READING FICTION IS POLITICAL’
Nobel laureate in literature Orhan Pamuk talks to Miriam Cosic about why he abandoned poetry, the challenges of modernity and the happy dominance of the novel
REMEMBERING plays a crucial role in Orhan Pamuk’s work, but it’s not remembering in the way most of us understand it. He sees remembering as neither retrieval nor admonition, neither ‘‘ Do you remember this?’’ nor ‘‘ Remember to do that’’. Rather, it’s a question of choice.
‘‘ The joy of being a writer is not only remembering past experience but editing it, deleting the unnecessary, revisiting it with the purpose of putting it on paper: that is, remembering with our imagination,’’ the 2006 Nobel laureate in literature says in a telephone interview from Istanbul.
What’s more, fiction, for Pamuk, is not pure invention. It too is about memory, subject to the same ordering as reality, though perhaps a little more conscious than unconscious.
‘‘ All fiction is, for me, a sort of combination of lived experience and imagination,’’ he says. ‘‘ So all fiction, since it’s related to our experience, has a nostalgic quality.’’
Nostalgia permeates Pamuk’s work: most notably in his strikingly sensual 2005 memoir, Istanbul, which was rendered into dazzling English by the best of his translators, Maureen Freely. In it, Pamuk, now 60, remembers the city of his birth when it was one-tenth of its present overblown size, when the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara were unpolluted, and nationalism had not yet reduced the polyglot city to the Islamic monolith, with deepening divisions between rich and poor, it is today.
His works of fiction — The White Castle, The Black Book, My Name is Red, Snow, The Museum of Innocence and now Silent House, the first English translation of his second novel — are drenched with nostalgia, personal and civilisational. They stretch back from the present to the 17th century, evoking Turkey’s imperial Ottoman history and its long poetic tradition.
In Istanbul, Pamuk writes of huzun, the city’s melancholy that is grounded in mourning and in civilisational decay, the unravelling of a splendid and powerful past. Yet the wistfulness that permeates his books also seems to stand outside time, to be a cast of mind before it is triggered by the movements of history. Above all, it is a result of that greatest rupture of all, the shift to modernity, whenever and wherever it happens, with all its attendant psychological and spiritual pressures.
Pamuk’s novels have been translated into English slightly out of order, making the sense of his progression deceptive. When Silent House came out in Turkish in 1983, its narrative, split in the first person between nationalists and communists, the Westernleaning and traditionalists, was intensely topical. Antagonism between these contending groups came to a head in a military coup in 1980, justified by the army in terms of its role as protector of the secular vision of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk.
It was, in fact, Turkey’s own internal clash of civilisations. It was what all non-Western countries have been wrestling with for a century or more, in the dying days and aftermath of European colonialism: the unstoppable advent of modernity. It is still playing out today; one may even say the process is stepping up. So, while the novel, just coming out in English, has a historical flavour, its preoccupations resonate.
‘‘ The problems I describe in Silent House, or Snow — political problems, the idealistic occidentalism of the upper classes and resistance to Westernisation — all of these things are for me, of course, daily life, or Turkish problems, first,’’ Pamuk says.
‘‘ But you know from the Arab Spring these are the problems of a non-Western Muslim country acknowledging the approach of modernity, their desire to be both modern and conservative. It’s the essential issue in my part of the world.’’
Yet the West, too, struggled for centuries with modernity; it is a universal experience. ‘‘ Yes,’’ Pamuk replies,‘‘but the difference is, the West invented modernity. In a Muslim country, modernity feels a bit like a betrayal, even while, not everyone, but most of the population wants the benefits of it, too.’’
Pamuk has many public personas. He is a novelist, a memoirist and an academic. He is also a stirrer of conscience in the Turkish republic and in the cosmopolitan republic of letters. His conversation is lively and engaged — he listens hard to questions and polishes his sentences on the fly, reformulating as he goes along, in fluent English — but he also has a quality of stillness. That gives his political engagement less the air of a fighter stepping up to be counted and more that of someone who must, despite reluctance or even modesty, support what is true and what is only just. It is the courage of a scholar, perhaps, rather than of a knight.
After the 1989 fatwa demanding the death of Salman Rushdie, Pamuk was the first Muslim, it is said, to rally to Rushdie’s cause. He was arrested for insulting a variety of definitions of Turkishness after he spoke candidly about the Armenian genocide and the slaughters of Kurds in the Ottoman Empire to a