Other than being a Nobel laureate and the world’s most famous, not-so-young Turk, Orhan Pamuk must be contemporary literature’s most enduring conundrum. The mystery is this: How can an intensely literary novelist, his multi-layered, densely allusive, recondite books awash with postmodern high jinks and self-referential jokes, also sell millions of copies in his native Turkey and in 57 languages across the world?
Seeing that no one has been able to crack this one, I confront the man himself with the puzzle. “My modernist persona doesn’t contradict the accessibility of the writing,” he says.
We are sitting in a large, airy room in the old wing of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, squares of sunlight on the thick upholstery of the sofa. Pamuk looks less reedy than you’d expect from his pictures, less boyish. But he is quick to smile. His voice is sonorous, the English is fluent but accented, and he chooses his words with deliberation, as though he is weighing each for precision before allowing them out of his mouth.
“Tea?” he asks solicitously. Then he returns to the subject at hand. “Yes, I am experimental in form. But I am accessible because I also paint a picture of society. I am trying to explore the meaning of love in a repressed society. I am lucky that it has worked. But it is hard to make it work.”
Does that make things any clearer?
Perhaps looking for an answer to this enigma is going down the wrong road. Because given the popularity and acclaim that he now enjoys, it is just as baffling to recall that Pamuk could not, when he started out, find a publisher for seven years.
At 23, he dropped out of architecture school (he had initially wanted to become a painter), locked himself away in his divorced mother’s house (“My mother was not very happy, she was not encouraging”), and began to write. But no one wanted his stuff. “In the 1970s, people in Turkey wanted novels about repressed peasants and villages and landlords. A Proustian novel about Turkey’s upper classes seemed like a luxury. One day I will write about that experience,” he says.
His first book, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, appeared in Turkey in 1982. The popular and critical receptions (the novel won two literary prizes) were staggering. It is still not available in English. “At some point, I shall publish the English translation of this book. But I am in no hurry.”
His third novel, The White Castle (1985), about the encounter between a Venetian slave and an Ottoman scholar, was the first to be translated into English. It was published to a rapturous reception in 1990. The comparisons with canonical writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez started pouring in. Pamuk acknowledges his debt to Borges, Calvino and Vladimir Nabokov. “They were influences in my being able to see fiction as an artefact, in being able to question the metaphysics of fiction.” But his three heroes are Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust.
Around the time that The White Castle appeared in English, the tropes that illuminate his masterful oeuvre — the confrontation between tradition and modernity; the nature of love; the notion of memory and the nature of identity — were clicking into place. Since then, as Pamuk has gone on to take elements of the detective story (The Black Book), the thriller (Snow), the Victorian novel (The Museum of Innocence) and Turkish movies (in several of his books), and playfully subvert their conventions and infuse them with his unique world view, the adulation across the world has grown and grown.
It is not about to let up. His monumental new novel, The Museum of Innocence (the first book he has published after winning the Nobel in 2006), shows him at the peak of his powers. A story of unattainable love, of obsessive longing and irrevocable loss, it is, like his memoir, Istanbul, also a magnificent homage to the city that has enriched his life and work.
He agrees when I tell him that I think it is his best book yet. “I have told my friends that I think I will be remembered by this book.”
The novel is set in the world of the affluent Turkish elite, a world that its author has inhabited all his life. “I have first-hand acquaintance with much of its material: the Bosphorus mansions, the clubs, the parties, the beaches, the film world — I have been a part of all that. Of all my books, it offers the most intimate information about the lives of the Turkish ruling classes.”
Arranged in the form of a museum catalogue, it took, on and off almost a decade to write. And Pamuk is setting up an actual museum in which all the objects that appear in the novel (among them, 4,213 cigarette butts, 419 national lottery tickets and one quince grinder) will be on show. Pamuk is fascinated by the “silence and melancholy of unusual museums”, although he doesn’t say if, like the narrator of his new novel, he has actually visited 5,723 of them.
At 57, with an unrivalled and inimitable body of work behind him, he says he is determined never to repeat himself in his novels. He teaches a semester at Columbia University (“It’s a great joy, and I love being in New York”) every year, and while he is away from his beloved Istanbul, he sees it, he says, “in a more humane, balanced way”.
But wherever he may be, his city and his country and their wonders and their troubles are always with him in his writing. “I am now at work on a novel about a street vendor who loses his job because what he sells [boza: a popular fermented beverage] is suddenly available, mass produced, in bottles.”
We have been talking for almost twice as long as we were supposed to have. But knowing that he used to smoke a lot and gave up, I need to ask him one last thing. How hard did he find it to quit? “I used to smoke 40 cigarettes a day. It was very hard to give up. I did, and I went back, and then gave up again. I have not smoked for five years now.” And then he says, a twinkle in his eye, as though this is his greatest achievement: “I wrote My Name is Red without having smoked a single cigarette. When I did that, I knew I could really give up.”
He has written about giving up smoking in Other Colours, his elegant collection of essays; he writes in it about how sorrowful he feels sometimes that he doesn’t smoke any longer, how he misses his old self, the one that used to smoke. This is how that essay closes: “…Writing — if you’re happy with it — undoes all sorrows.”
So in the end, for Orhan Pamuk, there is only the writing: as a vocation, as redemption, as a palliative, as a leveller. It is his reason for being; it is his being. We, his fans, are thankful for that.