrees to marry him if he agrees to certain conditions. Suddenly it is Black's wedding day: he can scarcely believe how he has suddenly been presented "the greatest of gifts…after so much suffering". He finds an imam and goes with him across the Bosphorus river in search of a legal functionary, and on the way imagines how a miniaturist might paint this scene of his life, tinged with the slight foreboding that is a characteristic aspect of his thought:
…the miniaturist ought to depict us amid mustachioed and muscled oarsmen, forging our way across the blue Bosphorus towards Uskudar in the four-oared red longboat we'd boarded at Unkapani. The preacher and his skinny dark-complexioned brother, pleased with the surprise voyage, are engaging the oarsmen in friendly chatter. Meanwhile, amid blithe dreams of marriage that play ceaselessly before my eyes, I stare deep into the waters of the Bosphorus, flowing clearer than usual on this sunny winter morning, on guard for an ominous sign within its currents. I'm afraid, for example, that I might see the wreck of a private ship below. Thus, no matter how joyously the miniaturist colours the sea and the clouds, he ought to include something equivalent to the darkness of my fears and as intense as my dreams of happiness - a terrifying-looking fish, for example - in the depths of the water so the reader of my adventure won't assume all is rosy.
Not the least of the novel's pleasures is the whiff and the savour of its keen metaphysical intelligence, its willingness to engage with life's deepest questions. One such instance appears when Enishte Effendi is murdered. His soul ascends to heaven led by an angel and talks of its experiences, like the corpse with whom the book begins. Slowly coming to terms with his existence in this new realm ("Eternal puzzles and dark enigmas that only the dead might understand were now being revealed and illuminated, bursting forth brilliantly one by one in thousands of colours"), Enishte suddenly senses that he is in the presence of the divine. He is overcome by fear and ecstasy, as also anguish over his probable sin of blasphemy. He blurts out some words and hears a response, not aloud, but "in my thoughts". This is how the matter proceeds:
I could barely contain my excitement.
"All right then, what is the meaning of it all, of this…of this world?"
"Mystery," I heard in my thoughts, or perhaps, "mercy," but I wasn't certain of either.
A startling double note is struck here, of confusion and unintentional comedy on the one hand, and profundity and religious awe on the other. Taken by itself, either of the two possible replies would have been anticlimactic, but blurred together as they are here, they are marvellously satisfying.

As these short excerpts may reveal, Pamuk's narrative artistry, his appetite for ideas, his talent for patterning (a method of producing meaning through the repetition or the contrast of words, thoughts, or symbols), and his flair for observation all find expression in the most remarkable sentences, their beautiful and startling cadences transmitting a sense of agile minds roused to a high pitch. It is hard to think of another book in which practically every sentence has such an aesthetically pleasing shape and a ring to it. Erdag Goknar's marvellous translation has produced a book that, had it been written originally in English, would stand alongside the greatest works of English prose.

The first chapter of My Name Is Red can be found here.

And here are some essays by Pamuk: "Freedom to Write", delivered as a PEN lecture earlier this year; "In Kars and Frankfurt", a piece which considers the novel "as a way of thinking, understanding and imagining, and also as a way of imagining oneself as someone else"; "A Private History", in which he talks about the research that went into My Name Is Red and his use of autobiographical matter in the book; "City of Ghosts", an extract from Istanbul, his book about the city that has nourished his imagination; "The Anger of the Damned", a piece written after the 9/11 attacks; "Humour May Be Our Only Hope", on the Turkish elections of 2002; "Road to Rebellion", on driving through the city of Tehran; "A private reading of Andre Gide's public Journal", on the French writer Andre Gide; and "On Trial", an account of going on trial in Turkey last year for a reference to the Armenian massacre of 1915.

Update, October 30: And here's a new essay by Pamuk on himself and his work, "Implied Author" ("To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true - nothing makes me happier, nothing binds me more to life. I also prefer it if the writer is dead, because then there is no little cloud of jealousy to darken my admiration. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the best books are by dead writers.")

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

On Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor

A few minutes into Nagesh Kukunoor's new film Dor - after a set of early scenes of great tenderness and beauty featuring two pairs of newlyweds - we see one of his two female protagonists, the Rajasthani girl Meera (played by the marvellous Ayesha Takia), perched on a pile of rocks with a mobile phone in her hand, making her monthly phone call to her husband in Saudi Arabia.

She asks for him by name, and is told that he is no longer alive. We see the expression on her face change, and the phone drop from her hand. As if it cannot bear to face her grief directly any more, the camera cuts to a low position behind her. She appears framed against the empty blue sky, which seems to reflect back her great desolation and puzzlement.

