Caressing the World With Words
Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, won the Nobel Pricze for Literature in 2006. He sat down with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in November.
NPQ | Inserting yourself as the famous writer Orhan Pamuk into your new novel, Museum of Innocence, you say “this is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul.” At the end of the novel your protagonist, Kemal, who is building a museum to display the objects of the times he spent with the woman he loves, Fusun, says “Yes, pride is the crux of it. With my museum I want to teach not just the Turkish people but all the people of the world to take pride in the lives they live.”
What prompted you to choose this theme and spend 10 years writing a novel about it?
Orhan Pamuk | The habit of collecting, of attachment to things, is an essential human trait. But Western civilization put collecting on a pedestal by inventing museums. Museums are about representing power. It could be the king’s power or, later, people’s power.
This has generally not been present in the non-Western world. There, the collector has been an individual who is doing something peculiar. He cannot be proud about what he is doing since his collection is not something that categorizes the larger human experience. On the contrary, it only signifies points of his own personal reality.
However, in the last 50 years, the non-Western world is catching up with museums because it wants to represent its power. Most of the time such museums are about the power of the state. They are crude exercises, like waving a flag. This new museum mania avoids representing reality in an artistic or a personal way. Power is more important than art or the person. That is the trend.
So, in my novel, where Kemal collects the tea cup, cigarette butts, bedroom door handle and other items of Fusun, he is building a museum not to power but to the intimate experience of love, to an individual life. My point is that, whatever a life is made of, its dreams and disappointments, is worth taking pride in.
In building my own museum in Istanbul, I am very close to my character Kemal. I don’t want to exhibit power but express my interiority, my spirit. A museum should not be flags—signs and symbols of power—but intimate works of art. It should express the spirituality of the collector.
NPQ | How do you define the “innocence” you are venerating in the museum, which figures in the title of your novel?
Pamuk | I don’t explain my book titles. They are not summaries, like War and Peace. They add one final twist to the story. When my readers ask “why this title?” I always reply “because it provides one more opportunity to think about the meaning of the book.”
NPQ | Well, here is a reading from one perspective. At one point you refer to “the innocent charm” of daily life. The ordinary moments when Kemal sat around the dinner table at Fusun’s parents smoking, drinking raki and watching TV in the evening take on an almost sacred cast. Nothing spectacular or sophisticated is going on. But there is a deep happiness in this ritual nonetheless.
Pamuk | Most obviously, innocence refers to virgnity, which the lower middle-class shopgirl Fusun loses to her upper-class Western-oriented distant cousin, Kemal, who falls in love with her. More than that, you are right. There is a certain innocence to all of humanity watching TV every night while chatting away pointlessly. When my character visits Fusun’s middle-class family for eight years, looking at TV every night, I am underlining, tongue in cheek, the actual experience of 90 percent of humanity. Although this is a Turkish story, this is also what the middle classes in China, India, Russia or Peru do each night.
In front of the TV, cultural and class distinctions disappear. Kemal came from an upper-class family and Fusun from a lower-class family, but they all watched the one channel available in Turkey in the 1970s. They all watched the same national lottery drawing, Grace Kelly movies from Hollywood and the patriotic closing of the broadcast each evening.
There was indeed a kind of naivete to the pre-modernity of those days, an innocence now lost in the transition to modernity and post-modernity.
Finally, there is also a certain innocence in the relationship between art and the world. One of the Webster dictionary’s definitions of innocence is “artlessness.” But these are all my peculiarities of perception. Let the reader decide.
NPQ | In lieu of being able to capture and hold on to fleeting happiness, despite obsessive pursuit, your protagonist Kemal collects objects associated with Fusun. As time put into matter, these objects become art. Their talismanic power resuscitates “the happiest moment of my life, but I didn’t know it,” as the splendid first line of your novel reads.
Pamuk | ....the book starts with a sentence that contains the words “life” and “happiest” and end with the words “life” and “happiness.”
