A Conversation with Orhan Pamuk


Orhan Pamuk is Turkey’s most prominent novelist. He is the author of seven novels, a collection of short stories, one screenplay, and a memoir based on Istanbul, the city in which he was raised and continues to live to this day. Pamuk’s novels, quintessentially postmodern, provide for intricately woven, serpentine fabrics in which the dead speak, omniscient narrators play tricks on unassuming readers and impersonation is an art. Kara Kitap (The Black Book, 1990), for example, recounts the tale of a lawyer whose wife goes missing. Though its ambiguous politics and overwrought style have irked some, its verbal haze doubles as a rapt tour through a city’s back streets. A young man whose life is one day changed forever by an encounter with a book is the subject of his fourth novel, Yeni Hayat (New Life, 1995), a tale at once Borgesian in its premise and trademark Pamuk in the roundabout manner in which he navigates readers to a non-point. Benim Adim Kirmizi (My Name is Red, 2000) is doubtless Pamuk’s most widely read novel. This story, set in sixteenth century Istanbul, begins when an Ottoman sultan commissions an illustrated book to celebrate his formidable dominion — an act of representation that is deemed an affront to sacred Islam.When one of the commissioned miniaturists disappears, a mystery ensues that smacks of true crime. And then there is Kar (Snow, 2000), often deemed Pamuk’s most political work. In this tale of a poet and political refugee who has spent twelve years in Germany, Pamuk lets neither the secular nor the religious off the hook.

In 2005, criminal charges were brought against Pamuk for having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity.” The author had raised the issue of the Armenian Genocide of 1915–1917, as well as the massacre of Kurds in Anatolia, to a Swiss publication, complaining that both issues, in the end, were taboo in his native Turkey. Charges were dropped in early 2006, though only after a hate campaign against him was initiated by ultra-nationalist voices.

Here, the author engages in a conversation with Lex ter Braak, director of the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture. Together, they take on Orientalism, the author’s previous life as a visual artist, and the pitfalls of being called upon to represent Turkey. It should be duly noted that in a 2005 interview with the Paris Review, Pamuk said to his interviewer, “I sometimes feel nervous because I give stupid answers to certain pointless questions.” We think he managed to escape the clenches of the pointless here.

Lex ter Braak: When I consider all of your novels at once, I think — and maybe I’m wrong — that there’s a development. In the beginning of your career, you had a fairy-tale way of telling a story. But in your later books, Snow and Istanbul, it seems as if the characters are more connected to their social and political surroundings.

Orhan Pamuk: No, in fact, it was the other way around. In my first two books, I was realistic, and I was looking to nineteenth century western realistic novels. My later books — The White Castle, The Black Book, The New Life — are more poetic, though I do not want to name the form. The only social commentary I make is in Snow, which is selfconsciously political and not meant to be entirely realistic. You may be wondering about the progress, change, or development of my novels because Snow happe-ned to be my most internationally popular novel, and a lot of people, especially outside of Turkey, focused on its journalistic side. But for me, although Snow has a lot of journalistic or realistic material in it, it also has a surrealistic, strange side. I began to write it three years before 9/11, and when I published it in Turkey, 9/11 was only three months past. Because of all the heightened attention paid to Islam and terrorism, which of course was also in the agenda prior to 9/11, Snow was very current and became popular beyond my expectations. But I have to resist being labeled as a social novelist. I never was… it was never my aspiration.

I understand the touchiness about so-and-so traveler’s misrepresentation of the Arab because it was that attitude that legitmized the victimization of the Arab. But the Turk was never victimized. Ottomans and today contemporary Turks are very proud to have led the Middle East for so many centuries. Why should they claim to be victims? Right? The Turk’s glorification of Edward Said’s book is about enjoying not being an oppressor, but also posing as a victim.

LTB: But it seems as if the distance between Snow and reality is smaller than, for example, the distance between My Name Is Red and reality. It seems similar to novels by George Eliot describing nineteenth century England. Reading your novels, you gain a similar idea of how a small community or a big city functions in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

OP: Yes, I look to nineteenth century novels, but what I am doing is also self-consciously aware of the modernist novel. And that means that my books contain a certain self-awareness, the awareness of writing fiction in which fiction is not only a description of reality, but a sort of reality in itself. The modernist representation of art is not just a reflection but also a texture in itself, containing an expression of the author’s world rather than an expression of the outside world only. All my novels combine these ideas. Since my intention is not to reflect reality, but to follow the modernist dictum, I produce my alternative realities. But since I am from a troubled part of the world, even if I create my own alternative realities, people read my books saying, “Oh, this is a living Islamic author, let’s see the problems here.”

Since I wrote Snow, there have, of course, been problems. But it is important to note that I do not look at subject matter. The way my mind works — when I first have an idea for a novel and then proceed to dream it, develop it, and organize my artistic energies to write it — is that it never reflects the real world completely, but rather it invents something artificial that would be fun to read, that has a strong sense of reality, a slice of life in it.

LTB: In a catalogue essay you contributed for the 2006 exhibition Without Boundary at MoMA, the text addresses itself to the reader as a speaking image. It says that meaning will get pressed into the body. Does meaning hurt? Might the text even hurt the writer?

OP: That voice developed from self-plagiarizing the voice in My Name Is Red.

LTB: A legitimate thing.

OP: But not a charming thing. But then I was also trying to improvise.

I was trying to find a voice to address some of the problems of premodern art, Islamic art, or “modern Islamic art,” one of which is self-confidence. Unfortunately, the problem of the representation of reality becomes more important than the artist or author deserves or wants. And it’s a very troubled relationship. While non-western artists want the same freedom — or burden, depending on who you are — of representation that western artists want or look for, they feel an immense responsibility towards belonging to this part of the world and representing this part of the world. And of course, because of that, if you come from my part of the world, people will look for the measure of reality in your work. Even as far back as when I published The Black Book, I remember that it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by a journalist who had been to Turkey, because I’m a Turk. My Black Book is semi-fantastic, grotesque, horrifying, and sometimes hyper-realistic. The journalist who interviewed me said, “Well, I was in Istanbul, but it was not like that.” [Laughter]

Because of clichés about Islam or Turkey or the Muslim world, artists from that part of the world are thoroughly self-conscious about representation and understanding.

LTB: Somehow I think that your novels are also about the impossibility of shaping a final meaning about life. Life or reality.

OP: Or the cruelty of giving the final verdict. For me, the art of writing novels is not imposing a meaning, but rather producing a texture in which various interpretations of realities are possible. I would rather focus on the joys of finding a meaning, than on reaching a meaning.

LTB: A year ago, a very famous Dutch art critic came into my house and saw all my books and said, “What a waste of time to read all those novels.” For him literature is something that is really dead.

OP: I would say that his kind of understanding of reading literature, which implies that one could have done something more useful with one’s time, is very utilitarian. I think it is very premodern to look at books as objects that will educate you, or benefit you, or to consider reading as an intellectual investment you could somehow rely on in the future. With his statement, this art critic implies that, unfortunately, reading literature is a wrong investment. Right?

LTB: Yes.

OP: Well, I think that fiction teaches us something essential about life. I have learned a lot about life from fiction — from Dostoyevsky, from Tolstoy. My understanding of major categories of life comes from fiction rather than the laws of psychology. But I will tell you something. For me, the urge to write and read fiction is not utilitarian. Instead it is like playing with toys. When I was a kid, I just wanted to play with my brother, or with this toy or that toy, without knowing why. The instinct to write fiction has that aspect, and the instinct to read fiction has that aspect.

LTB: Do you think that that is a common instinct or an aberration? After all, I know many people who don’t read.

OP: I think there is a human instinct to read. Here I could be called essentialist, but I really believe so. In the human mind there is an instinct to find stories, alternative realities, fantasies, to play around with reality. Of course, all of the arts — like drama, poetry, fiction, cinema, and television — are a result of this instinct. We all need a regular dose of fiction. Here I do not refer only to literary fiction; it may be television, fiction or whatever. We need alternative realities, and our mind produces them. If we suppress this need, our dreams supply it.

LTB: In Istanbul you wrote that you started as a visual artist but later became an architect and then a writer. Being a visual artist did not satisfy you. Why?

OP: Between the ages of seven and twenty-two, I wanted to be a painter. Then suddenly I wanted to write. I cannot explain why that happened in one statement, but a good full answer is the four hundred pages of Istanbul, which is half autobiography and half about the town. That is the only way I can answer that question.

LTB: Did the change of artistic discipline alter your attitude to reality? Is there a difference in vision and perspective between being an architect or a visual artist?

OP: I am less concerned about reality and more concerned with, like you said, attitudes toward reality. Architecture that means drawing, not being, not forming your brain as an architect, was a good thing, that was a fun thing. What worried me as an architect was the importance of handcraftsmanship, precision, and neatness. I did not have those talents. Also, from my experience, I think an architect is a really social person, a man who knows how to back-slap the patron — the person who gives you the money, who gives you the project. You can be a genius architect, but if you cannot get a commission or you do not know how to… how to translate this? … how to get along with the rich and the powerful, you are nobody.

LTB: But as a visual artist you address yourself to the world and to tradition in other ways than you do as a writer.

OP: First, there is not one single attitude you develop. For me the visual arts is about using the material, mastering the material, and mastering your hand. I think your hand does the art. And the relationship between the brain and the hand, as with pianists and their music, is very important for art. Of course, I think artistic training is about learning the history, but it is also about teaching your hand to obey your mind, which is really serious business.

Person from background: That’s a very conservative attitude.

OP: I do not know, maybe. [Laughter] But anyway, I did not have that attitude. And that is how I saw art and my future, and I was troubled by that. I was not sure that I wanted that, or that I was going to be that. I had anxiety about mastering the material,or teaching my hand to go to my mind, so to speak.

