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Orhan Pamuk on Taksim Square, the Effects of 'Breaking Bad,' and Why the Future of the Novel Is in the East

Roland Magunia/DDP/Getty Images

In late May, a peaceful protest against the planned destruction of a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square ballooned into nationwide demonstrations against Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The protesters had begun to retreat when I reached Istanbul one late June afternoon. But the security forces had grown more brutal; I could smell tear gas that evening as police chased protesters into side streets. To then leave riot-scarred Istanbul the next afternoon, via a ferry, for an island where cars are not allowed, and to take a horse-drawn carriage from the dock to Orhan Pamuk’s seaside apartment was to slowly move into another world—the summer idyll, now largely abandoned, of the Istanbul bourgeoisie.

Pamuk seems to flourish in this seascape of rusty yachts and rotting piers. A strong swimmer, he immerses himself in the choppy waters of the Sea of Marmara before and after work each day. For dinner, he strolls to one of the restaurants adjoining the ferry pier, a cherished freedom after the death threats he received in 2005 from militant secular-nationalists who despise Pamuk’s apparently unpatriotic references to Turkish atrocities against ethnic minorities.

The previous decade of intense worldwide violence made the Nobel laureate seem like an anodyne mascot for better relations between Islam and the secular West—a fundamentally Westernized and nominally Muslim writer who could serve as a literary pontoon over the Bosphorus. But this pigeonholing missed Turkey’s peculiar history of hard-line secularism and Pamuk’s fascination with an officially scorned Ottoman and Islamic culture. Turkey was the first Muslim nation-state to attempt, often with brute force, top-down Westernization and secularization. Its long experience of mimicry and deracination is what gives Pamuk’s writings their melancholy undertow.

For many readers in the non-West, he seems preternaturally alert to national defeat, humiliation, and the wounded vanity and rage of those condemned to languish eternally in the waiting rooms of the modern world. Few writers have expressed more eloquently “the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations that are their next of kin.”

Bulent Kilic/AFPC

Pamuk’s sense of the absurd, and his taste for paradox, enriches a dialogical imagination in which secularists, Islamists, conservatives, liberals, Marxists, and fascists ceaselessly exchange roles as oppressors and victims. His scenarios of insoluble contradiction also anticipated the arrival of mass democratic politics in Turkey and other countries, where conflicts previously suppressed now erupt in public spaces. A character in Snow points out the dreadful predicament of the well-off liberal in Egypt, as well as Turkey:

No one who’s even slightly westernized can breathe free in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than intellectuals who think they’re better than everyone else and look down on other people. If it weren’t for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them and their painted women and chopping them all into little pieces.

I had arranged to meet Pamuk well before the protesters gathered at Gezi Park in late May. Sitting on his lime-scented veranda by the sea, Pamuk was reluctant to speak of the protests, but when he did, he revealed a shrewd political mind and a confidence about the new social consciousness the demonstrators represent.

Pankaj Mishra: There seem to be two common descriptions of your work in the English-speaking world. One is of you as a Turkish writer, addressing Turkey’s history. The other is of you as an international writer, engaged in the project of creating a world literature. Neither of those descriptions seems to me to be quite right. Your work seems to belong to the tradition of people like Dostoevsky or Junichirō Tanizaki, who are writing about societies where the biggest preoccupation seems to be incomplete modernity, societies that have been prescribed the project of catching up with the West.

Orhan Pamuk: I agree with this description. One side of me is very busy paying attention to the details of life, the humanity of people, catching the street voices, the middle-class, upper-middle-class secret lives of Turks. The other side is interested in history and class and gender, trying to get all of society in a very realistic way.

PM: What was the initial reaction in Turkey to a writer who belonged very much to the secular elite, drawing upon Ottoman history, Islamic history, in the Western art form of the novel?

OP: At first, some people were a bit upset and grumpy. I was not using the pure Turkish that the previous generation of writers had used. I used, not excessively, the language of my grandmother—including Ottoman, Persian, Arabic words, which Turks use daily. And so they were grumpy about that. I remember also when I was showing some of my early work, people would say: “Why are you interested in all this failed Ottoman history? Why won’t you catch up with today’s political problems?” I wanted to tell a romantic and dark side of Ottoman history that was also slightly political, saying to the previous generation of writers, “Look, I’m interested in Ottoman things, and I’m not afraid of it, and I’m doing something creative.”

