Orhan Pamuk speaks to Nirmala Lakshman on ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and his other novels, his Turkishness, and his exploration of the human condition.
Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a writer with a formidable international reputation. Deeply rooted in a liberal tradition that values tolerance, freedom, and a respect for the other, this Turkish writer passionately embraces his identity while echoing universal human values. A reluctant interpreter of East-West relations, he prefers to see himself as a bridge between the two worlds. A novelist whose aesthetic sensibility is rooted in his beloved Istanbul but draws from the tradition of great Western novelists, he delights in history, memory, and the exploration of the human condition. An outspoken critic of those who try to abridge free speech, he faced imprisonment in 2005 in his own country on this account. His eight novels, which include several international best sellers such as My Name is Red, Snow, and now The Museum of Innocence, are a testament to his profound ingenuity as a writer as well as to his humanity. Nirmala Lakshman recently interviewed Pamuk in Mumbai on his life and work. Full Transcript:
Nirmala Lakshman (NL): Beginning with your early books in translation, The White Castle, The Black Book and the very popular My Name is Red down to more recent works like Snow, Istanbul and now of course in the Museum of Innocence, you have explored vast trajectories of history, art, culture, the persistence of memory and tradition in our everyday lives and the poignancy and beauty of the human experience. Your work is also multi-layered, allusive, of multiple genres and in many voices. You seem to want to get in as much as possible and pull everything together. Is this your quest as a novelist?
Orhan Pamuk: Your question suggests that I am an ambitious novelist who wants to explore all the great subjects, and yes, yes, I confess I am like that [smiles]! In My Name is Red I wanted to create a panorama, to look at the spirit of the nation to look at the cultural truth in art. In The Black Book, I look at this spirit through the layers of Istanbul and the enigmas of history. In Snow I see the same culture through politics.
In The Museum of Innocence I am looking at the spirit of the nation this time through love. Maybe it’s not the whole nation but it’s my part of the world, the whole non-western world where all these issues of love in a society where sex outside of marriage is problematical, and there is the taboo of virginity. This book is very popular in China, in Spain and in Italy, in Greece, in the whole of the Mediterranean world, and is also being read in Germany and America. These issues are Turkish issues but not only Turkish issues. In the end this is the story of love in repressed societies where lovers cannot easily negotiate their love. This has qualities of Romeo and Juliet in a post-colonial non-western bourgeois society, and in the wake of the tradition and the aspirations of modernity, posing as more westernised than they really are and how to come to terms with the legacy of culture and religion.
These are the same issues as in the classical Islamic romances. Even in the Turkey of the 1970s, among the so-called upper class bourgeoisie the space for the lovers to meet, to talk, to develop, to explore their love is limited. In Turkey in the 1970s there were no parties to meet the girls [laughs]! But then it’s not only negatively judging about this, but also trying to explore that once there is this kind of suppression, the human heart’s reaction to this is a sort of sophistication of looks, of silences, raising the eyebrow and lovers constantly test their intentions. They cannot communicate, they don’t have the opportunity to talk about love as they do in America. But they test and try to understand each other through a language that they develop sometimes, which is very sophisticated, through looks, silences and little punishments, double meaning, and gestures.
Kemal’s attention to Fusun is in that sense very typical of that lover’s attention to the beloved where there is very little real possibility for coming eye to eye, although Kemal sees Fusun almost every night. Yet there is no communication because they are watching TV together and they are never left alone. The only moments alone are when they are looking at Fusun’s paintings, so instead of judging the culture by saying well, ‘unfortunately, it’s such a repressed society where lovers cannot meet and talk,’ which is the truth, I want to understand the language that they develop.
NL: The fact that she does not acknowledge his looks is also a form of communication. Very often, she gives a cold look or when Kemal looks at her she turns away. This is a very dramatic form of communicating, is it not?
Pamuk: Well, it is true but it is not their only way of communicating. I am just showing different things, different ways, and the themes in The Museum of Innocence, maybe somewhat melodramatically Bollywood or Turkish Hollywood if you like, but treated my way.
NL: You are building your own museum. How is that going?
