As a small child Orhan Pamuk began drawing pictures because he wanted ‘to possess a second world without feeling guilty for existing.’ The trees and crows which abounded in those early pictures were seen as a sign of talent, and until finishing high school everyone assumed he was going to become an artist. That was the reason his first love left him. But he astonished everyone by starting to write, and since 1974 has written many novels that are already classics of Turkish literature.
They have been published around the world in thirty languages. Apart from his last but one book, Snow, all Orhan Pamuk’s novels are set in Istanbul. In his latest book, Istanbul, Memories and the City, he relates his own 50 years as it coincides with the history of the city. Your books have been translated into thirty languages, and read all over the world. What impression of Turkey do your readers get from them? Of course those who only know Turkey from my books know it through Istanbul. So they know the intensive cultural structure of the city, built from layers of history and culture, and its multiple identity.
Orhan Pamuk interview
My readers don’t see Turkey’s touristic places. I am not concerned with those. Friends who read me in Turkey say I am a little too despondent and gloomy. Perhaps due to me foreigners find the Turks’ view of Turkey a bit pessimistic, but what can I do, that is how I am. I do not see this as peculiar to myself, but as the truth. On the other hand, the fact that I come from a relatively wealthy family—although one which later became poorer—and received a good education, made me familiar with western culture and art. And I drew the energy for my writing not from poor neighbourhoods, but from the lives of the middle and upper classes; from the westernised rich. I am accused of not taking a sufficiently local and national viewpoint. And abroad I am accused of looking at Turkey from the inside. I have always been criticised, both here and abroad, of not sufficiently belonging here or not sufficiently belonging to the world. I just do what comes naturally. Do not think that I always ignore such talk. I listen, and then do something.
Is Istanbul still as depressing as you describe?
No. In the book I describe Istanbul and my own childhood as being depressing. But two things need correcting. Firstly, I was not a miserable child. The city was depressing, and there was something deriving from the family.
I was a normal child who enjoyed life, wanted to paint, and rushed around. That was my fundamental energy. But there was a mournfulness about the city that later on became associated with the disintegration of our family. The melancholy of Istanbul is not something that I invented. What I mean to say in the book is that in the past there was the large Ottoman Empire, and this city was a metropolis like New York, Paris or Berlin. The Ottomans, Turks, Greeks… everyone who lived there was aware of this in some way. After a century they sensed that the empire had become weaker than the West, and after another century the empire collapsed. While during that 150 years the West was experiencing incredible technological, cultural and above all economic wealth, we remained the same.
We did not get poorer in real terms, only compared to the West. The book explains the idea that this was once an empire; telling about the city’s large mosques, monumental buildings, ruined wooden mansions, and beautiful but shabby neighbourhoods. For this reason, there are perfectly understandable reasons for the city’s dejection, which I have tried to describe, occasionally poetically, in the book. My book concerns the last two centuries, from the 1850s, when Flaubert and Gautier came, to the end of the of the 20th century. Both those centuries are over now, and Turkey is improving.
The last 50 years of that depressing period correspond to the first 50 years of my life. Every city has roles and colours originating in quirks of history. The first 50 years of my life were the black and white years when this city was most remote from the world and at its most provincial.
You never prefer the sun. Instead there is always black and white, and sadness. Will it always be like that?
My life is like that. I do not choose to enjoy sadness, I want to be happy. I want to be interested in culture and the city. But the city pushes you into sadness and a kind of depression. I have not been defeated by this. I have written my books, worked, laboured, and I’m satisfied with my life. None of my friends would describe me as a sad person; energetic or irritable perhaps, but sadness is not one of my characteristics. You could say that when I take up pen and paper these are what come out.Is there such a concept as the Istanbul of your dreams?
I do have dreams for Istanbul: that it be a freer place; that people break with their communities and become free individuals. This city is an archipelago of communities. I would like people to be not communities but single archipelagos. Communities are things which enwrap people who come here from the provinces, and which rally people together, whether in the name of compatriotism or a religious identity, and prevent them following their own conscience.I would like communities to disperse and modern people to emerge. Of course, this would be a more ruthless urban environment where everyone was alone, but in such an environment critical thought, art, culture and diversity thrive better. On the other hand, of course, I would like the remains of the past and history to be appreciated and preserved.
Who are your readers? Do you care about their reactions?
The majority are students, women, housewives, intellectuals, and book lovers. I care about their reactions, but I don’t want to be at their mercy.
I know it is necessary to always keep a distance between myself and the reader. When my life was going a bit better for me, and my books were being translated into thirty languages, I never tried to make the reader happy; I just concentrated on writing my own books.
In the beginning things were difficult, but because I have insisted on it readers have accepted me, even if they sometimes don’t understand. This has given me great strength. I write what I want, how I want. The reader will approach me and my book, instead of the book pursuing the reader. I have the confidence to give them something that perhaps they would not find interesting if it was anyone else.
What are your next plans?
I am going to publish my last book, Istanbul, Memories and the City, in what they call a ‘coffee table’ edition in America; printed on good paper, with large photographs, and with some new sections that I’ll write. But it will not be published until next autumn, because I have to think about it and put some work into it.
The black and white photographs are taken from the author’s book entitled ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ published by Yapı Kredi Yayınları. (From Skylife)