The camera cuts again to a shot which projects a sharp irony, with Meera in the background, and in the foreground, with his back to her, the man who has given her his mobile phone for a fee. The seconds he is counting down on his wristwatch do not progress in the same way for Meera, for whom time has effectively stopped from this moment onwards. Yet it is not a simple irony, in which the boundless grief of one character and the grubbery of another are unambiguously juxtaposed. In an earlier scene we have seen the man walk away to a distance to give Meera her privacy. This is why, on this occasion, he has no clue of what is happening to her. He is both calculating and kind. From the different aspects of this one scene we can tell that we are going to watch a drama of considerable subtlety.

As Baradwaj Rangan has also noted, Dor resembles Iranian cinema in its close attention to the play of human feelings when presented with complex moral dilemmas. Zeenat (Gul Panag, compellingly direct, droop-shouldered and gravel-voiced) learns that her husband stands accused in a foreign country of the death of another Indian man, and the only way in which he can be reprieved is if the dead man's wife will consent to his pardon. She sets out from Himachal Pradesh for Rajasthan (Kukunoor's use of the two contrasting landscapes to create mood is one of many good aesthetic decisions) in search of the unknown woman who holds the key to her own future. In a marvellous scene in which the two lead characters meet for the first time, Zeenat reveals she is in search of her husband but cannot bring herself to explain the circumstances. Meera innocently asks, "Why, do you think he can be found here?" And we know that yes, in a sense it is only here that he can be found.

Takia's is the most naturally expressive face of any actress in Hindi cinema currently. Here it radiates innocence and simple faith, and, covered at first by a gauzy pink veil and then by austere blue widow's robes, is the subject of many striking close-ups. On several occasions she conveys the state of being overcome by strong feelings, in long takes where the camera stays fixed on her face, by nothing more than a flicker of the eyes and a slight dilation of the nostrils.

Her character has a highly developed moral sense, and also a natural moral sympathy - one does not necessarily eventuate in the other. In one scene where the two women are talking about their husbands (Meera does not yet know the entire truth), Zeenat remarks that they are both consumed similarly by memories. At this Meera pipes up: "But there is a difference: you still have hope, but I don't." This is quite true, but then she becomes aware of her impetuosity and, reaching out to the other, says, "I shouldn't have said that. Loss can't be measured out and compared in this fashion."

The depiction of Meera's many moods and facets make this one of the best character studies of recent times. Meera lives in a world of restricted choices, and admires Zeenat for her freedom and independence. Later, when she learns the truth, she is inflamed, and exudes a heavy contempt. She declares to Zeenat that it has been her dream to slay her husband's killer with her own hands, and refuses to comply with Zeenat's wish. Later, when she rethinks this decision and delivers to Zeenat the letter of pardon just as Zeenat's train about to leave, the image of the life-giving letter exchanging hands is framed against the very sky that seemed to echo once with a sense of Meera's loss. If the first shot suggested human powerlessness before fate, this one attests to the ability of human beings to transcend their circumstances and to change the world.

The last drama of such force I saw was the Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani's Two Women, and indeed Dor might have gone by the same title. Kukunoor is correct, I think, in pointing to how unusual it is in Hindi cinema for two women to work out a conclusion without a man's intervention - in fact the film as a whole carries a bracing feminist message. He is also to be complimented on his use of Indian landscapes (some thoughts by Amrita Sher-Gil and Satyajit Ray on its depiction on film can be found here in this old essay on Sher-Gil), on Salim-Sulaiman's unusual background score - it is a great pleasure to hear the sarangi given such prominence in our synthesiser-and-drums times - and Mir Ali Hussain's beautifully turned-out dialogue. Yet his work also has some faults.

His villains are too simply bad. Girish Karnad, who rarely appears in any other Hindi films these days, seems to take a special pleasure in playing utterly unsympathetic characters in Kukunoor films - the corrupt and conniving coach, shavenheaded like a baddie of old, in last year's Iqbal, and now the bullheaded and tawdry patriarch here, tempted into quoting a price for his own daughter-in-law. The irony is that Karnad is himself a playwright of great distinction. In Dor the exuberant tomfoolery of Shreyas Talpade, the Iqbal of Kukunoor's previous film, as a master of disguises is entertaining enough, but mostly his character exists to provide a few predictable laughs and to add half an hour of screen time. Watching the film a second time, I found his part discordant.

