Pa­muk re­fuses to ca­pit­u­late to fear in Er­do­gan’s Tur­key

Au­thor finds much to stim­u­late him in state where sense is hard to find

The Australian - - ARTS - LOUISE CAL­LAGHAN

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

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