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Book Review: Other Colours Orhan Palmuk

One of the wonderful things about reading books is that occasionally you get to read about something from a whole different perspective then the one you are exposed to normally. Our media report on the world from the perspective of our society, which only makes sense, as they have to represent the philosophies that buy their publications.

But, that still leaves us with only one perception on events, only half a conversation, or one side of the story. When we work up the nerve to leave our insulated shores and read something a point of view other than the one that appears nightly on our television or continually in our mass media it can be both a shock to our systems and an eye opening experience.

For those who follow international events, i.e. the world outside the sphere of American interest, one of the bigger stories has been the application of Turkey to join the European Union(EU). There's a lot of history between the two, dating back to the days of the Crusades. That's when the Europeans first tried to reclaim what they called the Holy Land and the Turks called home. Open warfare between the two only ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One and the capture of Jerusalem by the British.

Although, among the nominally Muslim known states Turkey has always taken pride in being secular with complete separation of church and state, the mistrust of the West towards the East still exists. In part, this is caused by what seems to be a state of continual political unrest in Turkey (the most recent coup having taken place in the 1980's) and the recent strong showing of non-secular parties in various elections.
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Therefore, the stories we do get in the news about the proposed entry of Turkey into the EU all express European concerns. Now there is no denying that the concerns about human rights and religious tolerance are ones that can't be ignored, but what about opinions from the other side? Do we even know the people of Turkey, or anything about their country, their society, and how they go about their days? What image do we have of them, if any at all?

This is where literature can help fill the gaps in our awareness, especially if the writer in question is a recent Nobel Prize laureate whose political independence is unquestioned. Orhan Pamuk newest release Other Colours published by Random House Canada through it's imprint Knoff Canada may not be the definitive book on the opinions and views of the Turkish people, but it still represents a perspective that we rarely see.

I have the impression that this might have been Mr. Pamuk's intention with this publication, due to the sections he's divided the book into. He starts the book off with short essays under the title "Living and Worrying", which detail his day-to-day existence with family and friends. Predominate in this section are descriptions of adventures he has with his daughter, and the earthquake of 1999 that shattered Turkey.

We also get his ideas about writing, descriptions of living in his home city of Istanbul, and the usual, overwhelming, impression that permeates all his work of a melancholy of the soul pervasive to the city's inhabitants. It's a city steeped in history and haunted by its past, troubled by its future, and worried about the present. Like Los Angeles they sit and wait for the "big one" which will obliterate them while playing the speculative game of "if it falls, will it land on us?"

While there are also a couple of other chapters that deal with his relationship to other people's writing and his own, the chapter that will interest those wanting a different perspective on the potential union of Turkey and Europe is "Politics, Europe, And Other Problems Of Being Oneself".

The picture that appears of Turkey from these pages is of a character full of contradictions and in some ways cynical enough to believe that in the end none of what they do or say will really have any bearing on their acceptance into the European Union. Why else would they prosecute a writer of Orhan Pamuk's reputation for speaking a truth that is universally accepted, but not allowed to be spoken in Turkey? In an interview with a European newspaper, Pamuk talked about the genocide of Armenians and Kurds by the Turks, and estimated that Turkey had killed around one million Armenians and fifty thousand Kurds.

For speaking that simple truth, a fact written down in history books all over the world, he was charged under Article 301, "publicly denigrating Turkish identity". Pamuk writes about the period in a very matter of fact manner; talking about how the ultra nationalists newspapers called for his "silencing", and that his books were burnt. Compared to some of his contemporaries the charges against him were slim, and he fully expected to win his case. The last thing he wanted or thought would happen was that he would become a cause celebre and a poster child for the rights of authors.
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He recounts how a fellow author and friend had congratulated him on hearing the news of his being charged, of finally becoming a real Turkish author. In fact, he says he wasn't at all surprised to find himself eventually on trial, because it seems the only way an author will be honoured in Turkey is if he has spent time in jail. But, he also places his arrest in the context of world affairs in a way that shows the extent of how differently the East's view of the world is from that of the West.

He says there is a dichotomy being faced by the people in countries like India, Russia, China, and Japan who have suddenly become members of the global economy. In order to compensate for their espousal of Western economic goals that contrast so much with traditional learning, and to prevent being overly criticized for their new found wealth, they resort to rabid nationalism. He doesn't spare the West though, because he says how could he sell their brand of freedom and democracy to his people when the war in Iraq and revelations of secret CIA prisons have so damaged its credibility?

It seems like the problem for people of conscience, like Orhan Pamuk and others, in countries that lie on the cusp of what is known as a democratic system of government, is what example do they have to hold up to their people of how life should be? That is what we never see on our news, or in our newspapers. No political leader, no matter what their stripe would ever dare get up in public and say what needs to be said.

In spite of what you've been told to the contrary, nobody beyond the borders of this country believes the United States or Britain (and I would add Canada to that list too considering our current government) to be a shining example of freedom or democracy. The light cast by our governments' endeavours no longer serves as a beacon guiding anybody to anything except hostility and resistance.

If Pamuk thought his words made him unpopular in his homeland for speaking the truth, these ideas he postulates aren't going to go down a treat anywhere in the world. Either in the United States, Britain, or Canada where the beacons have sputtered out, or in India, China, Japan, Russia and Turkey where they are embracing Western economic ideals and becoming less tolerant of diversity and truth.

Other Colours is about more than the world's politics, its about life in one of the world's oldest cities as seen through the eyes of a keen and passionate observer. But the world has intruded upon Istanbul – or Istanbul wants to step out into the world again with results that look similar to what is happening elsewhere. How else do you explain a secular country's sudden swing to religious political parties if not through fear of change and a compensation for embracing Western values that are alien to the society?

For whatever reason, Turkey is experiencing some profound changes, and reactions there are as good as indication as any, for gauging the moderate East's opinion of the West. I can't think of any man more capable or sensitive to document these events than Orhan Parmuk, and if you care about the world beyond your borders, it would be remiss not to read every word of this book carefully.

Somewhere within it lies the secret by which we might all survive the next decade or so while the balance of power in the world shifts. He might not come right out and say the answer, but he asks the right questions to put us on the road to discovering it.

Readers in Canada can purchase Other Colours directly from Random House Canada or through Amazon.ca

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