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Past IMPAC Dublin Winner Pamuk on Facing Prison for His Work 
Aida Edemariam
The Guardian UK
Monday April 3, 2006

'I want to continue the life I had before' Earlier this year, Turkey's bestselling novelist Orhan Pamuk faced prison for daring to 'insult' his country. Now, he tells Aida Edemariam in his first British interview since the case was thrown out of court, he wants to get back to what he does best - writing books

'From a very young age," begins Orhan Pamuk's memoir of his lifelong home, Istanbul, "I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me he could pass for my twin, even my double." When his parents' frequent quarrels overwhelmed him, he describes how he would play what he called the "disappearing game": sitting at his mother's dressing table, he would adjust her three-way mirror until Orhans reflected Orhans reflected Orhans, ad infinitum. He notes that it was a game he would later play in his novels, which is true enough; they are full of refracted selves and voices and bit parts for a narrator called Orhan. This is also, however, a useful way to think about Pamuk the writer and his place in the world. He is published in more than 40 languages, and has had to slowly get used to the fact that "my books are being read with completely different reactions in different countries". In Turkey he is both a literary, difficult author, and a teller of absorbing whodunnits; a European-influenced stylist and an assiduous miner of Turkish history. More awkwardly, of late he has become a kind of litmus test: by daring to speak out against his government he has highlighted Turkey's tendency to silence dissent and the tensions between Turkey and Europe that he has spent a life trying to overcome.

Pamuk is the author of five novels, one of which, My Name Is Red, won the International IMPAC award; Istanbul was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize and in the history category of last week's British Book awards. So he is is a major writer here, but this is nothing compared with how big he is in Turkey. Thanks to The New Life, which, at the time of its publication in 1994, was the fastest-selling novel in Turkish history, and the bestselling My Name Is Red, he has been a celebrated figure at home for some time; he was really catapulted to infamy, however, when he remarked to a Swiss interviewer in February last year that "a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I'm the only one who dares talk about it".

This would be accepted by most historians as an accurate summary of Ottoman treatment of the Armenians in 1915-17 and of Turkey's decades-long conflict with Kurdish separatists. But the former in particular is a version officially denied by Turkey, where it was wrongly reported that he used the word "genocide". Later in 2005, the Turkish government made all such "insults" to the state punishable with jail. (By the end of last year, about 60 writers and journalists faced trial, many under this legislation.) Newspapers launched hate campaigns against Pamuk, some columnists even suggesting he should be "silenced". His books and posters of him were burned at rallies and he received death threats, after which, for a while, he went into hiding abroad.

Eventually he returned to face trial and a possible three years' imprisonment. "Living as I do in a country that honours its pashas, saints and policemen at every opportunity, but refuses to honour its writers until they have spent years in courts and in prisons," he wrote in the New Yorker four days before his court date, "I cannot say I was surprised to be put on trial. I understand why friends smile and say that I am at last 'a real Turkish writer'." The trial in December was adjourned within minutes when the judge passed the matter to the justice minister; in January, the justice minister passed it back to the court, which decided there was no case to answer. It has been said this was only because of the firestorm of international condemnation the trial provoked, yet though Pamuk now insists the case would have been dismissed regardless, it would be foolish to ignore the fault lines it exposed.

He is reluctant to talk about his recent troubles. "I want to continue the life I had before," he says, early in our meeting, his first British interview since his acquittal. "The writer's life. Publishing books. Writing books." Though being a writer, he ruefully acknowledges, is a slightly different thing in the UK than in Turkey, where as often as not it means being erected as a political lightning rod.

I arrive at his Bloomsbury hotel a little early, while his publicist is going through his schedule for the next couple of days; when he hears this includes a meal with Harold Pinter he slaps his knees and whoops with delight. It is instantly endearing, suggesting a man constructed of enthusiasms and transparencies - though it also becomes clear that his capacity for childlike joy is accompanied by confidence, steeliness and a necessary care. "Look," he replies impatiently to a query, later, about Turkey's shifting interpretations of the concept of free speech (a right, incidentally, included in its constitution under pressure from the EU), "I never had any trouble writing novels. I talked about this with my publisher when we were publishing Snow, which was my only explicitly political novel - but then nothing happened to it. The only time I had trouble, I had trouble because of interviews, madam" - and he waggles a finger at me. Then laughs. But he is serious. While the trial was pending, it was illegal for him to discuss it. This is no longer the case, but he still seeks refuge, skittishly, in generalities.

Snow, which he began writing two years before 9/11, is set in Kars in north-eastern Turkey and tackles the urgent issues of secularism and religion in a country which has been torn between the two for most of the last century. It is full of intimations of trouble, of arguments that might be unwise for the author to broach in an interview, say, but which his characters can discuss at length. "Can the west endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?" asks one; another comments that "the world has lost patience with repressive regimes". Pamuk begins Snow with the famous Stendhal quote: "Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters." The irony is that the rest of his fiction is also political, if far more obliquely so; it has set up, within its characters, opposing ideological poles, then patiently probed what Pamuk calls "the confusion in between".

From his penthouse window in his Istanbul home - in a building called Pamuk Apartments because, when he was growing up, all five floors were owned and occupied by extended family - he can see Hagia Sophia, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the Topkapi palace, the suspension bridge that links Europe and Asia - "all the essentials", as he puts it. He hasn't much time for my theory about how his still living here is unusual in these days of mass migration - that is a myth, he feels, perpetrated by a highly visible, mobile minority. "The rest of the world lives in the same street, the same building. The father builds a house, then the child lives there. So I don't want to talk about my experience as a unique thing." On the other hand, he concedes that still living in this place does perhaps give him "a strong centre in my spirit. The world, for me, has obvious beginnings."

