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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.