Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review: On Reading Orhan Pamuk in Bali

On Reading Orhan Pamuk in Bali
By Uma Anyar

I have not been able to read more then a page of Orhan Pamuk’s writing without yearning for a pen or pencil, a scrap of paper. Words speak themselves inside my head. Not the customary voice that I associate with the everyday me but a more observant consciousness that resides deeper in my psyche. This awareness attends to the neglected beauty of the curtains fluttering away from my open windows; noting the way the sheer fabric lifts and falls like large white wings without a body.

This voice, which comes into being while my eyes scan Pamuk’s words on a page, is an off- spring of the writer himself. This kind of reading is the most intimate of acts. It engenders creative energy. It focuses the mind into gentle receptivity. The reader enters the writer’s heart and mind like a willing lover ready to follow a train of thought where ever it may lead. And then, if the reader is also a writer, to speak through silent words strung together in sentences and paragraphs some particular truth one does not know is there until it reveals itself on the page.

This is beauty of another kind. It is formed of trust and inner hushes, the lightest whispers inside the soul, it is the foundation of something sacred which every writer tries to reach by reading the words of another.

Pamuk honors Dostoyevsky, Nabakov by presenting them to me and other readers elsewhere on the planet holding a copy of Other Colours, Essays and A Story in their hands, as a close friend might do when he wants you to ‘get’ what he ‘gets’ about them. And, because Pamuk is such an insightful reader/writer who has provoked new thoughts about old books, I will get a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and Lolita when I go to Ubud later today. I want to understand how beauty and cruelty are displayed in Nabakov’s characters and re-visit the tortured Karamozovs. Russian writers are not a happy lot but they take us into the depths of the human soul better then anyone else.
One book incites reading another.

After four hours of browsing through Borders Bookstore in Singapore, I was still unsatisfied with my book selections. I could not put my fingers on what I wanted because I did not know what I was looking for. There were just too many books bearing an overwhelming sense of sameness and formulaic promises to reveal The Secret of financial and spiritual success. There are just too many paths, too many truths; all clamoring for attention, each with a price on it’s freshly published face. So many voices yet not one spoke to me.

It was in a Changi Airport bookshop on the way back to Bali that a hefty paperback bearing a picture of a lone young man in a white shirt sitting at a table and drawing caught my eye. The descriptive line, below the image,“ Writings on Life, Art, Books, and Cities” captured my interest. Now, here is a mind worth meeting I thought. I was happy the cover said nothing about the writer’s 2006 Nobel Prize. The prominent proclamation of awards or accolades smells of promotion and affects the quality of the initial meeting between writer and reader.

I danced the hesitation waltz of commitment by wandering away from the book, fingering other paperbacks, ruffling through magazines but I returned to Pamuk. I wanted to meet him on the page and in my bed with tea and thought, in the sweetest silent intimacy.

Today is Saraswati Day, here in Bali. The unseen spiritual world intertwines with daily reality by the constant attention my Balinese friends and neighbors pay to gods and demons through offerings and ceremonies. As I type these words, Ibu Mangku, the local holy man’s wife, is lighting incense and placing a selection of woven offering trays containing flowers, candies, and special mosses on my bookshelf. Ibu Mangku sees to the spiritual needs of the house. She is a serene gray haired woman who goes about her spiritual duties with devotion and simplicity. She doesn’t hang around to chat or gossip. In fact, Ibu Mangku is not quite in this world anymore. She places leaf baskets near the intricately carved statue of the four-armed Goddess, Sarasawti. Incense smoke rises over my lap top screen. In the past lontar leaf books would have been blessed, today the computer is also honored. The Balinese are masters of balance and practicality and have managed to maintain their unique blend of Hindu, Buddhist and animist beliefs despite years of colonial rule and the onslaught of Western tourism. I hold off typing and join Ibu in silent prayers. Holy water sprinkled from a used coke-a-cola bottle ends the brief ritual.

Wayan, our young housekeeper enters my studio and teasingly reprimands me for reading and writing on Saraswati day. “Not good to do that today Mum, no reading, no writing today.” she pronounces playfully.

“That just doesn’t make sense. It should be the opposite. Everyone should be doing nothing but reading and writing today. What better way to honor the goddess of learning, arts and music,” I state, certain of the logic of my argument.
“ No, not like that Mum. Today like birthday for Saraswati. Everybody rest now.” She sees my disappointed face and adds with a smile, “ But OK for you to write, you not Balinese.” I ponder the other side of this
‘to write or not to write’ dilemma while gazing at the terraced rice fields outside my window and choose Balinese sacred tradition over personal preference by clicking on ‘word quit.’

Saraswati smiles.

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