- Reading Orhan Pamuk's Snow as Parody:Difference as Sameness
The Evolution of the East-West Trope in Pamuk's Novels
In presenting the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature to the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, the Swedish Academy commended him for his discovery of 'new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures'.1 The deliberate choice of 'clash' is a coded, evocative way of simultaneously bringing up the now well-worn phrase 'the clash of civilizations' and disavowing it by replacing 'civilizations' with 'cultures'. This is also carefully balanced with the more positive word 'interlacings'. However, the impression remains that concerns of political correctness on the Academy's part have affected their language formulation more than their actual thinking. After all, does not the reformulation of this cliché convey cum grano salis the same message as the original that was alluded to, indicating that Pamuk's main problematic is the clash of civilizations?
Either version of this formulation is reductive, reflecting the kind of complacent reading that I hope to contextualize and complicate in this essay. What appears as 'a clash' in Pamuk's works is his working out of his central trope of East and West. Throughout his novels he does indeed play with the terms East and West because of their primacy as organizing and relational concepts and the multiplicity of their mimetic references. However, as I will show in my discussion of Snow, this is rather subordinated to an entirely different interrogation of the creation of meaning and construction of identity. Pamuk uses East and West as provisional terms for understanding and representing his real topic of investigation, which is the relationship between similarity and difference.
This abstract philosophical exploration of the connection between similarity and difference, which resembles what Derrida defines as différance, is the end point of the evolution that the 'East and West' trope goes through in Pamuk's œuvre. In his early novels, the East and [End Page 403] the West are political terms that denote clear-cut and easily identifiable ideological positions within Turkey. Their meaning is expanded into an international arena in his middle novels in order to portray a contrast between two world views. The force of the trope lies in its oppositional duality at this stage. In Snow, as in his other work from the same period, Pamuk offers a wider view on this duality by placing it in a relationship of a series that has at least three terms, demonstrating that the oppositional difference depicted in the contrastive formulation of East versus West is only one feature of a larger system of relationships generated and held together by the principle of similarity.2 One important series established in this novel is the relationships between the three stages of the East/West trope outlined above. Pamuk depicts each stage separately, but also links them in a series. He puts them in a relationship of encapsulation,3 where the largest term, the philosophical investigation of difference, subsumes, but also keeps intact as its building blocks, the other two stages out of which it grows.
The original source of the 'East and West' terminology is a specifically internal discourse of modernization within Turkey. Consequently, these terms evoke considerable historical and political resonance for Turks and how they define their lives and identities. They constitute immediate demarcators of life choices and political position even though their perceived content and meaning have shifted over time in a relational ebb and flow. However, their centrality to Turkish political and historical discourse, both in terms of Turkey's internal understanding of itself and of its external relationship with other nations, has remained constant. Turkish official history narrates the smooth emergence of a Western nation out of an Eastern empire through a process of negotiation and synthesis.
Pamuk's work, on the other hand, points to ruptures and losses that have created a split-consciousness and led to either fragmented or one-dimensional lives. Dwarfs, limping people and characters with missing limbs abound in his fiction. Their bodies are the visual and physical embodiments of historical erasures, the cost of the repression obfuscated by the purportedly successful story of Westernization. The...