Pamuk: That’s going on. Lots of people are working on it right now in Istanbul. Architects, builders, and construction people are doing things. I am supervising of course and like my Kemal, I am the curator of this museum. It is so much hard work, and sometimes it is difficult but now I am away from it for a while and resting. I am really very happy about it.
NL: Do you believe then that the everyday objects of our lives really signify the truths of our existence and therefore that ordinary people’s lives are important to document?
Pamuk: Yes, it is one of the points that Kemal makes at the end of the book. This is important particularly in non-Western societies where the idea of museums is not developed. People’s collections, let’s not even call them collections, their gatherings are important. This is important now and I come from an Islamic culture where painting is suppressed. A museum should not just be a place for fancy paintings but should be a place where we can communicate our lives through our everyday objects. Museums are western inventions where the rich and the powerful or the government and the state tend to exhibit the signs and symbol and images of their culture. What my Kemal argues, and I agree with him on that is that we non-western people can also exhibit our humanity through the objects that represent our lives.
NL: It seems that The Museum of Innocence is your favourite book – at least your current favourite book – and a lot of people are reading it here in India.
Pamuk: Yes, yes, I know [smiles]. When I was writing it I used to say to my friends, ‘I will be remembered by this book.’ It is my favourite in the sense I’ve been thinking of writing this book so joyfully and also of making the museum. But I also wrote this book in bad times, when there was political pressure, then there was the Nobel Prize and so much happening, changing cities, airplanes, but it was such happiness. If I wrote one page of this book, I was a happy person that day. It is also one of my favourite books in the sense that it’s based on first-hand experience. I’ve been to the clubs and the places that Kemal had been to, the restaurants and movie houses and so many weddings and engagement parties at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. It’s all based on my life.
NL: You keep going back to Istanbul in all your novels, perhaps with the exception of Snow, to old Istanbul and modern Istanbul and your memoirs are also titled Istanbul. It is as if you are the keeper of the soul of Istanbul.
Pamuk: Oh, I am. I think I am [smiles]. Up until the age of 54 I have lived all my life there except for some few years outside. I came across humanity in Istanbul and all I know about life comes from Istanbul and definitely I am writing about Istanbul. I also love the city because I live there, it has formed me, and it’s me. Of course it is natural. If somebody lived all his life in Delhi, he will write about Delhi.
NL: Do you think then in that sense the authentic voice of the writer emerges only when they write about the cultural contexts they are rooted in? How important is it for a writer to be located in this?
Pamuk: Yes and no. The particularities, the uniqueness of any culture is interesting in a novel but novels are more interesting if they go deep into the culture and deeply into the universal, the eternal and what is common to all human hearts. So I am that kind of writer. I want to be that kind of writer in the sense that yes, you would feel, smell and see the colours of Istanbul, but also you must recognise that all human beings are the same everywhere in some sense, but the cultures are different, so they behave differently. So these two things should be visible in my stories, in my novels, and I care about that. The particularities and what is universal. But you don’t look at them too much. You just write your story as it comes to you.
NL: In ‘My Father’s Suitcase,’ your Nobel lecture, which was later published in the New Yorker, you said that initially you did not feel that you were at the centre of things. Do you feel differently now, have you moved to that centre?
Pamuk: Yes. When I began writing, no one cared about Turkey, no one knew about Turkey. In 1985 I went to America for two years and began to write The Black Book around then. Finding that my voice was getting stronger, I really remember thinking, ‘my God these Latin American writers are so lucky, who cares about Turkish writers or Middle Eastern writers or Muslim or Indian or Pakistani writers?’ That’s what I thought then. But the situation has changed in 25 years and during that change my books boomed, I am happy to say that. There are political reasons, cultural reasons, history, all of which changed the world. And now I would say that a big writer from Turkey or the Middle East or India is more visible. Salman Rushdie, for example, was visible in 1981. It all began after that.
NL: So now do you feel that you have come to that place? The centre...
Pamuk: Well, I can’t really say things like that about myself, can I [laughs]? You can...
NL: Are you then comfortable about where you are rooted now, in your own location, in Istanbul, and yet moving on and exploring universal questions?
