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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Orhan Pa­muk

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