SPIEGEL Interview with Orhan Pamuk 'I'm for Europe, Democracy and Freedom of Opinion'

Turkish novelist and Noble laureate Orhan Pamuk speaks with SPIEGEL about his new novel "The Museum of Innocence," memory, Turkey's longing to be part of Europe and the price he pays for championing Europe and democracy in his country.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Pamuk, in your most recent work, you describe the joys and sorrows of the son of a businessman in the 1970s. While describing the love that your protagonist, Kemal, has for a young relative, you are also drawing a critical portrait of Turkey. With more than 500 pages, "The Museum of Innocence" is by far your largest work. Do you also consider it your most important work, your magnum opus?

Orhan Pamuk: My ex-wife, with whom I'm very friendly, had also read the book. She made a comment I agree with. She said: "Oh, you wrote everything you knew about." She's right.

SPIEGEL: You describe the milieu in which you grew up, the upper class of Istanbul.

Pamuk: The book covers 50 years of a portrait of the upper classes. There are also the lower classes, but it is prominently a portrait of Turkey's ruling bourgeoisie. There is a sort of broken, hesitating, strange bourgeoisie in Turkey -- half suppressed, half victim, half aggressively arrogant. It's a very little group of people; it's their portrait. Through them, I had a glimpse of the spirit of the nation, so to speak, of the big cultural problems of Turkey.

SPIEGEL: Is the character of the protagonist, Kemal, based on you?

Pamuk: If you're a leftist or a politically motivated guy, you just want to forget that you had this kind of life. Well, I'm a novelist, so why shouldn't I? I wrote about it and enjoyed the glitzy details. What Kemal and his friends experience was my life, too -- and my family's, and especially my father's. Then, there is also a new generation of my character Kemal's friends. Some of them are based on my bourgeois friends at Robert College in Istanbul. They have their father's cars and go to strange places and night clubs.

SPIEGEL: How much Orhan Pamuk is in Kemal?

Pamuk: There is a lot as far as social background goes. But, then again, Kemal comes from a richer family. The Pamuks are a bit shy because they lost their money, while the Kemals are extravagant and enjoy life. I've been to all the places Kemal has been, but only as a member of a family that lost its money two or three generations ago. I identify with Kemal especially in his childhood, in his relationship with his mom and maids or cooks. That was more or less my family. When it comes to Kemal's business relationship -- having only been a writer, I don't know anything about business -- some of it is based on my father's business ventures and friends. That's when I stop being Kemal.

SPIEGEL: Your writing is striking for its love of detail, your sensibility for everyday things and occurrences.

Pamuk: The book contains many of these kinds of details: going to shops, the rumor that a new shop is opening, where you can buy imitation Western items. But more deeply in Kemal is crime and punishment, guilt and responsibility. These are the issues that are at stake in this novel -- but not as directly and openly as I am now describing them. Kemal's relations with his family are fragile and problematic, like mine. But do I want to reveal more about my spirit? No. I do that through books and by wearing masks. That's more fun.

SPIEGEL: Were you plagued by the same sorts of self doubts that trouble Kemal?

Pamuk: Kemal has problems in life, and he falls away from the normal bourgeois life that he had expected. Again, he resembles me in that. My whole family was expecting me to be bourgeois, to go into business, to be rich. But, suddenly, I ended up being a writer. There is that kind of parallel between me and Kemal, too, as well as a feeling of guilt for having left the bourgeois community. Thomas Mann also mentions the guilt for not being bourgeois enough -- the Tonio Kröger problem.

SPIEGEL: You seem to share with Kemal a passion for museums.

Pamuk: I'm a museum person. There is a lot of me in Kemal when, toward the end of the book, he visits all these museums. I share his sentiments of going to small museums, where you can explore your passions, most preferably in a sleepy museum garden. The whole world and the present are left behind. We are in a different atmosphere, a different time; we are almost wrapped in a radically different aura of almost being outside of time. I like that. I don't know why I like it. But it's so crucial for the making of this book.

SPIEGEL: Can literature itself become a museum of sorts for a particular group?