Pamuk: Yes, but that’s being a writer. It’s not just the roots but the intentions that matter. When the whole world reads your books, is there any other happiness for a writer? I am happy that my books are read in 57 languages. But I am focused on Istanbul not because of Istanbul but because of humanity. Everyone is the same in the end. Whether it is a reader from Buenos Aires or Bombay or Seoul, Korea, they can understand a person from Istanbul, they can understand what is eternal. Of course, there are specific forms of culture in the non-western world, forms of culture of repressive societies where there is still poverty, which is an important problem, there are problems of democracy. These are the things that I am experiencing and the world is experiencing.
NL: In the rise of a new kind of nationalism, do you also see a rise of intolerance, a constant attempt to undermine dissent, and an increase in censorship? You yourself have been a victim of this.
Pamuk: Okay, let's look at this from my experience. There was heavy pressure, they tried to put me in jail, but then they dropped it; this is one side. But in the last ten years, Turkey has been a much more open society, much more free. Free speech is allowed, and the army and all the institutions are criticised. So it is not just only one way. You cannot generalise and say the nation is growing and nations are not speaking, no, but individuality, distinct voices are also growing.
When nationalism is growing, most of the time post-colonial societies are getting richer. The ruling elite, a combination of the army and the proletarian and the bourgeoisie, is getting richer. But also the whole nation is growing, so the individual people who are living by themselves, who disagree, their number is also growing. Dissent is also growing along with the country. Dissent and the strength of individual, dignified voices are also growing, you cannot stop it.
It's hard to control an open society where people can print their books. You can send these people to jail, but you can't send a whole nation to jail! There will always be central authoritarianism; I expect even more central authoritarian movements if national fundamentalism or religious fundamentalism suppress this. But there will always be dignified people who will pursue their own humours. Whether they will be crushed and sent to jail or whether they will balance the picture is a matter of politics, but I am not pessimistic, as a non-western post colonial nation.
Don't forget that Turkey was never a colony. But in the end they grow richer, their national bourgeoisie. So whether it is nationalist-fundamentalist or religious-fundamentalist, whether it is Turkish nationalism or Hindu nationalism, they tend to be authoritarian, and also ethnic, and have tendencies to disrespect minorities. This is one thing. But then, in that nation there are also individual voices, individual voices of the minorities. The number of distinct individuals who would not join the community is also growing. How that will be balanced is interesting – whether the nationalism or fundamentalism in various cultures suppresses those voices or they get out and raise their voices and find a solution to live together.
NL: Is it more the intellectual’s or the writer’s responsibility to shore up this dissent and to constantly resist and critique the attempts to suppress freedom and impose censorship?
Pamuk: We should certainly say it is a writer’s duty, but also any citizen’s. If you are educated and know how the world is operating, of course you have more responsibility. But I don’t want to underline that the fiction writer is more responsible than others to politics. The writers, you know, previous generations of Turkish writers, were so well-meaning. They went into politics and ended up destroying their art – and it turned out to be bad politics too. So in that sense I am not political, I am not a political person.
My first motivation is really to write a good Proustian, Nabokovian, Borgesian, whatever you like to call it, beautiful novel rather than think about the politics. Of course, once you live in a troubled part of the world everyone is asking about politics anyway. But I don't try to answer them in my novels. I try to answer them sometimes in my interviews and those interviews always put me into trouble [laughs].
NL: What is the status now of the controversial Turkish law, Article 301, under which you were charged for ‘denigrating Turkishness’ when you commented on the massacre of Kurds and Armenians on Turkish soil?
Pamuk: Now they have changed Article 301, so that coincidentally or by mistake they do not try to punish someone like me [laughs]. They changed the Article so that you have to get permission from the Ministry of Justice to prosecute and, if you are famous, they will not allow it. I can get away with it, but you won’t [laughs]!
NL: In a novel like Snow, through a marvellous range of characters you have projected the possibility that truth can exist in diverse and opposing perspectives. For example, the character Blue raises some important questions. You have also depicted both fundamentalist and secular violence through scenes like the shooting in the national theatre. Are you then trying to say that there is truth in every situation?
