/ 15 February 2008

When East is West

When Orhan Pamuk received his Nobel prize for literature in December 2006, he was praised for making Istanbul ‘an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg, Joyce’s Dublin or Proust’s Paris”. Yet it was while visiting New York in the 1980s that Pamuk found his voice.

Fuelled by a longing for his native city, he had a kind of epiphany and came to a belated ‘fascination with the wonders of Ottoman, Persian, Arab and Islamic culture”.

His fiction recovers worlds largely ignored since Ataturk founded the secular republic in 1923 on the ruins of a defeated empire. But the recovery comes with a postmodern twist — Sufi poetry read through the prism of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Although Pamuk sees ‘the East-West divide” as, certainly for him, an illusion, it colours his fiction and shapes his characters’ anxieties about tradition and modernity, authenticity and imitation (copies and doubles recur), shame and the seeds of nationalist pride. His novels are ‘made from these dark materials”.

For the past 200 years, he says, ‘an immense attempt has been made to occidentalise Turkey. I believe in that, but once your culture thinks of itself as weak and tries to copy another, you sense that the centre is some place else. Being non-Western is the feeling that you’re at the periphery.” Yet in his Nobel lecture, My Father’s Suitcase, Pamuk described how that sense altered as he narrated his city. ‘Now Istanbul is the centre,” he says.

These ideas animate his first book since winning the Nobel, Other Colours (Faber), translated by Maureen Freely. Shaped as a sequence of autobiographical fragments, with musings on The Thousand and One Nights and Tristram Shandy, barbershops and Bosphorus ferries, its essays elegantly illuminate his life and times.

In August 2005, Pamuk was charged under Article 301 of the penal code with ‘public denigration of Turkish identity” for saying in a Swiss newspaper interview that ’30 000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it”. Though the case was dropped in January 2006, and Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, has called for Article 301 to be amended, discussion of the massacres of 1915-1917 still holds risks.

Yet Pamuk is critical of moves abroad to enforce the recognition of what happened as a genocide, as in a French assembly vote last year and the United States Bill approved in October by a congressional committee, which prompted the recall of Turkey’s ambassador to Washington.

‘The issue is getting to be part of international politics, which I am upset about,” he says. ‘For me, this is first an issue of freedom of speech in Turkey. We have to be able to talk about this, whatever one’s opinion on it. The French resolution only made things harder for the democrats of Turkey. And I don’t want to see Turkey’s relations with the West destroyed because of the manipulation of this issue by various governmental bodies.”

After threats from an ultra-nationalist accused of organising the murder in January of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, Pamuk spent an extra semester in New York, but declines to call it exile. ‘There were death threats from semi-underground organisations,” he says. ‘I’m stubborn — I could have stayed. But I’m a fiction writer. I didn’t have peace of mind.”

He has bodyguards, but sees the worst as over. ‘People trashed intellectuals as betrayers of the country to get votes and prestige for the army — and it didn’t work.” In the July elections, ‘all these conspiracies did not raise the [pro-army, nationalist] secular vote, but made the ruling party [the moderate Islamist AKP, which supports membership of the European Union] even stronger”.

Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 into an ‘upper-middle-class Westernised family” whose fortune had initially come from building railways. His father was a construction engineer and aspiring poet, given to absconding. Pamuk sees his elder brother Sevket (an economic historian) as his ‘Freudian father — giving me instruction on how to bow to authority.”

Up until the age of 22, Orhan dreamed of being a painter and studied architecture, but he dropped out to go to journalism school. At Istanbul University in the 1970s he had leftwing sympathies and, after the 1980 coup d’état that presaged military rule by the Ataturk-inspired nationalists, agonised that ‘so many prisoners were being tortured”. But his impulse was to ‘write beautiful fiction, not propaganda”.

When in Istanbul, he walks to his office, overlooking the stretch of water between Europe and Asia, from Pamuk Apartments, the modern block his family built in the early 1950s. His first reaction to the Nobel ‘was to say it would not change my life”. But ‘it did — I’m more social. And I’m working even harder.” One benefit of winning the prize, he says, is that ‘all the family made up”: the publication of Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul (2003), temporarily ‘destroyed my relationship with my mother”, Shekure, who opposed his becoming a writer, and also led to a breakdown in relations with Sevket, whose beatings he had described. ‘Now we’re friendly,” he says with a boyish grin. And though he has lived alone since his marriage to the historian Aylin Turegen ended in 2001, he says his ex-wife and teenage daughter Ruya ‘remain my best friends”.

His Istanbul, a ‘city of ruins and end-of-empire melancholy”, is mostly taken from the 1950s and 1960s, he says, ‘the troubled town that turned inward, that learned from history not to aspire to much. It’s the same for my characters; they feel second-rate, secondary to the West.” His early, untranslated novels, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982) and The Quiet House (1983), were family sagas, modelled on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Thomas Mann.

But he turned to 17th-century Constantinople in The White Castle (1985), a tale of confused identities between a Venetian Christian slave and the Ottoman master who looked like him. Wherever ‘a non-Western culture wants to be occidentalised — or ‘globalised’ — the question of authenticity arises”, Pamuk says. ‘It’s a social inevitability, but you blame yourself; you live it personally.” To be a writer ‘is to acknowledge the secret wounds we carry inside us”, sharing our secret shame to ‘bring about our liberation”.

At the heart of fiction lies a unique human talent to identify with the pain, pleasure, joy, boredom of others. Once you base your art on that, you’re political. As he writes in an essay: ‘The history of the novel is a history of human liberation. By putting ourselves in another’s shoes, by using our imagination to shed our identities, we are able to set ourselves free.” —