Strangest of all is Kukunoor's own appearance on screen as the factory-owner Mr.Chopra. It is known that Kukunoor's early films, made as a relative nonentity working on the fringes of Bollywood, were shot on shoestring budgets. As if unwilling to make a total break from those old days of desperate moneysaving gambits, he continues to cast himself in major roles in big-budget works, when if he had auditioned for these roles he would have been the first to be cast out. The spectacular dodginess of his delivery of the line "Ab aagya deejiye" ("Now please excuse me") at the close of his first long scene opposite Karnad has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Some other pieces on film: on Kukunoor's Iqbal, Rakeysh Mehra's Rang De Basanti, and Tahmineh Milani's Two Women. Now I've got some other pressing work to attend to, so ab aagya deejiye.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Saul Bellow and The Republic of Letters

Every writer has a private map of literature, a vision of what the best books are. He considers some books overpraised, and others unjustly neglected. He feels the pressure of literature upon his life, and believes that other people should feel some of that same charge, and if they don't he must show them how. He would like to dredge out the best of the old, and sift the best of the new. In short, every writer would like to to run a literary magazine.

The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who passed away last year, founded four literary magazines at different points of his life with his friend Keith Botsford. The last of these periodicals, published more or less biannually from 1999 onwards, is News from The Republic of Letters, featuring fiction, essays serious and lighthearted, reminiscences, excerpts from diaries, poetry, and literary criticism.

The latest issue of TRoL contains, alongside the usual mix, three essays in memory of Bellow, including one by the writer Herbert Gold. Gold first met Bellow in Paris in 1949; he was a young writer spending some time in Europe, and Bellow the same, only some years older, and with two published novels to his credit. At the time Bellow was writing The Adventures of Augie March (his own account of those years can be found in an essay here); and as the rumor had gotten around "that he was destined to be America's new great novelist" he already possessed a devoted circle of admirers, to whom he was given to complaining at length about his many woes, especially marital. Gold presents a scene of the writer holding court:

Usually these family quarrels, hot tongue and cold shoulder, had to do with boredom (his) and jealousy (his wife's). He cultivated the admiration of pretty young women; he received it. He liked to recall how, when his first story was published in a national magazine, Harper's Bazaar, along with a photo, he received a telephone call from MGM pictures. Did they want to make a movie of his story?

He beamed; high wattage. There was an ironic glint in his large dark eyes. His smile delighted. No, they wanted to offer him a screen-test.

When he glanced around his circle of admirers on the terrace of Le Rouquet at the corner of rue des Saintes-Pères and the Boulevard Saint-Germain, we all responded with an echo of his own joyous amusement, just as if we were receiving the tale for the first time. Sometimes there was at least one person present for whom it was new.
It is a very fine and sharp account, alive to good and bad both - Gold describes memorably Bellow's self-regard and need for attention ("He required an audience as devoted as the audience he gave himself"); the particular achievement of his work ("Saul's prose style married classical elegance to Mark Twain and the pungency of street speech; Yiddish played stickball with Henry James….He could spritz like a lower east side comedian and then lament like the prophets….His gifts enabled him to edge abruptly into scenes of vivid desire and grief, as in the last paragraphs of the great story Seize the Day"); his tendency to write up his antagonists in real life as characters in his novels ("I know three people who wrote novels intended as revenge for what he had written about them"); and his extreme touchiness when it came to the reception of his books ("Receiving hundreds of clippings, he was still the man who could be thrown into a raging flunk by that bad review in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City).

In a post on Seize The Day some weeks ago I linked to a number of essays on Bellow, and here are a number of excellent essays by him: "Hidden Within Technology's Kingdom, a Republic of Letters", a piece about the founding of TroL; "To Be Poor Meant Also To Be Free", an account of the hustle and bustle of the Chicago of the nineteen-twenties; "Strangely Independent of Place", about the writing of Augie March; and "My Paris", an account from the eighties about returning to the city he once lived in.

A piece by Botsford I like very much is this essay on WG Sebald from an old issue of TRoL ("...when I, so rarely, find myself with a writer whose every turn of phrase and every thought is so clearly going to be interesting, I become self-denying. I will not just read it; I will savor it. Really good writers command that they be read at almost the pace at which they write—otherwise you will miss something" - that is absolutely correct.) And Herbert Gold has an essay on the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg here.

And the website of The Little Magazine, to my mind the best literary magazine in India, can be found here. Here is a selection of pieces from it: "The idea of India in the era of globalisation" by Sunil Khilnani, "The Hundred Watt Bulb" by Saadat Hasan Manto, "India Through Its Calendars" by Amartya Sen, "The Closed Door" by the Bengali writer Ashapurna Debi, "Babur, the man behind the mosque" by Amitav Ghosh, "Angoori", a story by the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam, "Ten Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence" by Achin Vanaik, and "Bon Appetit", a poem by Arun Kolatkar.