Pamuk: When I say museum, I don't use the word museum as, say, André Malraux does, as a metaphor. André Malraux says "imaginary museum" -- there's no museum, just papers. When I say museum, I mean museum. I mean that I actually hope to build a museum here in Istanbul. The intention is that, one day, two or three years from now, the reader of this book will come to my museum and that every object mentioned in the book will be on display there. I already bought a piece of property several years ago, and I've already had the construction plans drawn up. I've even spoken with some potential curators.

SPIEGEL: Kemal's passion for collecting things seems to have already developed into a type of fetish.

Pamuk: The book argues that we are attached to objects because of the experiences, joys or feelings of security, of happiness, of friendship -- whatever we may enjoy in life -- because we relate these emotions to corresponding objects. My protagonist is deeply in love -- I would say infatuated -- with Füsun; he had enjoyed immense happiness. Now, in order to preserve this -- or relive this -- he gets close to her and collects objects that remind him of those moments. I strongly believe that we collect objects because they make us remember our good moments. This is not the first time I've said this. I described it in "The New Life" and "The Black Book," too.

SPIEGEL: Your most recent novel tells the story of Kemal's life and his love for Füsun. At the same time, though, it's also a story about the history of Turkey, your homeland.

Pamuk: The book has ambitions of looking at the country, the spirit of the nation, Turkey's history and problems and identity. The book is doing this through a depiction of the upper, bourgeois classes, and not the bureaucracy and political relations. I'm trying to show the societal and moral constitution of the country.

SPIEGEL: Is that why you don't shy away from sex scenes?

Pamuk: They are explicit, but they're not there to be sexy. The sex here is an expression of the authentic feelings between Kemal and Füsun. That the hardest thing: to be explicit but not provocative and sexy, but to write about the sexual scene as a spiritual scene. It's part of my examination of sexual morals, which is why I also discuss the cult of virginity and innocence.

SPIEGEL: That's already a political statement in an Islamic country like Turkey, isn't it?

Pamuk:. My book is political -- but in a deeper and cultural way. It's political mostly in its discussion of the repression of women in subtle ways, even if it's done by the so-called "Westernizers" or the so-called "modernized" or "civilized" ruling upper classes.

SPIEGEL: Based on the way you discuss the repression of women, a reader might just get the impression that you've become something of a feminist.

Pamuk: It's not really my place to make that decision, but it's a designation I wouldn't refuse. My protagonist, Kemal, is a man who realizes right around when he's 30 years old what men really do to women. Even my male friends agree that my depiction was objective and balanced and not exaggerated. They agree that I described what really happened to women in the streets of Turkey at that time. I also look at those years now from a different point of view. At that time, I wouldn't have seen woman as having been as repressed as the book describes. But, then, I strongly believe that I'm representing the truth about the repression of the woman in Turkey -- and in an honest way.

SPIEGEL: Has the situation for women in Turkey gotten any better?

Pamuk: I'm not sure. When I was writing the book, I was thinking that this might have been more of a subject in the '70s, and that maybe the nation had overcome it. But when I talked to my friends and students, who are 30 years younger, they said that it is, in fact, still around, that there's still a problem with machismo. And most of the students still care about it. It is still important, as is the issue of virginity as well. These are not things that modernity or economic development have been able to overcome.

Turkey, Europe and Class Anxieties

SPIEGEL: In several places, the book touches upon the issue of Turkey's unfulfilled longing for Europe.

Pamuk: The talk about Turkey and Europe isn't as old as Turkey; it's older. The same thing was already there during the Ottoman Empire. It is part of Turkish identity. The first great Westernizer was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish republic. He said to the nation: Please, change your clothes; please, remove your headscarves; please, change your calendar; please, change your alphabet. All this, so that we could look more Westernized.

SPIEGEL: Without this forced modernization, there's no way that Turkey would be holding accession talks with the European Union.

Pamuk: Yes, but the ruling elite thought that was all they had to do. It legitimizes itself in this country using the signs and symbols of Western culture. A lot of Turkey's ruling elite say to their nation: "I deserve this power, you shut up. I rule over you because I'm Westernized, more European." This is a subject of great interest to me: how the ruling classes in the non-Western world maneuver, both with the language, idiom and culture of modernity -- you may call this Western culture or Europe -- to accomplish their goals.