LTB: Yes, but you could have developed yourself as another kind of artist. For example, contemporary artists are working now with video, and there is installation art, or whatever.

OP: I like them very much.

LTB: You like them? No, you do not?

OP: No, I do.

LTB: There are many other possibilities besides just being a craftsman.

OP: Yes, but when I started… when I made that decision in the early seventies, that kind of art was not around. Was it?

LTB: Maybe not here.

OP: But look, on the other hand, I do not consider, say, collage or surrealism or early conceptual art as different from more traditional arts. Most of the time I see those artists as also having to master and play around with the material.

LTB: In almost all your novels, you describe very common daily objects in a very, at least for me, beautiful way. Sometimes I think that that is the heritage of your once being ,or trying to be, a visual artist.You put much of your energy and focus into describing common things. Like an artist who picks things out of real life and does something with them. Always lovingly done.

OP: The book I am writing is a development of that idea of telling a story through objects. I am somehow fascinated by focusing on the object, inspired perhaps by surrealists putting the object in a frame, so to speak. I try to relate my work to the Balzac kind of inventory of middle class interiors.

LTB: Exactly, yes, yes.

OP: Looking at characters not as people or spirits representing psychological situations or dramas, but rather as personas surrounded by a series of colors, objects, things, bric-a-brac… It is this kind of thing that interests me. The success of Balzac and other nineteenth century novelists comes from their ability to capture the personality, the character, of a person, especially in middle-class interiors, by describing the space that person is inhabiting. This kind of descriptive energy and power of writers to tell about the objects that surround a character really addresses my heart. I try to do a similar thing in my way, perhaps inspired by surrealists and by conceptual arts. Focusing on things in such a manner will of course throw life to the story.

LTB: Yes, but it also reveals your love for your characters.

OP: Why?

LTB: Because you don’t describe those objects in an ironic way.

OP: Oh, yes.

LTB: It’s really full-hearted. You’re embracing more or less a whole world.

OP: It is an effort to embrace, even in a very unexpected way, to affirm the work. The joys of writing fiction, in fact, come from not negating. You can negate when you are speaking of morals or ethics. On the other hand, in matters of daily life, I like that affirmation. I enjoy the pleasures of capturing reality as it really is, by paying attention to colors, shades, positions, strangeness, anachronistic objects, and so forth.

LTB: One thing I like so much in your novels is that you’re playing with the western idea of Orientalism. I, as a western reader, learned from Edward Said that it is wrong to give yourself over to Orientalism because it is our way of the West being the world.

OP: You learned this from Said?

LTB: Yes, I think so. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s what I read in Orientalism. As a Turkish writer and reader, you wrote in Istanbul, you learned to look at the city from a western point of view. And of course, in the novel you were there, with your own background, but there was no rejection of what those writers and those artists have painted or written or said about the city. This gave me a completely new feeling and a new idea about Orientalism.

OP: Said’s book is brilliant. I admire him very much.That is a great book that essentially criticizes the western representation of the Orient. Now, after the success of Said’s book in the West, it was also successful in his Orient, and the reading of Orientalism in those parts of the world has become very politicized. In Islamic countries, reading that book is a very nationalistic act. A person criticizing an Islamic country from the inside is suppressed because that society is not open.

For example, in Saudi Arabia you cannot criticize the state, you cannot criticize the army, and you cannot criticize the religion. You cannot even write openly about the horrible state of women there. Once you start doing that, everyone will call you an Orientalist.

The abuse of Edward Said’s great book in Islamic countries serves the interest of the ruling powers there. My situation, or a Turkish situation, is that this country was never a colony of the West. And since we never were, we should not have wounded spirits like other countries or nations who were colonized. The colonizers’ oppression left a scar in the spirit of those countries. In those cases I understand the touchiness about so-and-so traveler’s misrepresentation of the Arab because it was that attitude that legitimized the victimization of the Arab. But the Turk was never victimized. Ottomans and today contemporary Turks are very proud to have led the Middle East for so many centuries. Why should they claim to be victims?

LTB: I agree.

OP: The Turk’s glorification of Edward Said’s book is about enjoying not being an oppressor, but also about posing as a victim.

LTB: Okay.So there are uses from both sides. [Laughter]

OP: Oh yes, when you do not have that wound or that scar in your nation’s spirit, then the misrepresentations of civilization — by, for example the nineteenth century French writer Pierre Loti — are also a bit of fun.You cannot talk about something before there is a text. All discussion about the town, about the object, about the beautiful girl, starts with a previous text. The first Turkish prose writers who wrote about Istanbul relied on the travel texts of the Orientalists, but they were not wounded because the country was not victimized. There was a little problem with nationalism, but that was a minor thing. So Pierre Loti’s idea of Turkish civilization is just a simple sugarized version of my culture. No one bombed Turkey because of Pierre Loti.