Interview Orhan Pamuk

Struggling with the Elements of a Complicated History

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is under a barrage of threats in his homeland – for speaking out on sensitive issues. In this interview with Jörg Lau he talks about freedom in Turkey, the trauma suffered by its people and their waning enthusiasm for the EU

The prominent

photo: BR
Westerners often ignore the fact that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire resulted in devastating sorrow, Orhan Pamuk says

​​Mr. Pamuk, your new book, Snow, is a political novel peopled by revolutionary Islamists, Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, disillusioned leftists searching for God and girls who kill themselves because of the headscarf ban. Though you don't take sides yourself, you have come under intense political pressure. In a strange way, your life seems to be imitating your book.

Orhan Pamuk: Look here: I don't write a political novel to make propaganda for a particular cause. I want to describe the psychological state of the people in a certain city. The city is called Kars, located on the outermost northeastern edge of Turkey, but serving as a microcosm which, in a certain sense, also stands for Turkey as a whole.

Initially, Snow met with a positive reception in Turkey. Why is the tone turning shrill?

Pamuk: At first my publisher had reservations about publishing it in the form you are familiar with. You have to understand that in 2002 freedom of opinion was much more restricted than it was after the liberal reforms which Erdoğan put through with an eye to the EU. So we showed the manuscript to a lawyer, but I didn't incorporate his suggestions. The first edition was 100,000 copies, a huge economic risk for the publisher. I was quite proud of the fact that the book was not banned or censored. There was a controversy, but none of the hostile tones that are being heard now.

What set off the controversy?

Pamuk: Some of my secularly-minded readers were furious at the fact that I had made such efforts to understand the situation of girls who voluntarily wear the headscarf. I understand this concern, especially when voiced by women. Women are the ones most affected by political Islam. Some nationalists disliked the fact that I describe in detail how brutal a military coup can be. Some were also displeased by my understanding for the Kurds. But all these are simply elements of our complicated history.

Why did you set the story in cold, impoverished Kars rather than your native Istanbul?

Pamuk: In Kars you have a tangible sense of the sadness that comes from being a part of Europe but leading an un-European existence of want and struggle. My novel is about the internal conflicts of present-day Turks, about the contradictions between modernity and Islam, about the longing to be accepted by Europe and the simultaneous fear of this acceptance.

So it's about feeling torn?

Pamuk: Well, on the one hand the Turks have the legitimate need to defend their national dignity – and this includes being recognized as a part of the west and Europe. But there is also the fear of losing their own identity in the process of westernization. The opponents of this process have always tried to vilify westernization as a poor imitation. To a certain extent these fears are understandable. But they can also spark all sorts of political passions – from nationalism to Islamism.

So you believe that these different movements have similar emotional foundations?

Pamuk: These political movements flourish on the margins of Turkish society because of poverty and because of the people's feeling that they are not being represented. And westerners often ignore the fact that the collapse and loss of the Ottoman Empire resulted in such a devastating sorrow that it took a very long time to find a healthy way to cope with the experience. People reacted to the traumatic loss of the empire by turning inward. Faced with the challenge of western thought, people tended toward self-preoccupation, repeating like a Sufi: We are different, we will stay different, and we're proud of it.

This Turkish trauma of loss plays no role whatsoever in German perceptions. We don't see the Turks as the sad heirs of a world empire…

Pamuk: …but rather – now I'm simplifying myself – as street sweepers and cleaning ladies. But here we lose sight of the fact that from the 16th to the 19th century all the cultural and material wealth of the Middle East poured into Istanbul. Turkey was home to a highly-educated, secular elite.

And your family is one of the richest and most prominent in this class.

Pamuk: I don't really fit into the mould, though. I chose art rather than the positivist-rationalist life of an engineer, the one that was meant for me. First I wanted to be a painter, then I gave in and studied architecture. Finally I found my calling in writing.

Did your success make your family see things differently?

Pamuk: My parents were justifiably worried about me. In the mid-seventies there was something crazy about the idea of a Turkish boy making a name for himself as a writer. Today I've been translated into 35 languages, and my books sell quite well. Sometimes I joke that getting published in Turkish was the hardest thing. For seven years I wrote "for the desk drawer".

These days it's impossible to escape the impression that Turkey's enthusiasm for Europe is on the wane. Why now, with Turkey's accession approaching?

Pamuk: There's been quite a clear upswing in nationalist sentiments. Everyone is talking about it, in Turkey as well. At this point it is hard to know what to make of the phenomenon. Is this a marginal group making a lot of noise, or is a widespread sense of unease emerging? And haven't similar developments been seen elsewhere? When countries go through the effortful process of making themselves EU-compatible, nationalism flourishes as well. Seizing their last opportunity, the opponents spread the fear that people will lose their identity. Can this phenomenon be put down to the collective subconscious, or to the practical cleverness of populist politicians? Whatever the case may be, the anger sparked by my comments about events in our past shows that there is an upsurge of nationalist feeling.

