Transcript from an interview with Orhan Pamuk


Transcript from an interview with Orhan Pamuk, 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature, on 6 December 2006. Interviewer is Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.

Orhan Pamuk during the interview
Orhan Pamuk during the interview.

My name is Horace Engdahl, I am the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish academy, and here beside me is Mr Orhan Pamuk, the literary Nobel Laureate of the year 2007. Welcome. First question I would like to ask you to describe the circumstances around your first book? How you came to write it and what kind of writer you thought you were going to be when you wrote it.

Orhan Pamuk: As I narrated in my book Istanbul, which is half an autobiography, half an essay about the town, I wanted to be a painter between the ages of 7 and 22, and with mysterious reason which I cannot explain with one single sentence, but which it took me so perhaps answer the whole Istanbul book to explain, I quit the drawing or painting or in fact my desire to be a painter and immediately started writing my first book Cevdet Bey and His Sons. I had an idea about the book, but more so I’d been reading fiction, seriously fiction, for the last eight years, seven years, and I had a deep understanding or some sort of understanding of what I wanted to do in literature, that I wanted to write a 19th century novel, a sort of family chronicle …

Like Buddenbrooks?

Orhan Pamuk: Buddenbrooks or like The Forsyte Saga, chronicling the adventures of a Turkish upper middle class rich family with the emergence of the new Turkish ruling elites. And yes, Buddenbrooks was a heavy influence on that book and I started to make myself a sort of a 19th century old fashioned realist. I have still some readers in Turkey who tell me that Well, this is your best book, Mr Pamuk, with these other experimental novels you have lost whatever I had in that book, which I sometimes naively listen and say I may even have one or two seconds of regret, maybe I should have continued in that line.

I have no opinion on that, but please continue.

Then there was a military coup and I realised that I cannot publish that book …

Orhan Pamuk: Then after a while it took for me four years between early 23 and 26 to finish that book, it took another three years, in fact four years, to publish that book, but in between time there was a military coup in Turkey, and right after finishing that I gave that manuscript to a competition for unpublished manuscripts which I won, but then publication at that time was hard.

Then I began writing my second novel, which was in fact a political novel, but like Snow a political novel written not for propaganda but to explore the youthful and a sort of anarchic enthusiasm my generation of upper middle class Istanbul, secular boys were enjoying with the heavy influence of Marxism at that time.  Then there was a military coup and I realised that  I cannot publish that book, I switched, I began writing a third book which is my published second book which is The Silent House, and then finally in 1982, I managed to get published this first book, 600 pages of family chronicle also narrating the coming into being of the Turkish upper middle classes, the invention of the Turkish identity, in fact the making of the …

You’re referring to The Silent House?

Orhan Pamuk: No. I’m referring to the first book. Once I published that, that was successful, I got national prizes. Then I continued with The Silent House, after which, and that was also successful, I began to find my voice. These two books, the first one was typically 19th century realism and the second one was also influenced by Faulkner kind of point of view …

Point of view …

Orhan Pamuk: … points of view which I experimented more radically in My Name Is Red. The third book was a strange book which took its final shape with coincidences is The White Castle, it’s the story of a 16th century Ottoman scholar who buys Italian slaves, so to speak, and then sort of dramatical interchange of the spirits of these people, sort of an east west novel in which I began to experiment a little and also went to places when I was writing the book that I was not sure about.

Yes, and that book won you international fame.

Orhan Pamuk: The White Castle was published in 1985 and there, at that time, when it was published, I was in the United States, the Columbia University in New York, a sort of, as I sometimes jokingly tell, my being my wife’s husband because I was the spouse and she was taking her PhD. Columbia University was kind to me and I was also teaching and giving native Turkish courses while, on the other hand, I had a little room at the library in which I wrote more than half of The Black Book, and it’s very typical of the non-resident person coming through main cultural centres of western civilisation, say London, Paris, New York, and then having a sort of an anxiety about his cultural identity and I lived these things when I was … and I faced the immense richness of American libraries and culture.

… there at the age of 32 I begin to read old Sufi allegorism …

Then I begin to ask myself what is Turkish culture? What am I doing there? And at that time I used to think that Turkey’s cultural roles, identity, should only be a sort of an ultra-Occidentalism, there at the age of 32 I begin to read old Sufi allegorism, the whole classic texts of classic texts of Islamic mysticism, most of them are classical Persian texts, with an eye on Borges and Calvino whom they have taught me to look at literary texts as not as a sort of a structures which has metaphysical qualities, I have learned from Borges and Calvino to delete the very heavy religious way of classical Islamic text and try and see these texts as sort of geometrical shapes and metaphysical structures and allegories …


Orhan Pamuk: Parables full of literary games …

And paradox of course.

Orhan Pamuk: Yes. And then after the heavy influence of 19th century novel, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust and Nabokov and Faulkner, Borges and Calvino opened a way to look at, a secular way of looking at classic Islamic heritage.

Yes, I mean it’s amazing the richness of the oriental material that you bring into especially The Black Book, I mean It’s overwhelming for a western reader, and one starts to ask oneself questions like in which languages have you read all these …

Orhan Pamuk: Oh, most of them I have read ironically enough, of course in Turkish, and in English and I’m heavily indebted to a Turkish translation of /- – -/ which was very well translated to Turkish, but /- – -/ translation even the /- – -/ edition was a sort of an inspiring encyclopaedia of medieval Islamic culture with all its glory, with all its rhetoric and literary games that I was now my desire to say to the rest of the world, to the western, great western writers, you know, there is also some literary material here. I think that all the questions of literary heritage, identity, most of the time are answered by these people who are heavily influenced by the international style, international avant garde so to speak.

It’s true that more than once when you read The White Castle and The Black Book you think of Calvino for instance, Le città invisibili, Invisible Cities which I suppose you must have liked, but still there’s a lot of it that is very unexpected to the western reader and it has to do of course with the Sufi tradition and also where the writing’s are roomy, especially.

Orhan Pamuk: There is also an influence of Arabian Nights or as the Turks call it One Thousand and One Nights, I think that book, although the details, some of the stories, are oriental, actually a western invention, a sort of an … it’s found by the western compilers who had put together books, some of the books, some of the most famous stories are not even … we doubt that now, are not even original, but that book as a sort of a book which comes from, heavily from Indian tradition going through Arabic and Persian influences, and then as a sort of a text, an ocean of stories, which was given a shape and an understanding and elevated to a higher stature by the French and English, Orientalist was also behind The Black Book, the idea of constantly telling stories, the idea of a person who is in deep trouble but who cannot face that his trouble, problems, who instead of addressing the question gives you another story, is a heavy influence but with a light touch from Arabian Nights.

Yes, but in The Black Book you seem to move from story to story through tales and parables endlessly and there is no end, there is no bottom, and there is no origin either.

Orhan Pamuk: There’s no?


Orhan Pamuk: I thought that the formula or the structure of The Black Book, the idea was to put together whatever you find interesting about Istanbul, its old book shops, its stories, Its mysteries, the chemistry of its streets, and what I have lived and loved when I lived there all my life, remembering your childhood and try to see the city as a sort of a place where layers of layers, things and images, history and myth combined, and combine this with experimental post modern European avant gardism, all together with a classical Sufi text and see what happens. I strongly believe that creativity in literature comes from first an understanding that you have to put together two things that have never been put together and see if there is an electricity in between them, of course for here the author, the narrator wants to be the source of that electricity.

Someone makes that remark in My Name Is Red, that there’s great innovations in painting often come from two different traditions being brought together at a specific point. So I suppose you can use this in writing as well as in painting.

… the beginnings of good art or different art is a Dadaist idea.

Orhan Pamuk: I think Dadaists are so important in literature although that at first they were the source for surrealists, but the idea of bringing things that we at first think that are impossible to bring together or almost daring and scandalous to combine, in fact Dadaist taught us that the art can be putting first an attempt to put together things that never came together, the beginnings of good art or different art is a Dadaist idea.