Pamuk: I'm not saying there is truth in everything but it is the novel’s job to understand points of view. A novelist's job is not to find political or diplomatic solutions to conflicting desires and pressures. Am I trying to promote this or that in Snow? No, nothing. I just want to see the arena of politics through the participant's point of view, not necessarily agreeing with any of them. Blue, if you ask me, is not like any fundamentalist in my life. But my job as a novelist is to make him convincing and try to see the world through his point of view. His argument, for instance, ‘why should we non-westerners wear a necktie?’ is an essential question that we should understand, right? Why should we imitate with a necktie the western men? It is a valid question. I am not necessarily agreeing with his or anyone else's answer, but it is a question that one should take seriously.
NL: There is that kind of elasticity and richness in the structure and form of your novels: in Snow in a particular way, and then in The Museum of Innocence in quite a different way. In this it is just one beautiful linear progression much like your Aristotelian paraphrasing of time. How do you work on this, I mean does it just come to you or do you consciously work on different structures?
Pamuk: I write slowly, I plan my books. It took me 11 years to develop – I explore – plan the details and write The Museum of Innocence. I’m a slow worker, a hard worker. As such a novel can never come to you like ‘this.’ It's a step-by-step, painstaking organisation, taking notes, preparing scenes, it never comes to you in one light. So a novel develops -- of course I plan ahead – but it also develops as you write it. New ideas come, you read books, you talk to people, you revise, you talk to your friends. It's an immense labour which I love.
NL: Do you think that you will move towards different forms?
Pamuk: Yes, of course, that’s the joy of writing. I never imitated myself, or inhibited myself. The joy of writing is available in each book. Finding a suitable form for the boys and the girls [laughs].
NL: The Museum of Innocence, your newest book is beautiful and brilliant, a haunting work. I was wondering whether you are planning some sort of sequel to this or to any other novel.
Pamuk: No. I have other novel projects. I am writing a novel about a street vendor losing his job in Istanbul in the 70s, in that period. It is not clear yet. Then I have other novel projects, so many. They ask me so many times, ‘Mr. Pamuk, you have the Nobel Prize, but you have this…’ Well, I didn't write this novel after the Nobel Prize; I thought of this ten years ago. But the next novel I am writing is after the Nobel Prize, so I'm planning ahead. I have so many projects in my mind, and really do not look for the success or failure of the previous projects. I already am in the middle of the next one.
I'm happy that people like this, yes; this book is very popular all over the world. But writing a sequel, no. Yet, I confess that I might write up one or two sequences of Fusun and Kemal that are not in the book. Why? Because I’m also doing a museum and sometimes think that I may write about one or two groups of objects for one episode which is not in the book. I may write things like that. Also, to make my museum more attractive, with new objects perhaps ten years later.
NL: What is the international quality that you think makes a work of fiction a classic? You are rooted in tradition; Garcia Marquez is rooted in his tradition, Rushdie talks about his India, his Bombay. What is it that makes a novel international or a classic?
Pamuk: In the end, it is a novel that has to be written well, people find their culture and sentiments in it, and it’s in the quality of the novel. We think that it's the culture. You can also write a bad novel living in Istanbul and, believe me, there are so many people like that. So it's not the culture but the writing. Garcia Marquez is a great writer with such immense powers and balance. So it's the writer that makes a subject interesting. There's so much to write, I sometimes think, in Istanbul.
But my previous generation of Turkish authors who were some 20 to 30 years older than me, they used to say, ‘you are writing about Istanbul, what’s interesting here? We’re writing about peasants and villagers and bandits and feudal lords.’ And sure, that was interesting reading in the 60s, and I felt all my bourgeois privileges, but what’s interesting about Istanbul, they asked. That was the ideology then and it has changed in 40 years. When I began writing my first novel and told my friends ‘I'm not going to study architecture, I'm going to do a novel,’ my friends said, ‘What, a novel? And you haven't been to a village, you don't even know a peasant, what are you going to write about?’ Because they thought the novel had to be about peasants, and bandits and feudal lords, bad masters, local sheiks, and outlaws and how they were treating the peasants so badly. All the novels were about that!
NL: In what way has the Nobel Prize changed you?