For an Orhan Pamuk reading guide, click here

PM: I think you once said that you started to think about Ottoman history and Persian and Arab literature as a resource for your writing during a trip to the United States in 1985.

OP: This happened when I was thirty-three. My ex-wife was getting her Ph.D. at Columbia, and I flew for the first time in my life to America: I was wowed by American libraries, American culture, its openness, its vastness. At that time, they used to publish three thousand books in Turkey—in America, eighty thousand books a year in immense libraries. And I didn’t exist in the American media, no one knew me. I was a minor Turkish writer. Then you feel humbled and angry. You want to go back and be in your room with all the Sufi stuff and invent modern Turkish identity and culture. And there were also anxieties, feelings of humiliation, Naipaul-like.

PM: I came across this line of yours about the period from 1975 to 1982 when murder and political violence and state oppression were at their heights: “To lock myself up in a room to write a new history, a new story with allegories, obscurities, silences, and never-heard sounds, is of course better than to write another history of defects that seeks to explain our defects by means of other defects.”

OP: Around the age of thirty, I began to learn that complaint is the sweetest thing in the non-Western world. You’re complaining about corruption, you’re complaining about lack of this, lack of that. But in the end, that doesn’t make good fiction. Good fiction is about asserting the beauties of the world, inventing a new, positive thing. Where am I going to get that? And it should be original; it should not be clichéd. So the way I looked at history was not to accuse it of failure. In a way, my generation was asking a naïve question: Where did we fail? Meaning Ottomans. Why didn’t we come up with the bourgeoisie like Europe? They were always trying to answer this question.

PM: That question is now asked in different ways: Why has Turkey turned Islamist? There is the assumption that secularization leads to the development of progressive political forces and progressive art forms, but now Turkey seems to be going back and becoming more Muslim.

OP: I would say politically and also culturally, that this change is not that deep really. Perhaps the class that I belong to doesn’t have political power anymore, but I feel that my generation has the cultural power. And yes, maybe Turkey has an Islamist conservative government, but on the other hand, they are not culturally that powerful. Culture is represented by—I wouldn’t say the left, but definitely by the secularists. That’s why, until recently, the minister of culture in Erdoğan’s government was a secular, leftist guy, who was just fired some six months ago.

PM: But do you think the [Justice and Development] AK Party really feels its cultural powerlessness in that way?

Illustration by Oliver Barrett

OP: No, they feel powerful now. For quite a long time, the AK Party and all these conservatives always appropriated secular guys and—I don’t want to say used them, which is a bad word—but encouraged them: Just write whatever you want, you can even express your secular ideas in our newspaper. Because at that time, they were insecure. They didn’t know about modern culture. They all felt provincial, backward. They felt they didn’t even know how to run newspapers’ art pages; they always borrowed. But they’re not borrowing anymore.

PM: In Erdoğan’s rhetoric, there are still a lot of pointed barbs at the old secularist elite.

OP: He is doing that, but not in the realm of culture. He is doing that in other ways. About privileges, about the rules of the political game, which he’s always upset about, about the intervention of the military.

PM: So a lot of liberal secularists also voted for him because—

OP: I don’t know. I never voted for him.

PM: I have come across a lot of praise for Erdoğan’s toughness among leading politicians in Indonesia and Pakistan. They say, “We need a man like that to put the army and the crazies back in the barracks and to make the transition from decades of despotism or military rule.”

OP: Yes, he is a brave guy in the sense that he can say no to the army. On the other hand, he was cleverly negotiating with Europe—saying, “Hey, you want to take Turkey in?” And also, “Help me, so the army won’t throw me out.” He also learned that hard-core Islamic policies would scare Turkish voters. Necmettin Erbakan, the previous Islamist, was more fundamentalist, but if he followed that ideology, he would lose votes. At the beginning, Erdoğan took a more modest approach—“I’ll respect your culture, I’ll respect your opera,” or whatever. Now he trusts himself more, his party is more self-confident, and he doesn’t need Europe, because the army is marginalized. It may be that he’s feeling too arrogant.

PM: Let me take a leap here and go to Snow.

OP: Both My Name is Red and Snow were written with the projection that political Islam may one day come into power.

PM: What was the reaction to Snow here?