NPQ | Kemal says at one point that love is “deep compassion,” “close and devoted attention,” “respect and reverence” for the beloved, for the stories embedded in everyday objects, places and activities.
This strikes me as very similar to the Buddhist idea of “mindfulness,” but through pious attachment instead of detachment.
The poet Czeslaw Milosz used to talk about the “eternal moment” as “a gleam on the current of a black river” captured by mindfulness. “Mindfulness occurs in the moment when time stops,” he has said. “And what is time? Time is suffering. Time is our regrets, our shame. But also our happiness. Time contains all things toward which we strive and from which we escape.”
Is there a correspondence here?
Pamuk | I identify with Kemal’s attention as a lover to his beloved because it is like a novelist’s attention to words. In the end, being a novelist, in a way, is loving the world, caressing the world with words. It is paying attention to all the details that you have lived and experienced. This book is my most personal, intimate book. It is all the things I have lived and seen in Istanbul in my entire life. It is a panorama written with loving detail.
I was so happy writing this book. It gave me so much happiness that I would say it saved me during very troubled political times. After writing every morning from 7 to 11, I was able to face the tensions of the rest of day during those long months. [Pamuk was tried in 2005-2006 for “insulting Turkishness” by addressing the issue of Armenian massacres in an interview with a Swiss newspaper. The charges were later dropped.—Editor]
At the age of 57 I am less experimental and more mature. I want most of all to convey my understanding of life. And writing novels for 35 years has taught me great humility. It has taught me to be respectful of how marvelously detailed the world is. Again, this is very close to a lover’s attention to his beloved’s every movement, her gestures, angers and silences. To notice everything is to care for it.
There is indeed a kind of Sufi or Pan-theistic quality to this love for the world, as is also suggested by Buddhist mindfulness.
NPQ | Your novel is a quasi-biographical chronicle of the Istanbul bourgeoisie—the modernizing class of the past few decades. The youth of that Western-oriented class in the mid-’70s were “a la Franc,” disdaining the “a la Turc” culture from the Anatolian provinces, though still in many ways bound by conservative convention. You write about this class with a mocking tone, suggesting, as Haruki Murakami does with reference to Japan’s Westernization, that it is a culture of “borrowed surfaces.”
This young bourgeoisie studied in Paris, went to nightclubs, danced and drank the night away, had pre-martial sex, wore mini-skirts and held big gatherings such as engagement parties or weddings in the Hilton Hotel, outpost of all things Western. The politics in those days were within a secular discourse— communists vs. nationalists. Islamism was not a political issue, but the private practice of servants, workers and provincials.
Today, that modernizing elite of the center has been displaced by the “a la Turc” Muslim middle classes from the periphery. An Islamist-rooted political party rules.
How has this displacement of the center by the periphery altered the whole project of modernization in Turkey today?
Pamuk | The fashionable Istanbul bourgeoisie is clashing with the upcoming Anatolian bourgeoisie—this is the cliché by which Turkish intellectuals try to understand what is happening. There is some truth in this, but I look at it more ethically than sociologically. For me, the old Istanbul money and the new Anatolian money are the same class.
What is happening is that a freer, more open, more fully democratic and egalitarian society is clashing with old-fashioned conservative modernism. To solve its problems, the old, conservative Westernized elite must yield to more free speech and more democracy for the aspirations of the whole country, not just the elites.
My problem in Turkey is the intolerant political culture, whether old guard or new. This is not only true of the secularists at the center but also in rural Anatolia, Islamists as well. On crucial issues they embrace each other’s intolerance.
NPQ | I was surprised to hear you say in a conversation with the Japanese Nobel laureate, Kenzaburo Oe, that you thought Japan was more Western than Turkey because it is more tolerant!
Pamuk | That’s true. For me Westernization is not about consuming fanciful goods; it’s about a system of free speech, democracy, egalitarianism and respect for the people’s rights and dignity.
I don’t much care whether rural Anatolians or Istanbul secularists take power. I’m not close to any of them. What I care about is respect for the individual.
NPQ | Recently, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and I were talking about your identification with Fyodor Dostoevsky who, in his time, was angry at the West and the Westernizers in his own country who looked down on ordinary Russians. You admired him for “waging war against shallow Occidentalists, didactic writers who were always extolling the wonders of the West.”
When I said this to Fuentes, he expressed surprise. “So you think Pamuk is a non-Western writer?” he asked.
Are you a Western writer or a non-Western writer?
Pamuk | For 35 years I have tried to avoid this categorization. Dostoevsky was both a Western and a non-Western writer. He just despised Occidentalists who despised their own people. Dostoevsky believed, like I do, that Westernization, or now globalization, is inevitable, but it must not lead to the repression of the past, of ordinary people and their culture.
The problem with Westernization from above, as we had in both Russia and Turkey, is that is becomes a symbol of distinction among people—“a la Franc” is fashionable and glamorous, “a la Turc” is backward and pedestrian. The upper classes are so happy they are the first to have the new electric shaver because that means they are Westernized and better than everyone else! I give so many examples of this in my novel.
Like my other novels such as White Castle and My Name is Red this novel, too, is of the genre we call the “East-West novel,” which emerged from Turkey’s identity over the past 200 years. All these novels share the same tensions of a culture of belonging and tradition clashing with modernity coming from above and outside. Some of these books trash the West through characters such as the girl who wants to dance and ends up being a prostitute, or the other way around, who embraces the West and becomes confident, independent and equal.
NPQ | So you are an “in-between” writer?
Pamuk | I take this as a compliment. But I didn’t choose this role. It happened to me.
NPQ | Since Europe has for all intents and purposes shut the door on Turkey, the AKP government has instead projected Turkey as a neo-Ottoman regional power in the Muslim Middle East instead of a mere NATO appendage or European supplicant.
Recently, Turkey canceled some military exercises with Israel because of the Gaza war and Erdogan himself has embraced Ahmadinejad’s suspect election victory in Iran.
This has begun to worry some in West these days who are concerned that Turkey is turning from “West to the East,” toward the Muslim world. Is Turkey “turning East,” or is it just getting bigger and more influential in the middle, proud of itself and its own unique identity?
As for Turkey’s part, a top AKP diplomat reassured me in Istanbul recently that “without its Western orientation, Turkey would be just another Muslim country.”
Pamuk | I don’t think Turkey can change the political path of the past eight years that easily. (Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip) Erdogan enjoys power because he dangles the carrot of Europe, which paves the way for more democracy in Turkey. But, certainly, the situation between Turkey and Europe is not so sunny as it was in 2005. Then, I was more optimistic. Turkish papers talked in those days about joining Europe within 10 years! Nothing of that sort will happen. Conservatives in both Europe and Turkey have successfully, unfortunately, blocked the process. I’m sad about that.
NPQ | Ironically, while the modernizing elites in Turkey who looked West were characterized as “a la Franc,” it is President Nicolas Sarkozy of France today who is the main opponent of Turkey entering the European Union!
Pamuk | Hah. Yes. You are right. It is ironic. Sarkozy gathers he can get some votes from this position. But if Sarkozy didn’t exist, Europe would invent him. He happens to be the most agitated and voluble, so they let him do the talking.
NPQ | Your novels have been all about your life in Turkey. Since winning the Nobel Prize in 2006 you are as likely to show up in Tokyo or New York as on the shores of the Bosporous. Has this affected your writing?
Pamuk | I’m sure it will. Until the age of 33, I only left Turkey once. I had never seen an actual Western painting. At that time there were only reproductions in Turkey. But I read Western books and studied Monet reproductions with more intensity than a European strolling through the Louvre.
I’m teaching a course at Columbia and traveling the world, writing in airplanes. But my happiness goes with me wherever I write. And since my books have been translated into 57 languages, I have a responsibility now to all those readers.