Orhan Pamuk

Bestselling Author and Avantgarde Writer

Orhan Pamuk is one of Turkey's most significant authors. While Turkey developed a kind of love-hate relationship to the author, Pamuk enjoys tremendous popularity in EU-Europe. A portrait by Lewis Gropp

]​​At the age of 20, Orhan Pamuk switched from studying architecture to studying journalism to avoid having to do his military service. He then ensconced himself in his mother's home in Istanbul for the next eight years and wrote several novels without being able to publish a single line. 'All I did was read and write. I had no friends,' recalls Pamuk. 'For eight years, I didn't get involved in the life around me. In other words, I didn't live. I lived under my mother's roof and didn't earn a penny.' Pamuk is now 50 years old and his life has changed dramatically over the past few years. He broke out of his self-imposed isolation and alongside Yasar Kemal counts as one of his country's most significant authors.

Orhan Pamuk is hugely popular and can take almost any liberty he chooses in national or public debates; he especially likes to use the medium of live television because the programmes are broadcast uncensored. Pamuk enjoys so widespread popularity that he was able to publicly support Salman Rushdie in the course of the fatwah, and even his harsh criticism of the Turkish government's Kurdish policy he survived completely unscathed. Nevertheless the Turkish government courted him by offering the highest cultural honour which Pamuk categorically refused to accept.

Unlike Kemal, however, who belongs to an older generation and tells rather mythical tales whose origins lie in oral story-telling traditions, Pamuk belongs to the intellectual authors' camp that is influenced by urban life. The Swiss daily newspaper, NZZ, noted: 'Pamuk knows all the tricks of the European modern and post modern age.' 'He is both a best-selling author and an avant-garde writer,' was how John Updike put it in his review of My Name is Red in the New Yorker.

Hard work, rich harvest: the novels

This success, however, is the fruit not only of inspiration but of hard work: In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, Pamuk says that he works from 2 o'clock in the afternoon to 8 o'clock in the evening and from 11 o'clock at night to 4 o'clock in the morning. To date he has published six novels. His debut novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, has been compared with Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. His second novel, The Silent House, is a family story told from several perspectives and reminds critics of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. His other novels have also inspired comparisons with western writers such as Borghes, Calvino, Joyce or Kafka.

These comparisons are not born of an inability to recognise the incomparable idiosyncrasies of an individual literary voice; Orhan Pamuk really does have an in-depth knowledge of modern novels. He uses and varies literary forms in a masterly way when tackling issues. So successful is he in this regard that even when wrapped in a historical cloak, these issues create a clever link to the present without appearing contrived.

My Name is Red

In his latest novel, My Name is Red, for which he recently won the 100,000-euro IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Pamuk uses a historical backdrop for a meditation on art, love, the transitory nature of things and political power. Istanbul in the year 1591. As part of the 1,000th year of the Hijra - the emigration of Muhammad from Mecca, which marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar (counted in lunar years) - a book is commissioned: it must be written in the style of the 'Franconian' masters and is to glorify the immense greatness and power of the Ottoman caliph. Islamic tradition prohibits authors from making humans the subject of a book because it provokes the human vanity of placing mankind at the centre of creation.

This is why an illustrator who is involved in the book project gets cold feet and wants to get out, something that puts the whole project at risk. The book opens with his story: from the depths of the well into which he was pushed, the recently murdered corpse speaks to the reader. The murderer too lends his voice to several of the book's chapters and even plays a double role: once as the actual murderer and once as one of three suspects. This means that the identity of the murderer remains shrouded in mystery until the very end.

Like the baton in a relay race, the story is passed from narrator to narrator. The list of narrators includes a dog, a lonely painted tree, a coin, Satan and the colour red that gives the novel its name. Pamuk not only succeeds in making pictures, money and colours talk, he also weaves the major themes of his story with humorous elegance. For example, a transvestite contemplates the reasons for the Ottoman dominance over the central European Franks: 'In the cities of the European Franks, women roam about not only exposing their faces, but also their brightly shining hair (after their necks, their most attractive feature), their arms, their beautiful throats, and even, if what I've heard is true, a portion of their gorgeous legs; as a result, the men of these cities walk around with great difficulty, embarrassed and in extreme pain, because, you see, their front sides are always erect and this fact naturally leads to the paralysis of their society.

Undoubtedly, this is why each day the Frank infidel surrenders another fortress to us Ottomans.' While Pamuk's novels are anything but political, art and politics are artistically linked to each other in the world of his novels. Pamuk does not share Brecht's opinion that if you want to know an author's political convictions you should read his books. Pamuk explains that when he makes a political statement, he doesn't do so as an author or an artist but as a citizen of his country. And Pamuk has often made statements in public. He is often seen as a mediator between East and West; always stressing that East and West each have partially limited opinions of one another and always attempting to fan out these one-dimensional images and ultimately revealing their complexity.

The Western world cannot imagine this overwhelming feeling of humiliation

Pamuk lived in New York for three years while his ex-wife was preparing her doctorate at the Columbia University in Harlem. When the World Trade Center collapsed, he was sitting in a coffee house in Istanbul. In his much-quoted article entitled 'Wretched Consolation', which appeared in Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung later that same month, Pamuk describes the reactions in his environment: the condemnation of the act of violence, which was always followed by a 'but' and a coy or angry criticism of America's role in world politics.

In this essay, Pamuk emphasises that the aim is not to justify this indignation but that it is imperative to try and understand and explain it. 'Unfortunately, the West can barely understand this overwhelming feeling of humiliation, which is felt by and must be overcome by a large part of the world's population without losing their minds or getting involved with terrorists, radical nationalists or fundamentalists. (…) The problem is trying to understand the spiritual state of the poor, humiliated majority who are always in the 'wrong' and do not live in the western world.'

'Orhan Pamuk shows Europe what narrative is all about'

For a long time, Pamuk was disappointed that the Western world took note of him primarily for his political statements. This is now a thing of the past. 'Orhan Pamuk shows Europe what narrative is all about,' concluded the German broadsheet FAZ recently. Thomas Steinfeld from the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently wrote that Orhan Pamuk has long since arrived in Europe. 'We think he is at the start of a brilliant success.' On the one hand, this artistic success gives Orhan Pamuk moral authority and in so doing increasingly attracts the attention of the Western public.

On the other hand, the political significance of such a success should never be underestimated. A Turkish author who is also celebrated in the rest of Europe brings his entire country closer to the continent because an influential culture always tries to make such a success its own. Orhan Pamuk demonstrates that creative inspiration does not necessarily move from the West to the East only. It is possible that it will in future flow more freely in both directions than it has done to date.

Lewis Gropp

© Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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