OP: Snow is my most popular book in the United States. But in Turkey, it was not as popular as My Name is Red, or even The Museum of Innocence, because the secular leaders didn’t want this bourgeois Orhan trying to understand these head-scarf girls.

PM: The review by Christopher Hitchens has the same expectation: Here is Orhan Pamuk trying to interpret the East for us. But why is he not interpreting it the way we want him to? Why is he soft on the Islamists?

OP: For me, the novelty is trying to identify with someone like Blue, who is much more of a hard-core fundamentalist than Erdoğan. Obviously, I’m also against his political program, and I wanted my readers to at least have a sense of a radical Islamist’s point of view.

PM: Snow seems to say to me that, if you’re going to have democratization, a certain degree of Islamization is inevitable.

OP: I wouldn’t say Islamization—I would say coming to terms with Islamic culture, not seeing all aspects of it as a negative thing, but accepting its peculiarities.

Also don’t forget that my generation was different. We were thinking, Enough of these military coups. Secularism that has to be defended by the army comes at a cost. Once in ten years, there is a military coup. Once in two years, there is martial law. Kurds are repressed, conservatives are repressed. If you want to stick to your very narrow definition of secularism, how are you going to have democracy?

PM: There is also a character in the book who makes the journey from being a leftist to being a fundamentalist.

OP: That’s someone who would probably be in Erdoğan’s party today.

PM: This is a journey a lot of people in Muslim countries have made.

OP: Especially poets. So many poets who were very harsh Marxists in their youth, who were admirers of Western civilization, switched to Islam.

PM: The pattern seems to show that secular ideologies had been exhausted. And at some point, a lot of these people made the decision to embrace—

OP: The nation, the culture, history, the idea of belonging.

PM: What agitated a lot of the readers of the book at that time, including Hitchens, is that the book is portraying devout Muslims, or political Muslims, in a sympathetic light, when Turkey is already making the journey from religion to modernity. So why do we need a modern, Western writer talking about these people in a sympathetic way?

OP: The duty of the novelist, if he or she is going to be ethical, is to see the world through a character’s point of view rather than obeying some theoretical inevitability. And believe me, those inevitabilities in history never work out. It’s always something else.

PM: In all of these books, there is always a kind of invisible political unease. And many of these books, they’re leading up to a coup or set just afterward. Do you think the fact that you couldn’t really directly address some of these political issues—

OP: Not because I was shy.

PM: No, no, no.

OP: Because other writers were addressing them so much. I was always upset by the openly political way that my generation wrote lots of books about brave guys fighting right-wing government forces, ending up in jail, getting tortured. How many Third World novels are like that? And we Turks have a lot of them. So I wanted to deliberately avoid that literature, while on the other hand, these guys were my friends. I also believed in what they believed. I remember, for example, a little portrait of one character who was tortured in The Black Book. I thought this would kill the atmosphere of the book and so I deleted that. I had a moral inclination to address these issues, but I also felt that they made the book a little cheaper, because everyone was doing that.

PM: In a strange way, this atmosphere of political repression and censorship allowed writers to be imaginatively freer.

OP: No. Look. There is a lot of political repression in Turkey, especially previous generations. Writers suffered so much. And I have also had problems. I had my problems not because of my novels, always because of my interviews. Political statements I made outside of my novels. And even before Erdoğan’s party, sex was the problem in the novels. It wasn’t so much politics.

PM: I think it’s the same in China today. You can do a lot in the novel.

OP: Yes. Also, if you’re a bit famous, that helps.

PM: You’ve said that you used to think the center of the world was somewhere else, but now you think that it is in Istanbul. What has shifted for you?

OP: Well, when I was born here sixty-one years ago, this city had a million people. Now they say it’s thirteen, fourteen million. Turkey was a poor country. Not very interesting. Now political Islam is on the world’s agenda, and everyone’s interested in what is going on here. There has been a lot of social change, followed by economic success, especially in the last fifteen years. In that sense, Turks should feel proud that the world is paying attention to their problems.

PM: Is the economic success of countries like Turkey or India or China going to breathe new life into the novel?

OP: I think so. I strongly believe that. The novel is a middle-class art. And we see the proliferation of middle classes in India, China, definitely in Turkey, so everyone is writing novels. If you want to predict the future, I can predict that in Europe, in the West, the importance of literary novels will decrease, while in China, India, popular literature will continue. Innovation will come from there, because the populations are large, there will be a lot of production.