Pamuk: The Nobel Prize and the recognition did not really change my daily life. Writing and writing and writing, that's my only happiness. It made me more visible. I was already translated into 46 languages, and now perhaps 56 languages. But I have millions of readers. It gave me less time, made me more serious about myself, my time, because I feel more responsible. Now if I have say, ‘I'm writing a nice novel,’ I know that it will be published in so many countries, probably 35 or so, so it's a responsibility.
You know, you get mails from all over the world, so many people from Korea to Argentina. I was in Guadalajara, at the book fair, and all the Latin American booksellers and publishers, they said, ‘you are so famous,’ and this and that. It's such a joy but such a responsibility too. Then, I also feel, especially in the non-western world or post-colonial world including Latin America, India, and China, that they also identify with me as a non-westerner who is writing about ‘us,’ and is also successful. I care about that so much that, it is such a sweet and dear thing, so I have to be also serious about what I write, and honour that respect and continue writing about ‘us.’
NL: Do you think more such voices are emerging in the literary arena?
Pamuk: Yes, there is a ground for such work especially in India and China. Call it post-colonial or whatever, but the ruling national elite are growing and getting richer and richer, right, and now the trauma is not colonisation. The trauma is, I argue, how post-colonial societies are the colonialism now. In China, in India, in Brazil, in all these countries, the trauma of colonialism and post-colonialism I should say yes, especially in India, it is still around. And now, the ruling national elite, call them party elites, new bourgeoisie, are emerging; a strong middle class is developing. I don't care much about economics. But I know, I travel, and I see that now there is a strong, local demanding bourgeoisie, the elite. Their private lives can only be expressed in literature and that will be done and that will be interesting for the world.
Also in these countries, especially in China, I have seen so much demand for international recognition. They feel very frustrated because people say that because of China, prices are going up, or because of India we have pollution, that kind of thing. They want their voices to be heard. It's inevitable, and they are taking over the art of the novel. Everyone is writing novels, so the world will not be saying, as the litterateurs of the French would say, ‘they are imitating.’ That’s over. Some English fancy person writing an experimental novel and we non-westerners trying to understand and writing that in our culture, that will be over! An interesting subject is the new cultural patterns that are emerging in non-western societies. I understand the recognition of my work all over the world in that context. I am aware of the fact that we are all getting to be more interesting.
NL: Does that mean that writers like you have a greater responsibility?
Pamuk: Well, look. I said responsibility of the Nobel Prize, I had that feeling, but I do not want to undermine it. Responsibility, too much responsibility, is not good for fiction. All of my responsible friends went into politics but I stayed at home and wrote my novels. Again, artistic creativity also comes from being a bit irresponsible.
NL: But in a society like India, how can we ignore the divisiveness, the poverty?
Pamuk: You don’t ignore it. It is part of the picture, but it's not the only thing. That's how I see it. My kind of novel is about balancing of the whole picture. I think... I always argue that living in a country with political and economic problems doesn't mean that you have to write cheap and journalistic fiction. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrote their fiction in a country where there were such problems but they wrote their fiction well. It's not the job of fiction to solve political problems. That joy of writing books in most political situations – for example living in Afghanistan and you still want to write like Proust – it's not at all a bad thing, please try to do it, boy! In the end you would not be a political person. You would be writing something very interesting, I would say, please trust the autonomy of literature, it will give you back the whole world – not only a sterile autonomy.
NL: Who are your favourite writers?
Pamuk: So many, you know. The greatest living writer in the world is Garcia Marquez. If you're asking me for my favourite novelists ever, there are four: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust.
NL: What do you think about making movies out of great novels? Is something always lost in translation?
Pamuk: I'm ill-tempered about that, I'm notorious. There are so many projects that they wanted to shoot. Now Turkish Bollywood sitcoms, they want to do this. I am not enthusiastic. International filmmakers wanted to make Snow, but I was suspicious. Why? Because they will twist the types of Turkey. Bad Turks, Islamic fundamentalists, bad guys, good guys, black-and-white, because that's the nature of movies. Also Turks want to do it; right now the Turkish movie industry is developing but I thought they will not have enough money to take it forward. I'm not good at allowing people to make films from my work. One reason is that I am getting more and more readers all over the world. Why destroy that little growing thing with some movie? I don't need that. I don't need this to happen to me.