In The Black Book there’s also for a western reader this magic of the fluent identities that sometimes even borders on Metempsychosis and is this something that came to you during the writing? Because you have the element of course in The White Castle, but it’s so much more poetic in The Black Book.

Orhan Pamuk: I like the idea, maybe personal, but that the boundary of human personality is not strong, my understanding of human nature is not Freudian, but I think that there are no essences of, there are no characters or essences that make us constantly. I believe that we constantly change, and these are dear ideas which in my novels perhaps I combine with my countries, Turkey’s history that of, you know, having two souls, two spirits, that of believing in nature and harmony with TUSTUS science, while on the other hand keeping an eye on the fact that there is almost always a dramatical tension with two sides of our personality. We have to address these issues, we have to see these hidden depths or hidden characters in us, but on the other hand believe that we have to search for these dark places deep inside us, rather than thinking flatly that they will not come together, that east and west will not come together, that harmony between peoples or cultures are impossible, these are ideas I do not believe in.

No but there’s also this fascinating thing in The Black Book that makes for a lot of the tensions that are … whenever someone tells a story he or she is gradually transformed into the object of that story, and when you make love you imitate someone else making love, when you start to write you imagine yourself to be the writer you’re going to be as in the extreme case of the main character becoming his relative Celal or whatever, and this is, you know, to me there is a great western French philosopher and literary scholar who’s been working in the United States for most of his life, René Girard, I don’t know If you’re familiar with his work?

Orhan Pamuk: Yes, of course.

And his theory of mimetical desire and it fits very well with your …

Orhan Pamuk: I understand, I am an admirer of René Girard’s work but I have come across him later in years, The Scapegoat, Sacrifice, I like these subjects, but on the other hand it was a rather simplistic or simple idea that I think that even in the worst conditions that to be able to tell a story is a sort of a great relief for me, that I believe that in fact if there are Hegelian minds who are trying to over- rule each other which is a Hegelian point of view of history, I think that my understanding of people’s wills or minds clashing is who is going to tell who’s story earlier? Who is going to impose his or her story? It think all of my characters in various books be it My Name is Red, be it The Black Book or even Snow, the one who manages to tell his story, pass his story, survives or telling stories is a way of surviving and continuing to live.

Yes, this is true, I mean there is this rivalry for instance in Snow between the poet Ka and Blue, the religious leader, they are struggling for the same woman, for the same women, and God knows who comes out victorious because you leave lots of things open in that novel. And it comes to a moment towards the end of the book which I find particularly fascinating when Ka is actually betraying Blue to the security forces and he’s killed, and why does he do that? We’re never told, but there’s one hypothesis that’s put forward is that Ka suddenly came to realise that he is not as he had believed, the sublime poet, he’s the poet clerk and it’s the other one who is so to say chosen by the gods. I find that particularly arresting I must say and it brings to mind something that i personally feel to be one of your sort of … one of the keys to your work, now I’m advancing a very, daring hypothesis, but I have to do it, namely that jealousy is one of your main things.

Orhan Pamuk: I agree, that this begins from … it was strong even in my early book Cevdet Bey and his Sons, that was jealousy between brothers, then there is, it is still there in The Silent House, obviously there a sort of a not jealousy but a sort of this time Hegelian master and slave form in The White Castle and it continues that presence of a person who may be more wiser, more intelligent, more cunning and who goes to a place that is, and enjoys a life which is richer and deeper than us is another theme that I like and it’s also related to jealousy, and I continue to have that theme all my life including in my autobiographical Istanbul book in which I mention about a sort of rivalry with my brother.

Yes, yes. And I think in My Name is Red it’s very obvious, this force …

Orhan Pamuk: Yes, it’s who …

The emotional basis of the whole novel.

Orhan Pamuk: Is that who is the best artist is an idea that is hovering around and makes all the artists more jealous and in fact leads to the murder of …

It leads to violence.

