Ausgabe 42/2005

Frankfurt Book Fair Special Orhan Pamuk and the Turkish Paradox

Orhan Pamuk, 53, Turkish author and this year's winner of the German Book Trade Peace Prize, discusses his life in Istanbul, threats to his personal safety, the urge to take a political stand, Turkey's identity in Europe and his latest novel.

Orhan Pamuk hails from Istanbul.

Orhan Pamuk hails from Istanbul.


Mr. Pamuk, you were awarded the German Book Trade's Peace Prize in recognition of both your literary works and your political activities. Which of the two pleases you more?

Pamuk: I think it's a bit ironic that both Turks and Germans place so much emphasis on the political side of this prize. It's almost as if they were saying that appreciation for the literary quality of my novels isn't something to be proud of. How fortunate that my most recent novel is deliberately political.

SPIEGEL: And why did "Snow" become a distinctly political novel?

Pamuk: Well, I've been expressing my views on politics for some time now, but in newspapers and magazines, not in novels. This kind of thing gives you notoriety at home. You begin striking back and the whole thing begins to escalate. At some point I asked myself: Why don't I just put my political visions into a book, just to get them off my chest?

SPIEGEL: Unlike your other works, which are usually set in Istanbul, this novel takes place in provincial Turkey, in the city of Kars. Why the countryside as a setting?

Pamuk: When I was in my early twenties, I wanted to get to know the country, so I traveled across Turkey with a friend. When we got to Kars, I was fascinated by the vastness and beauty of the countryside, but also by the foreignness of a city that was partly built by the Russians, so that it's very different from the rest of Turkey. It remained etched in my mind. And when I began writing "Snow," it became clear to me that Kars would be the ideal setting, partly because the city gets a lot of snow in the winter.

SPIEGEL: Ka is the actual hero of the novel, but there is also a storyteller named Orhan, who researches Ka's story after his death. How much of Orhan Pamuk is reflected in the character Orhan?

Pamuk: He's a character in a novel, not me, although my books are far more autobiographical than the reader suspects. Friends of mine who know me and my family find this amusing. The private becomes transformed in the novel, into something more general.

SPIEGEL: Istanbul has remained your city to this day. You have a tremendous view from your office, where you write. At your feet lies the great bridge that spans the Bosporus, linking Europe and Asia. How do you feel when you work here?

Pamuk: I'm happy. I sometimes joke that I am the first writer of historical fiction who can look out his window and point to the objects in his novels. I have a view of the entrance to the Bosporus, the old city, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque; in fact, I see all the mosques. It's an extremely privileged view, as I know, and I like to say that, as Istanbul's storyteller, I've earned it.

SPIEGEL: Many see you today as Turkey's leading intellectual. Isn't it paradoxical that you never wanted to be part of the cultural establishment, and yet you've become its most important representative?

Pamuk: I can say quite honestly that I don't regret it. After my country was so tormented by politics and I developed an international reputation, journalists from all over the world began talking to me about my country's problems. It was inevitable, something one cannot escape.

SPIEGEL: You are an avowed supporter of Turkey joining the European Union. Do you think that your highly critical novel "Snow" has been of much service to this effort?

Pamuk: I know exactly what you're trying to say. In Holland a friend said to me: "You know, I used to be in favor of Turkey's accession, but now I've read your novel and I'm horrified. Is it really that dismal in your country." My answer to him was that it's an historical novel.

SPIEGEL: But it takes place in the 1990s!

Pamuk: Exactly. A lot has happened since then. Just the hope of some day being able to join the EU has changed the legal situation in Turkey. In my imagination, the events in the novel happened in the early 1990s, when there was great concern that Islamic fundamentalists could assume power. That's why I said that it's an historical novel.

SPIEGEL: You portray a horrific world of intolerance, ethnic and religious hostilities, violence and murder.

Pamuk feels that Turkey belongs in the European Union.

Pamuk feels that Turkey belongs in the European Union.

Pamuk: That shouldn't scare people away. It's true that "Snow" portrays the entire provincial, intolerant political culture of Turkey, a culture populated by fundamentalists, political Islamists, Turkish and Kurdish nationalists, other ethnic groups, the military, secularists and ruthless killers. All of this may be a deterrent for a European who is familiar with far more liberal circumstances. But isn't it also the novelist's job to try to portray the human side of these people, their similarity to us?

SPIEGEL: Do you truly believe that Turkey has changed so drastically in the last eight to ten years?

Pamuk: Yes, I do. Much is still in transition. The hope of joining the EU has relaxed the country. And whenever I'm asked whether Turkey is ready for Europe, I say: It's only a beginning. The negotiations have just begun. The Turks won't be joining the EU tomorrow. They hope to become a member in ten years, and by then the country will have developed economically, politically and culturally.

SPIEGEL: But, just as is portrayed in your novel, there are still militant Islamists, stubborn Kemalists and religious fanatics ...

Pamuk: ... and you'll also find most of them in the rest of Europe. The history of Turkey is also the history of Europe, perhaps with a time lag of 20 or 30 years. But that gap is shrinking.

SPIEGEL: What is the most important difference between Europe and Turkey?

Pamuk: The bloody years of war and all the atrocities in European history have taught the Europeans that secular politics free of religious hatred is mainly a question of peace. This concept is not anchored in the same way in the consciousness of Turks, which has to do with the fact that the secular was forced upon us by the army. But that attitude has since changed.

SPIEGEL: The protagonist in your novel, Ka, calls himself an atheist. Would you say the same thing about yourself?

Pamuk: The problem I have with this term stems from the fact that many prominent intellectuals made such a drama out of it in the past. My religion is complicated. Literature is my true religion. After all, I come from a completely non-religious family.

SPIEGEL: Do you consider yourself a Muslim?

Pamuk: I consider myself a person who comes from a Muslim culture. In any case, I would not say that I'm an atheist. So I'm a Muslim who associates historical and cultural identification with this religion. I do not believe in a personal connection to God; that's where it gets transcendental. I identify with my culture, but I am happy to be living on a tolerant, intellectual island where I can deal with Dostoyevsky and Sartre, both great influences for me.

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