SPIEGEL: Despite all the exuberance, Kemal's party group doesn't really give off the impression of being all that happy.

Pamuk: No. They are all afraid. In the end, the Turkish bourgeois is not such a strong class after all. They're all scared of the army; they're all scared of bureaucracy. A little bit of befriending bureaucracy gives you this possibility, and you cheat this, and you do this. You have some lump of money, you pocket it -- and that's it.

SPIEGEL: That seems like a lot of social criticism for a love story.

Pamuk: Yeah, sure. I always write critical books. (Laughs) There's no anxiety about being political here. I'm not afraid of that. But my book is also my attempt to use literature to get beyond politics. Corruption, military coups, politics -- both Islamist and secularist -- Turkey has more than enough of that. I like my book so much; I don't want it in that trash.

SPIEGEL: Are you worried when you see how your country has almost allowed the the court case about possibly banning the ruling AKP party to drive it into isolation? Do you really see Turkey as proceeding along a path to Europe?

Pamuk: When I hear you saying it like that, I must confess that I feel national pride. People are talking about us like that? Fifty years ago, no one was talking about us. So, that's a great improvement; I'm very happy to be a part of it.

SPIEGEL: On a general level, are you more or less happy with the direction of current developments in Turkey?

Pamuk: I think Turkey is economically doing well, but there are lots of political problems. Most of them are, unfortunately, also related to the narrow-mindedness of the ruling classes, who are lacking in terms of liberality and are always fighting with each other.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the confrontation between the old Kemalist elite and the up-and-coming conservative-religious middle class led by Prime Minister Erdogan.

Pamuk: In the long run, these classes are more or less similar when it comes to authoritarianism, when it comes to their intolerance. Unfortunately, the real values that both of these groups do not understand are the joys of free speech and an open society. That is our tragedy: that they are so upset with the rise of democracy and the flourishing of new classes.

SPIEGEL: So, you don't see Erdogan and his supporters as Islamists in disguise?

Pamuk: That's what some of the hard-core Kemalists think. They don't know what to do with the newly emerging Anatolian conservative classes. They run back into the arms of the military and put their faith in more force and more authoritarianism. And because of that, some of them -- not all the ruling classes -- are even refusing to join the European Union. They don't want Europe because they are afraid of the emergence of the modern, conservative Anatolian bourgeoisie. Kemal Atatürk would be proud to be part of European Union. And now the ruling elites, his most faithful supporters, are betraying him because they are afraid of losing power.

SPIEGEL: Do you hope that the two parties can arrive at some sort of reconciliation?

Pamuk: I am a writer. Writers are considered demonic, maniacal, radical. But, in this case, I'm looking for harmony. I'm hoping that these various classes in Turkey can harmoniously come together and produce a new culture. Therein lies Turkey's future.

SPIEGEL: In 1995, you wrote an essay for SPIEGEL about the "poisoned" atmosphere in Turkey. It would appear that not a whole lot has changed since then.

Pamuk: There's no doubt that some progress has been made. But we can, should and must go even farther. The fact that the Kurdish problem hasn't been resolved makes the ruling elite nervous and fragile. They -- the sons and daughters of these people I describe in my novel -- have lost their self-confidence, despite the fact that they have made a lot of money. In their anxiety, they play cutthroat politics, and everyone tries to imprison everybody else. Cutthroat, intolerant politics is poisoning the atmosphere here.

SPIEGEL: You've stirred up a lot of hostility toward yourself in your home country for your frank words, including those about the Armenian genocide during World War I. You are apparently also on the hit list of the ultranationalist secret society Ergenekon .

Pamuk: I have a clear position: I'm for Europe, for democracy and for freedom of opinion. That's why they want to kill me. I have bodyguards. I'm not out in the streets of Istanbul as I used to be, and my bodyguards are my best friends. That's the price I have to pay.

SPIEGEL: Will these dark sides of your country also have a place in your planned and very concrete "Museum of Innocence"?

Pamuk: The book puts life on display, and happiness is central to life. That is the theme of the book, and that should also be what is central in my future museum here in Istanbul.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Pamuk, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz and Dietmar Pieper.