Orhan Pamuk: Yes.

That’s interesting. If I may come to address the question of your role as a writer, you’ve been saying something in interviews that I have read about how much you value isolation, that what really makes you write is that you can retire into a room where you’re absolutely alone and even bored, and when nothing happens and you can sit hour after hour and the only thing that will ever happen there is that you start to write. This of course brings to mind the famous passage in one of Montaigne’s essays where he talks about his “arrière boutique”, the secret to how you always have to keep behind the shop where you never let anybody into and where things like your wife, your children, your father, your mother, your country doesn’t exist for you any more, where you’re absolutely alone.

Orhan Pamuk: Montaigne invented first for the western, French and western civilisation the idea of a solitary person who reads books on his own, passes judgement on his own, who believes his idea and his reasoning and then has a deep conviction of brotherhood of humanity, of all the persons in the world because we share the same mind, and he I think paved the way for not only the enlightenment and glorification or proliferation of western thoughts but this idea which I cherish, that of the solitary person who not necessarily political, but who at the back of his room reads, writes and produces something that had never been thought before entirely, that is the beginnings of perhaps the uniqueness, the cult of personality in western civilisation, the uniqueness of the character and the consequence of these thoughts are style, style in literature so forth, and …

And also this particular structure that you touch upon that is the relationship between the implicit writer and the implicit reader.

Orhan Pamuk: I see.

Because that really doesn’t exist before Montaigne in my view.

Orhan Pamuk: Yes I agree.

It’s a result of this.

… he explores perhaps first the inner depths of his soul …

Orhan Pamuk: So my idea of a writer is not a person, a social person, a person who expresses himself in society or in a community but a person who for this or that reason, tragically or self, with joy, who leaves the community, the society, the group, the tribe, the nation or that he or she belongs, and first it’s some sort of an instinct that he doesn’t want to understand, goes to a room and writes there. There he explores perhaps first the inner depths of his soul but then comes out with something new which will address to all humanity because the essential idea being that we are all, we have the same kind of minds.

Yes. Yes. I mean probably the possibility of being alone between four walls is the greatest leap forward in the history of civilisation …

Orhan Pamuk: Hoping this belief that in your loneliness you’re writing something but then there is a secret or unexpressed belief that it will address the hearts of the other readers, that is a strong belief in humanity.

Yes, I think you can see in Montaigne, you have this idea /- – -/ when he has a friend, you know, de La Boetie, and …

Orhan Pamuk: He wrote very well about friendship.

Yes, when the friend dies he has to find someone else and that is eventually the reader.

Orhan Pamuk: I see, I agree yes.

That’s how it happens, and this has to be an anonymous reader, it’s very important, because earlier everybody writes for people they know, they have an addressee that is known that is socially close so to speak, but from this moment on it’s anybody.

Orhan Pamuk: Yes, and modernity was invented with this idea that we are not, yes, we are not writing for one particular person, but then we’re addressing a sort of an other non-existent in a room, but with a non-existent readership.

And the book is calling forth someone who would be this person, able to understand.

Orhan Pamuk: I have all my life played around with the idea of the reader looking over my text over my shoulder, sometimes talking with them, which upset my readers sometimes, sometimes openly addressing them, sometimes playing around with their expectation, sometimes pulling the reader into the story, sometimes also introducing myself or a person who is very like me as also, figures who talk with the reader …

You use your own name.

Orhan Pamuk: Yes, I use them, then obviously they are characters who are very close to me, maybe someone, a fictional realistic portrait of me.

But not quite you yet.

Orhan Pamuk: Yes, yes. We have to be elusive to continue in this art of fiction, we should never give up everything, but we should continue to give up something from the inner depths of our spirit, from our heart. I believe the power of fiction comes from also, not only from that, but of course also from frankness, from honesty, from telling the truth which your friends suspect that you will never tell, be not politically but spiritually brave and believe that at one part, a student, a person like you, a person who maybe 30 years, 40 years younger but who may experience the same thing either in your country or in another corner of the world, will share the sentiments, these little details that you would think that’s only personal and should be neglected, will address the hearts of every reader.

