For more than half a century, Orhan Pamuk has lived in the same neighbourhood, in the same street, in the same building in Istanbul. Yet his work is fraught with the anxiety of not belonging, of being caught in between worlds, precisely because of where he is rooted — in an apartment overlooking the Bosphorus canal, which slices Istanbul into Europe and Asia.
We sense this angst in the intricate Snow, his most overtly political novel, in which he explores the roiling tension between secularists and Islamists in the remote north-eastern Turkish city of Kars.
We feel it in My Name is Red, set in the late 16th century within the Ottoman Empire — a book that critic Richard Eder called “the grandest and most astonishing contest in Pamuk’s internal East-West war.”
And we see it in Istanbul, his memoir-cum-biography of the Turkish capital, especially in his delineation of Huezuen, the fog of melancholy that he imagines has enveloped the once-glorious capital of the Ottoman empire, reduced after World War II to a poor and powerless figure on the edge of a victorious Europe.
“I harbour an anxiety of belonging wherever I go,” said Pamuk, 56, who was in Mumbai this week for a book reading. “I am not comfortable with my identity, just like most of the writers I admire. If I felt at home, I would lose that energy, the anger, the fury to write.”
As a young writer brought up in an upper-class Westernised family in Istanbul and struggling to find a unique voice, Pamuk acutely experienced the tension between East and West, tradition and modernity. He worshipped at the altar of Proust, Mann, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky from the Western pantheon, but also wanted some eastern gods. Living in New York in his mid-thirties, this longing was heightened by his distance from home.
“It was the post-modernist authors (Jorge) Borges and (Italo) Calvino who helped me find my voice,” Pamuk said. “Before I read Borges, I (was told that) all tradition — all classical Ottoman literature and Persian poetry, which I wanted to be influenced by — was mysticism. It was through Borges that I learned to make a distinction between the religious side of classical literature and its literary side.”
Yet, the dilemmas of a Westernised Turk were far “more simple and restricted”, Pamuk said, with a humility that shone through his measured answers and body language, compared with the dilemmas that dog Westernised Indian writers, who carry the burden of colonialism and are forced to write in English.
“To be able to write in the same language that you use to speak to your grandmother, the man in the street, the grocery shop owners, your mother and everyone, that is a joy that I have,” Pamuk said. “When you write in your native tongue, your response is more poetic.” Yet, for the Nobel-prize winning author, literature is not merely about self-expression; it is also about communicating. “If you cannot communicate to many people with the language you speak with the grocery store owner, that is damning too,” he said.
It is this realisation, and the initial years of enduring the humiliation of being read by just a handful of people that has perhaps led Pamuk to work so closely and enthusiastically with his numerous translators (his books have been translated into more than 50 languages). In his book of essays, Other Colours, he described Turkey as “a country that views the non-reader as the norm and the reader as somehow defective.” (He could be describing India).
“It’s a complicated drama in my life that I love,” he said of his work with his translators. “Sure, you lose something in translation. But… if you have a good translator, you also gain something new. [But] thank god the novel is a translatable form. What about poetry?”
Pamuk, who has been writing for 35 years, may not have engaged with political issues of the day as aggressively as literary figures like Harold Pinter and Nadine Gordimer, but he has never shied away from speaking his mind. The full wrath of the Turkish state came down on him for his statements in 2005 to a Swiss publication about the Turkish massacre of one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds.
Yet Pamuk said he did not want to “over-dramatise” the court hearings he had had to endure and harassment he had faced because many Turkish writers had fared much worse in the hands of the state. With the same candidness he described the now hackneyed thesis of “a clash of civilisations” as a tool that is used to legitimise American domination, “the right to kill and bomb whoever you want.”
“The Western media is using this (concept) to legitimise killing non-Westerners, 100,000 Iraqis,” he said. “I would rather pay attention to how civilisations can come together.”
But ultimately, Pamuk said he engaged with the larger themes and political issues primarily as a writer, trying to create something beautiful.
“I don’t write my novels to be ethically correct or serve society,” he said. “I understand questions through the suffering of the human heart. I understand the suffering of the girl who wears a headscarf. I also understand the suffering of the girl who wears a mini-skirt or who cannot wear a mini-skirt. The core of the art of the novel lies in the novelist’s capacity for identifying with ‘the other’.”