You once said that the great thing about the European idea is its ability to make fundamentalists into liberals.

Pamuk:The statement is confirmed by the politics of our ruling party, Erdoğan's AKP. Erdoğan owes his enormous popularity in part to its pro-European policy. The average Turkish citizen longs both to join the EU and to see a strengthening of the traditional Turkish identity.

But how can it be possible to publicly tear up pictures of critical authors or burn their books, and at the same time ask to be recognized as Europeans! Conservative pundits cited your novel and the reactions to it as a reason not to admit the Turks. As if to say: Do you want to be in the same club as the kind of people featured in this book?

Pamuk: It's a mean-spirited distortion to interpret my realism in a way contrary to my political convictions. I see Turkey's future as being in Europe, as one of many prosperous, tolerant, democratic countries. My book is a novel dealing with current events. More than ten years have past since the time it is set in, and the country has changed drastically. Leaving aside the reactions to my comments on our past for a moment, one must say that we are now living in a different Turkey.

With its self-critical view of history, your book is a typically European novel.

Pamuk: It is a polyphonic novel, one in which I make no comment on the individual voices. Dostoevsky was the master of this form. Some of my characters uphold ideas that are contrary to my own. The challenge is to lend conviction even to the voices which advocate views I find personally abhorrent, whether they are political Islamists or officers justifying a coup.

The book's hero is a thoroughly secular writer who overcomes his writing block when he returns home from exile in Germany and embraces a suppressed religious longing.

Pamuk: The hero of the book does long to experience God. But his conception of God is very western. He is concerned with his individual experience, not with the kind of communal experience envisioned by Islam.

But you also show that Islam has become a new home for many ex-leftists in Turkey.

Pamuk: In the eighties I watched hard-line Marxists converting to political Islam after the collapse of their belief system. This enabled them to go on cultivating their anti-western, anti-state passions. And they were part of a community again. My hero wants to belong too, but he doesn't want to give up all the things he came to value in the west.

In your book an Islamist asks: "Is there a different God in Europe?" The question is whether Islam can be reconciled with individualism, secularism, checks and balances.

Pamuk: Well now, Turkey has started developing this kind of Islam, after all. The hardliners among the Islamists scornfully call it "Islam light", believing that they represent the "true Islam".

There are some very sympathetic Islamists in your book.

Pamuk: I really don't want to portray the Islamists as simply evil, the way it's often done in the west. At the same time, I criticize the Islamists' view of the secularists, whom they see as nothing but shameful imitators of the despised west. I want to undermine the clichés that are promulgated by both sides. For me, that is the job of a political novel.

What is the state of the political dialogue between the two sides in Turkey?

Pamuk: Traditionally, we had a very rigid system of political representation. The opportunity to enter the EU shook everything up. In all the political camps – the left-wingers, the right-wingers, the Islamists, the Kemalists – it became impossible to think in pigeonholes. We are now ruled by pro-European Islamists. At some point they figured out that you can win elections with a pro-European policy because the voters hope this will improve their lives.

Have the westernized intellectuals underestimated the power of religion?

Pamuk: The secularists in Turkey haven't underestimated religion, they just made the mistake of believing they could control it with the power of the army alone. But you know, I don't see it as my job to produce universal ideas on the topic.

Your characters have a definite passion for big ideas, though.

Pamuk: You're right, the characters in my novel are groaning under the burden of universal ideas. Overtaxing yourself with powerful ideas is practically a Turkish passion. For the past 200 years this nation has rehearsed the transition from one civilization to another, and that is a tormenting experience, I can tell you. Snow is a book about the difficulty of living with these big, abstract ideas, of surviving them and finding happiness. You know, I've had it up to here with big ideas. I've been overexposed to them in my hyper-politicized country. Literature is my reaction to this, an attempt to turn the tables, to contribute a certain sense of humor, a certain detachment. I want to tell the reader: don't take these things so damn seriously. Isn't life wonderful? Pay attention to life's details! The important thing in life is happiness and the possibility of surviving in this intolerant society we've created. Now I've started preaching… (laughs)

One character defends the military coup to the writer: We're just killing the fanatics so that you can still be free to dream of Europe, so that it doesn't turn out like it did in Iran.

Pamuk: I really have heard these kinds of arguments over and over again. This cynical argumentation reflects a political dilemma which I take very seriously. My way of dealing with it is to dramatize moral issues on the stage of my novel. But my next book – about my youth in Istanbul – focuses on the beauty of everyday life.

That sounds idyllic.

Pamuk: I don't want to become part of the grim political culture which I myself so often criticize. I want my literature to make people feel what a privilege it is simply to be here.

Interview: Jörg Lau

© Jörg Lau 2005

This interview was previously published in Germany's weekly die Zeit.

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