Yes, on the other hand one has to ask oneself at some point whether this possibility of sharing is universal, I mean you deny the clash of civilisation, right, and of course what you show in your writing is how things go around and return from unexpected directions and things that you believed to be foreign are actually very close to yourself, and vice versa. On the other hand I as a western reader, a Nordic reader, have to ask myself if there is something in your books that you believe is difficult for a northerner or a westerner to understand. Let me point to one rather peculiar detail in one of your books, in Istanbul, when you speak about some famous travel logs written by French poets in the 19th century, Gérard de Nerval, Voyage en Orient. I’ve read that book, it’s a marvellous book, I mean it’s a marvellous description of what he calls Constantinople, at the beginning of his visit to Constantinople he gets out to look at the Sultan, you know, and you have picked this up, and the Sultan is leaving his carriage and Nerval believes that he meets the eye of the Sultan, do you remember that?

Orhan Pamuk: Yes.

And he feels such pity for the Sultan and it’s almost a spontaneous brotherhood that emerges between these two men in a matter of seconds, you know, when he thinks through what must be this man’s existence with his slave women and all that sort of thing, but you deny the possibility of Nerval catching the Sultan’s eye and I must ask myself why, and is that not a way of telling us that …

Orhan Pamuk: I think that …

… no you don’t quite understand.

Orhan Pamuk: … the detail that comes across other travel books as well, that everyone go to this Friday the Sultan is going around and you can see him only on Fridays, and they’ll go there and they’ll say “oh we came eye to eye and we had a little sort of a spiritual one moment understanding” which I thought was a …

So it’s sort of a cliché …

Orhan Pamuk: I thought it was a bit of a cliché, and then of course there were most of these in mid 19th century French visitors are writing for the newspapers, for your /- – -/ now, and then you have to be, you know, it’s like “a reporter came face to face with the Sultan and they had a moment of understanding” which is good, yes, which is good, but also on the other hand there is this very western idea that, not Muslim or Eastern, that you come an eye to an eye and then, in those days he has also passages like that, then our story teller meets a reporter or a novelist or a Gérard de Nerval or a traveller, begins to put himself in the shoes of this other person …

That’s exactly what it is.

… that it’s very interesting to understand the other.

Orhan Pamuk: … which is a great invention, which is the beginnings of the art of the novel. I strongly believe that what makes the art of the novel continue with all its glory is that it is about compassion, understanding others, people who are not like us, it is about the human beings desire to put itself, himself, herself in the place of the other that’s strange, even as strange as the Ottoman Sultan, and he wants to understand this person, that is the beginning of putting a frame into the world and thinking that we can understand each other, that it’s very interesting to understand the other. We read novels thinking that here is a representation of an other, say a man is writing about a woman, Gérard de Nerval is writing about the Ottoman Sultan, very different entities, but we enjoy a novel not believing that here is a woman speaking, we enjoy a novel here is Tolstoy imagining a woman, adulterous woman and we know that this is … we also know that we never lose that this is written by a man who is not in the same shoes, but the interesting thing as we read a novel and we …

We will …

Orhan Pamuk: … we think that Flaubert is doing his best to identify with Madame Bovary, and then we follow the novel both … It’s not a one to one representation of a woman but a man’s attempt to understand the other.

So if we judge Nerval as a reporter we must say he was wrong, but if we look at him as a writer he was right.

Orhan Pamuk: As a reporter he was using the regular clichés, but as an artist he was developing, he has such a nature of inborn storyteller, injects the story and injects a situation.

Because it is a very good story.

Orhan Pamuk: He had, he managed to identify with the Sultan like that.

Well, I have no further questions as they say in the courts.

Orhan Pamuk: Thank you, it was a pleasant conversation.

Thank you very much.

Orhan Pamuk: Thank you very much.

Interview, December 2006

Interview with the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Orhan Pamuk, 6 December 2006. The interviewer is Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.

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