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‘Writing and writing is my happiness’

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Orhan Pamuk: They identify with me as a non-westerner who is writing about ‘us’ and is also successful.
Orhan Pamuk: They identify with me as a non-westerner who is writing about ‘us’ and is also successful.

Orhan Pamukspeaks toNirmala LakshmanonThe Museum of Innocenceand 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. Excerpts:

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 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 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 postcolonial 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 was 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.

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 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.

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 your Nobel lecture, 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: 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; individuality, distinct voices are also growing. When nationalism is growing, most of the time postcolonial 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 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. But I am not pessimistic, and so whether it is Turkish nationalism or Hindu nationalism, they tend to be authoritarian. But then, in that nation there are also the 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.

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’m not political, I’m 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 coincidently 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.

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 [in Snow], 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: The Museum of Innocence, your newest book is a brilliant, haunting work. Are you planning some sort of sequel to this?

Pamuk: No. I have other novel projects. I’m 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. I have so many projects in 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: 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 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.

Then I also feel, especially in the non-western world or postcolonial 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: 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. Please trust the autonomy of literature, it will give you back the whole world.

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: You write in Turkish and yet the beauty, the lyricism and poetry of a book like The Museum has not been lost in translation.

Pamuk: Yes, I am a Turk. I want to write in Turkish all my life. I learned English late in life. I write better, my qualities are better, in Turkish. I suffered so much for 20 years. You couldn’t find a translator ... no publisher could find a reader in Turkish who could advise if this book was publishable. I got my first book published when I was almost 40! It was not easy! They said, ‘What, a Turk, forget it!’

Oh, I’m 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 full transcript of this interview


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