- Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature by Gloria Fisk
Early in Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature, Gloria Fisk cautions that this will not be a “monograph on a single author” (22). It is one of very few claims that ring false in this excellent new entry from Literature Now, Columbia’s consistently strong series on contemporary literary culture, for one of Fisk’s ancillary achievements lies in modeling a single-author monograph that is expansive rather than parochial, progressive and not fuddy-duddy. Fisk approaches Pamuk as one might a telescope: what appears to be a small aperture is really the conduit to a capacious new context that reconfigures how we understand the world in which we are embedded. Because the monograph’s focal node is an author and not an argument, Fisk’s insights are related but not interdependent, allowing Pamuk to become object and catalyst in a series of claims about the role of the global author, the limits of mimesis in the novel, and the state of contemporary literary criticism.
In the most narrowly construed of these issues, Fisk outlines how Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s first Nobel laureate in literature and author of such novels as Snow and My Name Is Red, positions himself and finds himself positioned vis-à-vis his celebrity, his complicated political and cultural significance in Turkey and abroad, and his elite global audience. The portrait is of a writer caught between hemispheres. Fisk shows how something—though not the same something—is missed by Pamuk’s Eastern and Western readers, and how his political statements, especially those surrounding the Armenian Genocide, solidify his identity as consummate insider-outsider. Such dynamics led jointly to Pamuk’s exile from Turkey and his celebrity in the Anglophone West, facilitated through global literary structures like the Nobel Prize. This is, in other words, the story of how Orhan Pamuk became “the latest protagonist in the grand narrative of cross-cultural enlightenment that underwrites the good of world literature in the contemporary West” (93). These sections of the book are perhaps the least forceful, for no other reason than that they cover the most familiar territory. Yet even here Fisk manages to shine; I have already commended passages of Orhan Pamuk and the Good of World Literature to colleagues in search of teaching resources, so lucidly does the author frame concerns surrounding the study of the global novel today.
Fisk’s monograph takes off when it ties these questions about Pamuk’s person to academic and popular assumptions about the novel’s verisimilitude and, in turn, the genre’s ability to facilitate cross-cultural understanding and empathy. Pamuk appears to “[foster] sensations of proximity that ease geopolitical concerns” and “[guarantee] the seamless relation of the novel to the world,” as if each novel were a “transparent ‘window’ onto people and places that have strategic value but are hard to see” (10). These features make it tempting, for those working in the neoliberal university, to use Pamuk’s writing as a convenient prop, that which asserts “the value of the humanities as a source for information about the nonfictional world” (10). But, Fisk warns, Pamuk’s novels—and, by extension, those of other canny authors of global literature—are too ambivalent in their representational strategies to allow such readings. His books evince a “contradictory view of their legibility as political interventions, professing the same ambivalent faith in mimesis that their author does,” insisting “on the autonomy of the literary in its refraction of the political” and “asking for a method of interpretation that more fully respects the politics of mimesis in a multilingual world” (92). Fisk’s [End Page 589] great insight here is to register not only how the ethnographic so often overwhelms the fictive in the study of world literature, but how such reading practices fit the ends of English and comparative literature departments in this age of uncertainty for the humanities.
The book’s most arresting turn comes when Fisk addresses her...