NL: What is your own view of how Turkey is moving ahead politically?
Pamuk: Turkey is troubled in its relations with Europe unfortunately, and particularly its relationship with the European Union, I was more positive about it five years ago but it was stopped by the nationalists of Europe and Turkey. They both did not want Turkey in Europe: because Turkey is Islamic, because perhaps Europe is Christian and also democratic. So it's blocked. So many things happened, my case, so many others. It's not a sunny time for Turkish-European relations but democracy in Turkey is developing a bit. There’s a lot of criticism of the involvement of the Army. The attempts at military coups are criticised openly. This is a novelty; ten years ago no one would dare to criticise the Army. If they do a military coup, now they will be criticised. This is a development, a minor development compared with what the rest of humanity is doing.
NL: In that sense even other countries, whether it be China or India or America, move forward and backward in their development. What are your ideas about the directions in which the world is moving?
Pamuk: I'm a writer and I see it more from the literature perspective. I think the world is moving towards the humanity of the non-western world and that will obviously be more visible. What do I mean by that? Middle-class lives in China, in India, in places like Korea, in nations that were neglected, not represented, and then their literature, their voices, their murmurs and all of middle-class life, the private life of the nations that were suppressed will definitely be visible. I can't say this author or that author, but I'm sure we will be reading more Indian literature, because Indian literature in English is slightly more visible, than say, Chinese or Latin American. But I would say, the private lives of non-western nations will be more visible in future. That I can only say. Non-western writers will be more visible and domination of the European-American small world – they were dominating the whole world – that domination will be less. But it's not an animosity, it's not a clash, it's a friendship. We have learned the art of the novel from them – Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Mann. These are my brothers; I am not fighting with them.
NL: Do you think writing in your own language, Turkish, is the reason for the growth in this kind of non-western writing or do you think there has to be a translation of all this for a wider recognition?
Pamuk: Yes, I am a Turk. I have been born to Turkey, there is no alternative. Turkish is a remote language no one knows and I'm born into it and I am supposed to, I want to write in Turkish all my life. I learned English late in life. I write better, my qualities are better, in Turkish. In that I am like a Korean or a Finnish writer or like a Hungarian writer. You are born into these languages and the fact that no one translates, no one reads, I suffered so much for 20 years. You can't find a translator... no publisher can find a reader in Turkish who could advise if this book is publishable.
This problem will continue. For a Hungarian or Korean or Finnish writer or a writer writing in a local Indian language, there is no solution to this. For those writing in English the accusations of, ‘Oh, you are writing in English to serve the Americans,’ etc., will never end! I think everyone should pursue his or her own humours. I wrote in the language that I spoke with my grandfather and grandmother and there was no second language too.
Some people have second languages; they’ve got one language at home, another language at the grocery store, another language at school! So there’s now a reasonable dilemma: shall I write in the language that I speak to the government, or school in, the language I speak at the grocery store, or the language I speak with my grandmother? That's the dilemma, I understand that. But I spoke the same language at school, the same language at the grocery store, the same language with my mother, the same language in my newspaper. I didn't have any alternative.
Turkey's case, the inevitability of me writing in Turkish, is not the same often as in the case of Indian writers who have a choice between two or three languages. All these writers who are arguing – I know about these issues – with each other; it’s valid but also damning. I don't want to take any sides, I understand each side's point of view, but thank God I didn't have that option! I also regret it so many times, ‘Oh, I'm so unlucky, I'm not lucky like those Indian writers who’re writing in English and next day get published in Harper-Collins.’ I got my first book published when I was almost 40! It was not easy! They said, ‘What, a Turk, forget it!’
NL: But there is a beauty, a lyricism, and poetry in this book [The Museum of Innocence] which I think has not been lost in the translation.
Oh, I am pleased with this book and I work with the translators. You also lose so much money working with the translators [laughs]. Those writers who are writing in English are lucky in that it is their language too. Being a writer is so much hard work, but I'm not complaining.
Click here to read the abridged version that appeared in the print editon of The Hindu.