His name is red

Mar 12 2020

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The writer is an author and historian.
The writer is an author and historian.

WHO still remembers the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci? As much a symbol once of Italy as the Renaissance Sistine Chapel and today’s coronavirus, Fallaci was an aggressive and therefore feared journalist.

She became famous through her book Interview with History (1974), a compilation of 14 interviews she conducted with personalities including Henry Kissinger and his Vietnamese nemesis Nguyen Van Thieu, Israel prime minister Golda Meir and her pet thorn Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan and the fellow monarch he outlived — Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the Indo-Pak rivals Mrs Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

With surgical skill, she cut open her subjects and revealed their inner sinews, their hidden secrets and insecurities. Not all of them welcomed the procedure. Henry Kissinger loathed being described as president Nixon’s “wet-nurse” and blushed when he read in print his off-the-cuff remarks of himself as a lone ranger, the cowboy “who rides all alone into the town and does everything himself”.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, inordinately flattered by Kissinger’s reference to him as “very intelligent, very brilliant”, found Fallaci’s interview with Mrs Indira Gandhi in February 1972 irksome. Mrs Gandhi had termed him “ambitious … not a very balanced man”. Detecting duplicity in him, she said, “when he talks, you never understand what he means”.

Pamuk has never lost his instinct as an artist.

Understandably stung, Mr Bhutto demanded that Fallaci interview him as well. During their five sessions, he retaliated by making the unchivalrous observation that Mrs Gandhi was “a mediocre woman with mediocre intelligence”. When Fallaci published the interview, Mr Bhutto tried hard to have her disavow it, without success. By then, Mrs Gandhi and her marionette Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (in Bhutto’s words, “a congenital liar”) no longer cared what Bhutto had called them.

Was it an oversight that the 1972 Nobel committee, ignoring the Shimla Agreement of July 1972, decided not to award any peace prize that year? Mr Bhutto must have had his eye on it and therefore been doubly mortified to see Henry Kissinger win it the following year.

Perhaps it is a reflection of our times that the Nobel Peace Prize has become easier to win than to earn, compared say to the parallel prizes for the sciences or for literature. It is almost as easy to be a Nobel Peace Prize awardee nowadays as it was for Dame Judi Dench to receive an Oscar for an eight-minute cameo appearance as Queen Elizabeth I in the film Shakespeare in Love.

To appreciate the depths of inspiration and the oceans of perspiration any author needs to plumb before his work is finally recognised, one has only to run through the list of 116 literature laureates — from Sully Prudhomme (1901) to Peter Handke (2019). Sandwiched between Harold Pinter (2005) and Doris Lessing (2007) lies the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, the winner in 2006.

It would take 116 lifetimes to read everything these laureates have written. It has certainly taken the septuagenarian Orhan Pamuk a lifetime to write his. To read only one of his novels — My Name is Red — is to be transported into a universe that happens to be called Turkey.

Pamuk has never lost his instinct as an artist. He has the eyes of a miniaturist and the vision of a seer. See how he elevates art to the level of divinity: “Painting is the art of seeking out Allah’s memoirs — seeing the world as He sees the world.” Or “painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight”.

With sensitive clarity, he encapsulates the traditional relationship wherever sponsored ateliers were maintained between “talented refugee artists” and their fickle patrons. Artists, like sunflowers, faced the sun, creating new styles, “fathered by the most gifted member of a migrant workshop”. To the rest fell “the singular duty of perfecting and refining this style through perpetual imitation”.

Perhaps the most moving paragraphs are those that describe the ascent of an artist’s soul into the seven heavens, and above: “The whole world was made up of colour, everything was colour.” Finally, he achieves a state of transcendence in which he has “unlimited time and space in which to experience all eras and all places. With fear and ecstasy, I knew I was close to Him [.] I felt the presence of an absolutely matchless red.”

Heresy? Far from it. When God can be seen by philosophers as an idea, by purists as an ideal, by polytheists as an idol, then why should artists not see divinity in colour?

Pamuk’s writing sets heights of perfection that consigns poorer peddlers of the same craft into dungeons of despair. Somewhere, in the 671 pages of Pamuk’s novel, he uses these words: “the infinity of the blank page”. He deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature just for that one phrase.

The writer is an author and historian.

www.fsaijazuddin.pk

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2020