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Charents vs. Pamuk

The two writers never met each other. But they were connected by a shared fascination for a city that would tangle their destinies and reveal their differences.

November 21, 2017  |  by Vahram Danielyan

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Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002 and was persecuted by his own government for “insulting Turkishness.” More than a half century earlier, Yeghishe Charents – Armenia’s most celebrated poet and writer – was imprisoned by his own Soviet Armenian government and subsequently killed.

The two writers could never have met each other. But they were connected by a shared fascination for a city. It was a city that lay so close to the shifting border of their two nations. It was a city that would tangle their destinies once and reveal their differences.

The novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk was published in 2002. It is a story about a Turkish writer who returns home after many years away. Life has drawn him back to the city of his birth, where he meets his lost love and starts writing poems again. But he fails – both in art and in romance – because of the political conflicts that have frosted his homeland. The Turkey he grew up in is now too politicized for romance or poetry.

Land of Nairi, a novel by the iconic Armenian poet-novelist Yeghishe Charents, was published in 1926. It is a story about the loss of the writer’s birthplace. Set amid the First World War, the novel tells the tale of people who vie to retrieve their lost lands, but instead lose everything, including their city. It is a story of doomed political adventure, one that leaves an irreversible historical trace on the destiny of Armenians.

What is the connection between these works? At first glance, these two novels, written almost a hundred years apart, have little in common. Their authors never met or read each other; they wrote in different languages for different audiences.

There is, however, one very important common ground - the city where both stories take place: Kars. And of course everything that happens in Kars is connected.

Kars is more than a city; it is a city whose very geography can determine the plot of a novel. Yegishe Charents and Orhan Pamuk were both clearly aware of this, as they set out to interpret the geography of their shared city.

In the first place, in both novels the city is divided. In Nairi this is the separation of the upper (Old City) and the lower (New City). The Citadel, the Church of the Apostles, the Vardan Bridge are located in the Old City, while the railway station, commercial institutions, the city park, the club, schools, and the five-story building are in the New City. In Pamuk's novel the same Citadel and the Stone Bridge is in Old Kars, while the new city consists of five streets and one avenue built under the Russian Empire. Still the city comes in two.

Kars at the end of the 19th century.

Kars is small – and its smallness is another theme emphasized by both Charents and Pamuk. In Nairi, it is characterized by provincial attitude and isolation. In Snow, Pamuk’s protagonist traverses the whole city by longitude and latitude in just fifteen minutes, the very day of his arrival. But there seems to be an epic scope to this smallness, too, both in the years-long adventure of Nairi and in the four day drama of Snow, where historical time grinds to a stop.


The similarities in the names of streets and avenues are also curious. In both novels the city's main avenue bears the name of a leader. In Nairi it is Tsar Alexander II, and in Snow it's the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey: Kemal Atatürk. The five principal streets in Pamuk's Kars are named to honor famous Turkish military generals – such as Kazim Karabekir and Sehit Cengiz Topel. Charents gives only one street apart from Alexander's, and the name he gives is Loris-Melikian – named for Mikhail Loris-Melikov, the ethnically Armenian military agent from Russia.


Bordering the Russian and Ottoman empires, Kars was a city always in the shadow of war.


The media are absent in Nairi – almost. There is one exception: the Geneva-based Droshak (Flag) newspaper, which fuels the political leaders of Kars. In Snow the media are also relatively muted. There is one exception: a Muslim radio station named “Drosh,” (Flag) based outside of the city, broadcasting news of religious persecution throughout Turkey, which inflames local passions. By some strange accident, both Pamuk and Charents gave their novels’ media outlet the exact same name and function.   


But now let’s see where these two novels diverge.


Though the city he writes about is clearly Kars, Charents resists using the word Kars to describe it. He treats it as a nameless Armenian town. Actually, the name Armenia isn’t used, either. The country is called, mythically, Nairi. Kars is uttered only once in the story, by the narrator, to tell us that if you address a letter to General Alosh (a character in the story) and “send it to Kars,” then it would not reach its destination.

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Orhan Pamuk's Snow.

Pamuk treats his place quite differently. When asked by the German press why he set his novel in Kars instead of his native Istanbul, Pamuk answered that since boyhood he had been fascinated by the archaism and beauty of that city - and especially by its unmistakable sense of foreignness, its lack of resemblance to any other place in Turkey. Pamuk’s novel is an act of overcoming this foreignness.


And for this the name is key. Pamuk’s protagonist Ka arrives in Kars and feels immediately like a stranger, while snow traps him there. Snow, of course, is also the novel’s title. Snow in Turkish is translated as “kar,” making the identification complete: Ka, Kar, Kars.


In other words, Pamuk metaphorically renames – and reclaims – the very city which, for Charents and his people, cannot be uttered. It is no longer theirs.


Apart from being artistic works of fiction, Nairi and Snow are also political acts. Charents wrote of the historical destruction of his home city. On one hand, his novel chronicles this bitter loss and condemns those who were not prudent enough to protect the city. On the other hand, the writer's message is about cherishing what is left and not being obsessed by what is gone.


Pamuk wrote of a Kars that had been officially a part of his country for 80 years, but remained culturally foreign. It seems that a vital mission of his novel was to move this beloved city from Turkey’s geographical map to its cultural one.


Vahram Danielyan is a lecturer at Yerevan State University and American University of Armenia. He specializes in Armenian literature.

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