Pamuk refuses to capitulate to fear in Erdogan’s Turkey
Author finds much to stimulate him in state where sense is hard to find
For more than a thousand years the Princes’ Islands off the southeast coast of Istanbul have been a place of exile. They have been home to fallen Byzantine princes, Armenians, Greeks and now Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel prizewinning author and scourge of the island’s stray cat population.
The 65-year-old writer is Turkey’s best-known novelist: books such as My Name Is Red and his memoir, Istanbul, have sold more than 13 million copies and been translated into 63 languages.
In an aggressively conformist country, however, his liberal, proEuropean Union ideas have made him deeply unpopular with the ruling AK Party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In 2006 Pamuk was taken to court, charged with “insulting Turkishness”, after referring to the Armenian genocide of 1915-17 — which the government denies — in an interview. The charges were dropped. Since then Turkey has slid further from democracy. After an attempted coup last year the President launched a vicious crackdown on his opponents. Many of the Western-leaning intelligentsia have stayed quiet or fled. Not Pamuk.
I arrive at his chalk-white house, which clings to the hillside, by horse-drawn carriage. Cars are banned here, and the roads ring with the clopping of skeletal horses. Since 2015 more than 400 people have died in Turkey in terrorist attacks committed by Islamic State, which is fighting a losing battle in Syria and Iraq. Tourism has suffered.
My driver lets me steer the horses up the hill. When I tell Pamuk, his face crumples. “I always wanted to do that,” he booms. “But my mother was so worried.”
He was born in a bourgeois neighbourhood of European Istanbul, where he still mainly lives, but has long kept a house on the islands away from the chaos of the city.
His mother bought much of the furniture in the house, which like the author is expansive and delightful, its airy rooms dotted with 1970s-style armchairs. On the sofa next to Pamuk lies a water gun that he uses to scare away stray cats.
Ruya, his daughter, sits like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, writing her own novel in longhand on the terrace before a mess of vines and the cobalt Sea of Marmara. Pamuk thinks she is very good.
The author takes selfies of the two of us with abandon. “I take over 20,000 a year,” he tells me. “People are worried about looking narcissistic but it’s not. I don’t look it that way. It’s a diary.”
Pamuk does not have “what the Americans call writer’s block” and easily writes for 10 hours a day, although his books take years to finish. Both Ruya and Asli, his long-term girlfriend, read his work.
He has just published his latest novel, The Red-Haired Woman, a reworking of myths from East and West told through the experience of an Istanbul welldigger turned property developer. He interviewed some of the city’s last well-diggers — the trade died out in the 1980s. The Red-Haired Woman, like many of his books, also addresses the colossal expansion of Istanbul and Turkey’s economic miracle.
Erdogan, who became prime minister in 2003, at one point presided over 9 per cent growth, which transformed Istanbul into a maze of high-rise buildings. The middle classes grew, buoyed by cheap mortgages and affordable housing. But with growth came education and demands for genuine democracy.
“The irony is that these middle classes now want liberties and can’t tolerate an autocrat,” says Pamuk. “The choice voters are making in Turkey is: are we choosing human rights and free society or economic growth?”
Initially Erdogan seemed open to free speech and committed to taking the country towards EU membership. He pledged to end torture in Turkey’s prisons and held peace talks with Kurdish militants.
“Compared with Turkey’s previous prime ministers, he did not seem too alarming,” Pamuk says. “I wasn’t too worried.”
He is now. The economic boom is over: the ratings agency Fitch downgraded the country’s sovereign debt to junk this year, and Turkey is no longer known for its growth but for its slide into authoritarianism.
“I was raised (to believe) that this was a traditional society but Westernised, part of Western civilisation,” says Pamuk. “This country always looked West for a better future. That idea is damaged. The legacy of liberal ideas in Turkey is disappearing.”
But Pamuk is adamant that he will not be joining the exodus of the intelligentsia.
“The life of secular, Western, middle-class normal people is very heavy,” he says, as the tankers on the Sea of Marmara sound their horns. “Everyone feels afraid and also helpless. There is a responsibility to speak out. You feel guilty about the whole situation. Just being alive. Just being here. Just witnessing this.”
It is a responsibility that he never aspired to have. “Do you think I can be happy here or nor- mal here?” he almost shouts. “Cracking jokes, being irresponsible about it? I am also a public person. When you live in a situation like that, you are always aware of your responsibilities. It kills the joy of life in you.”
In April Turkish internet users, Pamuk included, found themselves clicking on a web link that seemed unresponsive. Wikipedia was down and the site led users to a grey “error” message.
Browsing the internet myself, I thought my connection was faulty and went to turn the Wi-Fi off. But this was no glitch. The Turkish government had cut off access to Wikipedia.
“I want to praise Wikipedia. It is a source of some information about everything. It is sometimes unreliable but it’s a great thing,” says Pamuk.
To this day no one knows what the offending entry was, although the government said the site had been blocked for “becoming an information source acting with groups conducting a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena”.
It must have been bad to rip a whole world of information away. “I don’t know why it’s banned,” says Pamuk. “When you ask why, you’re assuming there’s a rationality behind it. Most of the time there is not. You’re banning a whole encyclopaedia because one line is undesirable.
“So many crazy, unacceptable things are happening.”
In Erdogan’s Turkey, sense is hard to find. Newspapers are closed; judges are sacked; Wikipedia is down. But on an island in the Sea of Marmara a novelist is doing his best to sort fiction from fact. The Red-Haired Woman (Penguin Australia, $32.99).
Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul