Viewing an Old World with Fresh Eyes: A Visit with Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul
Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel-prize winning author, talks about the success of his latest book, "A Strangeness in My Mind," the "crippled" state of Turkish politics and the January terrorist attack in Istanbul, which he could hear from his apartment.
"This is where I sat," says Orhan Pamuk, placing his hands on a small, round wooden table in front of the window. "It was a peaceful day, I had just completed my new novel and was writing an article -- and suddenly: boom! I knew right away that it was a bomb attack. You know, this used to happen every day before, in the 1970s. I know the sound of a bomb exploding."
The view from Pamuk's window is almost as famous as the author himself. In fact, one of his books is titled "The View From My Window." Still, it catches the visitor by surprise, because it's such an unexpected view, a shockingly vast panorama under a giant blue winter sky. It is as if his desk were poised in the air.
The view overlooks the Bosphorus, with Asia on the left and Europe on the right, ships in the middle, a mosque directly in front of the balcony. It is accompanied by the sounds of meowing cats and screeching gulls and the sensation of cold winter air. The view seems stereotypically fitting for a man who has repeatedly been described as a builder of bridges between East and West, between Asia and Europe. But he hates being called a bridge builder, because he merely tries to write good novels -- novels that are deeply rooted in Turkish and Ottoman culture, but are also marked by Pamuk's love of Western life and literature.
Even before our conversation begins, he suggests the sequence of topics. "Please start with politics," he says. "Then we'll have that behind us and will be free for our discussion about literature." He pulls out a notebook, from which he will later read a few sentences like proclamations.
But now, to begin the conversation, he talks about the bomb. And about how he, after hearing the explosion and realizing what must have happened, waited 10 minutes before sitting down at his computer to see his fears confirmed. Then, another 20 minutes later, he began receiving emails from newspapers around the world, in countries like Italy, Germany and the United States, asking him to issue a statement. There were no emails from Turkey.
"Bombs are a normal occurrence for us," he says. But even if it isn't normal for him, what should he write from his desk here in Istanbul? That he rejects terror? That the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) is a gruesome organization? "You want something about IS?" he asks. "Okay, it's a gruesome, primitive, inhuman organization. But do you know what? The media report on IS far too much. This fuels hysteria and panic, which is part of the problem. They are so pleased about the panic they are spreading. In my opinion, the reporting lacks analysis and clever thoughts. All of this helps IS." And, he adds: "This is a message I wish to deliver."
Pamuk talks about the "crippled Turkish democracy," and about the fact that there is no freedom of expression in Turkey. He talks about an imprisoned journalist friend, and about how the government exerts pressure on newspaper editors and on all critical journalists. He complains that there is no separation of powers in Turkey today and says, with a laugh: "The doctrines of Montesquieu are not popular here." Only then does he point out, seriously: "I have the Nobel Prize, so I can say what I please." But his country is in such bad shape, he explains, "and I don't want to comment on everything every day."
His Most Successful Book in Turkey
Pamuk is a courageous man and a great writer. A little over 10 years ago, he was charged with "insulting Turkishness" after referring to the Armenian genocide in an interview. He was on the death list of extreme nationalists, as was his Armenian-Turkish friend Hrant Dink, who was shot to death in Istanbul in 2007. For a time, Pamuk was protected by three bodyguards provided by the Turkish government. These days he has only one, whom he can call when he wants to go out. "There isn't as much hatred against me at the moment," he says, "not as much political pressure as there was 10 years ago." His most recently published book, "A Strangeness in my Mind," has been his most successful in Turkey. (It will be published in German in a few days).
It's the story of Mevlut, a young man who comes to Istanbul from his village in Anatolia in the late 1960s and begins working as a street vendor, which he ends up doing for the rest of his life. He sells Boza, a beverage made from millet that contains so little alcohol that it was allowed during the period when alcohol was banned -- a trick beverage to circumvent strict religious rules, an alcoholic beverage for people who don't drink alcohol.
Mevlut is a poor boy when he arrives in Istanbul, and unlike most of the people who came with him, he will remain poor. He is a naïve, optimistic protagonist with the gift of recognizing happiness and holding onto it when it is there. At his cousin's wedding, he falls in love with a young girl. He writes her letters for many years, and finally kidnaps her to spend his life with her. But he has been deceived. He kidnapped the wrong woman, the older sister of his beloved. His devious cousin had given him the wrong name from the beginning and sent his letters to the wrong woman. But now that he has kidnapped the sister, giving her back is not an option.
Mevlut is a pragmatist of happiness. He shows her his humble house, and she falls asleep immediately. "Mevlut went up to her quietly. For a long time, he looked at Rayiha lying on the bed, knowing that he would never forget this moment." It was because "he wasn't alone in the world." Besides, "she had even appreciated his letters."
Pamuk talks about the love story as he stands at the large window in his apartment. I say that it's completely clear why the couple are happy together, because it's the love story of a poet. Mevlut created this woman and this love with his letters and his words. The wrong woman becomes the right woman through the power of his words. "Oh, I don't know," says Pamuk, and laughs. "I think it's more about sex. They do it with each other for the first time. They're happy. He is a grateful, unassuming person. That's all."
For 44 years and 575 pages, we accompany Mevlut on his routes as a street vendor. During this period, Istanbul grows by 10 million people. The old city dies and a new one arises, new neighborhoods are built, and there are so many opportunities to become a self-made man. The opportunities are there for Mevlut, too, but he doesn't take them.
It is the first time Pamuk, who comes from a wealthy family, has written about a man from the lower class, "an everyman," as he puts it. Perhaps this is part of the reason the book has struck a chord with Turkish readers: Mevlut is one of them. And Pamuk doesn't look down on him, describes him with love and humanity. He is an apolitical protagonist. He is constantly drawn into political conversations as he sells his beverages, but refuses to allow himself to be pulled in any direction. He is a Turkish version of Hans Castorp, the protagonist of Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain." He believes that everything is worth listening to. "As a Boza vendor, you cannot have any political opinions," says Pamuk, because it would scare away potential customers.
Nevertheless, "A Strangeness in My Mind" is also a political novel -- it describes corruption, political battles, the war against the Kurds, gentrification, and the victims of destruction and reconstruction.
'It Was Supposed to be a Short Novel'
Pamuk worked on the book for six years, longer than on any other book before it. He did a lot of research, and he also had others do a lot of research for him. Assistants, friends and students he knows helped him, conducting conversations and interviews for him. A small group of six students met in his apartment once a month. They ate and drank wine and discussed issues like urban development, city planning and gentrification.
"Young people who opened new horizons for me, and who explored new topics. But I did most of the interviews myself, with all kinds of different people. Many were reserved and suspicious, while others were excited to be able to tell me their stories. They would call me and say: 'You know, I also have a cousin, and you really have to meet him! You wouldn't believe what he has to say.' Now I have enough material for a few more books. This was supposed to be short novel at first, but there was simply too much to tell. It was like 'Ulysses,' which Joyce had also planned as a short story."
It's fun to watch Pamuk build momentum as he talks about writing, about the book's English title and the fact that when he was in school, his classmates were already talking about his peculiar way of talking and thinking. In our conversation, Pamuk repeats in English what his schoolmates used to say: "You have a strange mind, Orhan." And when he discovered the phrase "a strangeness in the mind" in William Wordsworth's "The Prelude" a few years ago, he knew that he would use it as the title of a book one day.
The book is about a stranger's view of a familiar world. Mevlut enters Istanbul, a city that is constantly and rapidly changing. He never enters the same city as the same person. At the very end of the novel, Pamuk writes: "He came to understand a truth that a part of him had known all along: walking around the city at night made him feel as though he were wandering around his own head. That was why whenever he spoke to the walls, advertisements, shadows, and strange and mysterious shapes he couldn't see in the night, he always felt as if he were speaking with himself."
Later in our conversation, we step out onto Pamuk's balcony. The high-rise buildings on the Asian side are glowing in the reddish light of the setting sun. "You wouldn't believe how many poems there are about that light, about this view, so many poems," he says. The trick, he says, is to see things in new ways, as exotic and different. The same thing applies to his city, the city he has written about often and in most of his books, about its new buildings, its growth and destruction. Pamuk studied architecture, he says, which has helped him a great deal. At the beginning of each book, he says, he has a plan. "Only the last chapter," he says, making a whooshing sound and waving his arm in the air, is created "in a sweep of creativity, when nothing is planned anymore."
We go back inside, and he pulls out an old bell once used by a Boza vendor to attract customers. In the novel, the sound of the bell ends up being the sound of melancholy. In the end, Mevlut's only remaining customers are the ones who remember the old Istanbul at the sound of his bell.
His grandfather was an energetic factory owner, his father was a wistful but unsuccessful poet, and then there was him, Hanno-Orhan, who transformed himself into a Thomas Mann, a Nobel laureate. When he was reading Mann for the first time, did he think of the parallels to his own life? "Oh, of course I did," he says, pulling a volume by Max Frisch from the first box, followed by a book by Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
On the second-to-the-last page of his novel, Pamuk writes the following about his naïve protagonist: "These people's happiness pleased Mevlut. Human beings were made to be happy, honest, and open." Pamuk, surrounded by boxes of books, says: "I'm not a happy person. It isn't my nature. But I also don't believe that we are in this world to be happy. Oh, I'm a happy writer, but I'm certain that I will never be a happy person."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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A Strangeness in My Mind
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