Pamuk grew up in a rich Ottoman family that was, through profligacy and mismanagement, progressively becoming less so. The young Orhan was meant to become something useful, preferably an engineer or an architect. He chose painting initially, then writing, despite his father's exhortations that he should enjoy himself more. When is he happiest now? "If you leave aside sensual pleasures, sexual pleasures, good food, good sleep, and so on, then the happiest thing is that I have written two and a half, three good pages. I am almost assured that they are, but I need confirmation. My girlfriend comes, we are happy, I read to her, she says, 'This is wonderful' - that's it! That's the greatest happiness." It is an old need, felt also "when I lived with my father and mother, and did paintings and drawings when I was a child, and they said 'it's nice'".

Many of his friends in the unstable 1970s, when he was in his 20s, were radical marxists; he began a political novel at the time about that milieu, but it had to be abandoned half-finished in 1980 when reality, in the form of a military coup, intervened. Turkey's politics, never tranquil, have remained volatile since; many of the more extreme leftwing parties are still banned; 10 years ago one militant group staged hunger strikes in which more than 60 died.

Although he read the marxist pamphlets favoured by his friends, Pamuk simply found Woolf or Faulkner more interesting. He is currently preparing a collection of essays from the past 30 years, many of them about his lodestars: Mann, Tolstoy, Proust, Nabokov, Borges, especially Dostoevsky. He has been criticised for being too western a writer, though, he points out acerbically now, the Turkish literature he was kicking against when he started out - marxist, peasant-romanticising, 19th-century-inflected realist fiction - itself had western models in Erskine Caldwell, Gorky, Steinbeck. "A bit of experimentalism is always 'betraying the nation' in my part of the world."

Pamuk's fiction plays with voice and subject - for him, this is a way of exploring what it means to be Turkish. So The White Castle (1995), in which a 17th-century Italian scholar is captured by Ottoman pirates and sold to a Turk eager to learn about the west, "is a sort of intense personal conflict ... Of course, it was also a story of doubles. That was the first book that had some international success. Then, when I was doing interviews, thinking about the book in an international context, I realised that doubles are Turkey's subject: 95% of Turks carry two spirits in themselves. International observers think there are the good guys - seculars, democrats, liberals - and the bad guys - nationalists, political Islamists, conservatives, pro-statists. No. In the average Turk, these two tendencies live together all the time. Every person is fighting within himself or herself, in a way. Or maybe, very naively, carrying self-contradictory ideas."

The charges against Pamuk hit international headlines weeks before talks about Turkey's entry into the EU, and played straight into long-festering concerns on both sides. Turkey's pro-European Islamist government has been implementing reforms at a dizzying rate, and Pamuk, who has always argued for Turkey's entry into the EU, was troubled that "in Europe, conservative people who do not want to see Turkey in Europe tried to abuse my situation. They wanted to show that this country does not deserve Europe, which put me in an awfully awkward situation."

He was trapped in a similarly awkward position at home where there is increasing unease about the ever-multiplying hoops the country is being forced to leap through if it wants to join the union. Some, such as his translator Maureen Freely, argue that inflaming anti-Turkish sentiment was a deliberate strategy, not by fundamentalist Islamists but by Turkey's secular, but authoritarian, old guard, who do not want to see their influence undercut. "I think there is a nationalist movement in Turkey," says Pamuk, "which is abusing the feeling of insecurity that the nation has facing Europe and inventing a past in which Turkey was mistreated, humiliated by the western powers. It never happened. They are inventing a humiliation that the nation does not carry in its spirit, to serve the ultra-rightwing, nationalistic, political causes."

Which is not to say that there is no humiliation. My Name Is Red (2003), the sprawling intellectual whodunnit that made his name outside Turkey, dramatises the tussle - literally to the death, as it is also a murder mystery - between Islamic manuscript illuminators and artists seduced by the western concepts of style, originality and representation. The gore-soaked ending makes clear that the methods of an alien but dominant culture can neither be avoided nor easily aped.

"It's a metaphor for a very common Middle-Eastern fantasy," says Pamuk, "that of taking sophisticated, attractive inventions, techniques, [or] objects from the west, without paying the spiritual price. To appropriate an invention, be it artistic or technical, you have to have at least a part of your spirit embracing it so radically that you somehow change. That is one of the things that I see in my culture that makes me very angry."

He is not angry, he says, because of the urge to copy in itself: "Though that is deplorable, hateful, I have great understanding for the inevitable desire to imitate. I'm angry because that kind of fantasy is based on a very simplistic world picture. In the novel I'm writing now [to be called The Museum of Innocence], there is a dialogue about poor people. A cruel but observant upper-class person says words to the effect that, 'They are so naive that they believe being poor is a sin and their guilt will be forgotten as soon as they get some money.'

"So all these fragile feelings of imitation, of not having, of being angry with your own country, with the west, with everything" - he has elsewhere called these feelings simply "shame" - "I think that the whole non-western world is living these damning personal dilemmas. To understand nationalism and anti-western sentiment in the rest of the world, you have to go to these shadowy places, rather than to the latest political developments, which are actually just end products."

So does he think he was the victim, in a way, of Turkish self-hatred? This too, apparently, would be too simplistic. "Self-hatred is OK. I have self-hatred too. It's OK. What's bad is if you don't know how to get out of it, don't know how to manage it. Self-hatred is, in fact, a good thing if you can clearly see the mechanism of it, because it helps you to understand others." It is a kind of plea.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006


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