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.


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: 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?

NEXT PAGE: Turkey's tensions

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.

Do you keep a regular diary?

Pamuk: I very much enjoy reading other writers' diaries, mainly because it makes me ask myself: Are they like you? How do they think? I have never liked diaries that are published during an author's lifetime. Writing my own diary is the best form of remembrance, but only for my own use. I need these notes; it's like an impulse. I need a moment of time for myself every day, like a child playing with his things. When I travel, I routinely find a quiet place, open my diary and write something in it. It has its own kind of magic. It gives me the feeling of having accomplished something. On days when I don't have time for this, I feel tortured. A nicely filled page, whether it'll be published today or in 50 years, gives me the feeling of being a good boy.

SPIEGEL: Why did your Turkish publisher hesitate to publish the original version of "Snow" three years ago?

Pamuk: The legal situation then was completely different than it is today. Someone thought it might be a good idea to show the book to an attorney first. We weren't sure how the public prosecutor's office would react to the portrayal in the novel. Criticizing the military is considered morally reprehensible, because it involves such a tremendously important issue as secularization. The attorney assured us that most of the material in the novel was ok.

SPIEGEL: Didn't you hesitate to address the Kurdish question or the issue of Armenians?

Pamuk: I was already talking about these topics, which can easily get you into trouble in Turkey, outside of my books. Let me put it this way: Not just Dostoyevsky, but many great authors of the 19th century wrote under conditions of strict censorship. The great thing about the novel, about the art of writing a novel, is that you can write about anything. All you have to say is that it's fiction. That was the case with "Snow." No one reacted the way some feared they would.

SPIEGEL: But you have been and continue to be the target of physical attacks in Turkey.

Pamuk: When Turkey began approaching the EU, I wasn't the only one who worried that the dark stain in Turkey's history -- or rather the history of the Ottoman Empire -- could become a problem one day. In other words, what happened to the Armenians in World War I. That's why I couldn't leave the issue untouched. I alluded to the fact -- but certainly didn't intend it as an erudite remark -- that this is difficult to talk about in Turkey.

SPIEGEL: ... namely the fact that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed in what is now Turkey?

Pamuk: This remark of mine resulted in a powerful explosion. When something that explosive is kept hidden away, a tension builds within that must ultimately be released.

SPIEGEL: And you consistently avoided referring to it directly as genocide. In fact, you never even used the word.

Pamuk: Because I didn't want to. In fact, the word genocide was first used in the Turkish newspapers in an attempt to attack me, even though I didn't even use the expression. And then it was quoted by the Europeans. What could I have done? After people suddenly began talking about something that used to be taboo and a real hate campaign developed against me, I could hardly stand up and say: I never even said that!

SPIEGEL: That was when you moved to New York for a while. Were you fleeing, in a sense?

Pamuk: You tend to over-dramatize things. It's your job. I was invited by Columbia University, where I had once studied on a scholarship. So I stayed for a while, that's all.

SPIEGEL: Are you worried about the trial you will face in December for "public denigration of Turkish identity?"

Pamuk: I must respect the laws and the legal system of my country. In that respect, I do take it seriously. However, I do not expect that the matter will have significant legal consequences for me. I'm not terribly concerned about it.

SPIEGEL: So you don't expect to be sent to prison?

Pamuk: Absolutely not.

SPIEGEL: Isn't having been in prison at least once a sort of badge of honor for a Turkish author?

Pamuk: Wouldn't it be an even greater honor to be the first Turkish writer who had never been there? Isn't that much better? Better for Turkey and better for the author?

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been sufficiently supportive of you?

Pamuk: Well, Erdogan didn't support me when I was having some big problems.

SPIEGEL: He expressed his regret over the charges.

Pamuk: Sure, when it reached the international level. He wants to see Turkey in the EU. Besides, you mustn't forget that this man was also imprisoned, merely for having quoted a few poems.

SPIEGEL: Do you see Erdogan as a dedicated reformer or as an Islamist who hides his true intentions well?

Pamuk: I see him as an organizer first, a perfect organizer. He's a tough guy. His form of Islam -- the typical fundamentalist Middle Eastern rhetoric -- was quite common in Turkey 10 years ago. From there, he moved to a highly remarkable standpoint, namely the desire to move Turkey forward in the direction of Europe, supported by Islamists, former Islamists, a few secularists and 70 percent of the Turkish population. If you ask me whether that sounds like a contradiction, I say: No, great changes in the direction of peace have often come from people who were no great advocates of peace to begin with.

SPIEGEL: How strong is the idea of Europe in Turkey?

Pamuk: Just think of how elated the nation was recently over the news that negotiations had begun with the EU. This country, with its political intolerance, as I have described it, is now prepared to march forward, to break with its taboo about the Armenians, and is making great strides with respect to human rights and freedom of speech so that it can join the European Union. This alone shows how powerful the European idea is.

SPIEGEL: What would happen to the Turkish identity if Turkey actually become a member of the EU one day?

Pamuk: Of course we Turks would lose a part of this identity, just as Europe would lose a part of its own. It would also be a different Europe then. Accepting Turkey into the EU is an ambitious political endeavor of historical proportions. Europe would become a strong, multi-religious unit. It would gain the strength of 70 million Turks who also happen to be Muslims. This isn't dangerous in the least, since Turks want peace. They are prepared to become true Europeans.

SPIEGEL: Are you proud to be a Turk?

Pamuk: Of course. I am proud to be a Turk, and to write in Turkish about Turkey -- and to have been translated into about 40 languages. But I don't want to politicize things by dramatizing them.

SPIEGEL: Can you reveal to us what you plan to say when you accept the peace prize?

Pamuk: What I would like to do is define Europe through its great art of the novel.

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

The interview was conducted by editors Dieter Bednarz and Volker Hage.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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