I’m writing a novel now about immigration to Istanbul. Starting in the late-’50s, especially in the ’60s, immigration to Istanbul from the poorest parts of Turkey began. And then Turkish shantytowns were beginning to be built in the mid-’50s, but in the ’60s, they flourished. This is not a middle-class changing of cultures. This is the proletariat, the most dispossessed.

I have assistants right now doing research, talking to people, reporting to me. How did street vendors or yogurt sellers in the 1970s behave? That kind of small detail. When I was collecting material, I said to myself, My God, I’m doing what Stendhal did, what Balzac did. All the experience from after Stendhal, from after Balzac, from Jorge Luis Borges to Thomas Pynchon, from surrealistic things to James Joyce or William Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez—I can benefit from their experience. But essentially, I’m doing what Stendhal did in The Red and the Black—a poor guy coming to town and striving—but in many different forms. Which proves that the art of the novel has immense continuity, because it has elasticity. It can use anthropology, it can use essays, New Journalism, blogs, the Internet. You can make novels out of everything. Journalists call and say, “Mr. Pamuk, the art of the novel is dying.” No, it’s not. It’s strong, everyone is writing them, everyone wants to read them. Maybe we’re not so interested in what is happening in London, but we’re interested in what’s happening in Zadie Smith’s new novel. I think the form has immense possibilities.

PM: In a place like America, the TV serial is now slowly replacing the novel—“The Wire” or “Breaking Bad.”

OP: I agree. Replacing Dickens. They’re sophisticated. That really kills the novel—it takes away the regular pleasures of reading novels. The power of those sophisticated serials is that you watch it with your wife, your friends, and you can immediately chat about it. It’s a great pleasure to enjoy a work of art and to be able to share it with someone you care about.

PM: Going back to recent events, do you think the conservative varieties of political Islam will only grow because of this process of millions of people coming into cities during a time of democratization, when people can express their political preferences?

OP: Partly, what you see with the Taksim and Gezi Park events is that, once the country is rich, the sense of individuality is stronger. You can’t run it using the old authoritarian ways. Even if you control the media, as Erdoğan did, individuals go out and revolt in the park. And it was not organized. Political parties were not capable of managing it. Moderates and the modern individual can live together in a society if everyone knows their limits. The problem here was that Erdoğan was behaving like an old-fashioned, 1930s ruler. Doing everything, managing everything. Saying, “I have fifty percent, shut up.” Well, yes, you have fifty percent, but we have seventy-two million people who are not completely like you.

The Taksim events were a good way of saying to Erdoğan, or to any future leader of Turkey, or to anybody in this part of the world, that once a country gets too rich and complex, the leader may think himself to be too powerful. But individuals also feel powerful. And they just go out in parks and say no. They may not have a political program and a party, but they go out and say an impressive no. I was really happy about that.

PM: There was an article in The Guardian saying that Europe should publicly condemn Erdoğan.

OP: In the long run, I think it would be a great mistake on Europe’s part to take this Taksim spectacle, extremely mismanaged by Erdoğan, and use it to kick Turkey out. The people in Taksim Square—not all of them are politically correct, but they represent the individuality of the new, emerging Turkey. You have to look at them and say, “These are modern individuals who will share our values and positively add to the idea of Europe.” Punishing Turkish people just to punish Erdoğan is wrong.

PM: Is there a sense here that the European Union is a very troubled project itself?

OP: Of course. We are neighbors to Greece. The problems of the European Union gave Turkey a feeling of superiority: Well, five years ago, you were not even taking us? Ha, ha, ha.

I think that’s a misguided sentiment—that, in the long run, Turkey should join the EU. This kind of cultural arrogance is not right. We still have lots of problems of free speech; our democracy is not complete.

PM: Do you find, as a writer, that you carry too much of the burden of explaining these very complex problems to the outside world?

OP: Yeah, the Taksim events happened, and my mail was full of letters saying, “Orhan, please explain them to us …” I used to do this fifteen years ago, but I don’t want to be a journalist. Maybe I’m old. I will try to write something poetic, more personal, than There is this party, and that party, and social democracy. The younger generation should do it. I don’t want to explain Turkey in a journalistic way to anyone. Except you, Pankaj. [Laughter]

Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book is From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia.