Istanbulers

T

Eilleen Barroso
Orhan Pamuk

“What James Joyce did for me was this: He considered his city, as I consider Istanbul, to be on the margins of Europe, not at its center,” Pamuk, a visiting professor at Columbia, once told the BBC. “Of course, if you lived in that corner of the world, you would be obsessed with all the anxieties of nationalism — your country is important, your city is important. So if you have that feeling, then what you have to do is pull out your city, make it look and read like Paris or London — Balzac’s Paris or Dickens’s London — so that it will find its place in world literature.”
|This fall, the Swedish Academy awarded Pamuk the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature, praising him as a writer “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”

While he is indebted to Dickens and Joyce for helping him see his city on a grand scale, Pamuk’s influences as a writer lie to the east of the Thames and the Liffey: Think Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann, Tolstoy and Kafka. Pamuk is, by his own description, a “literary man who has fallen into a political situation,” a reference to the political fallout over remarks he made to a Swiss journalist in 2005. “One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands,” Pamuk said, “and nobody but me dares talk about it.” The Turkish government accused Pamuk of the crime of “insulting Turkishness,” and brought him to trial amid a growing international outcry, especially in Europe, where Turkey’s possible entry into the European Union was already a topic of debate.

During a recent public conversation with University President Lee Bollinger at Low Library, Pamuk asserted his novelist’s identity, speaking at length on the process of writing — the need for solitude, the “misery” of being separated from the act of writing by day-to-day business, and the suffering that must be endured to create a work of art. He also referred to the room where he does much of his writing, in an apartment with a view of the bridge that spans the Bosphorus and links Europe and Asia.

“A solitary place helps,” he said, “because it prepares you for alternative worlds — radical, different worlds. A room that you lock yourself in is a place where you can at least peacefully daydream alternatives.”

Despite the distractions of national politics, Pamuk’s own views and opinions remain driven by the humanistic concerns of the novelist. His defense of freedom of speech, he said, arose not for the sake of the society or the health of the government, but for “human dignity.” In fact, he said, “I [only] began to think of these issues after I was in trouble.”

Born in Istanbul in 1952 to a prosperous, staunchly secular family, Pamuk has lived most of his life in his native city. From 1985 to 1988, while his then-wife was a graduate student at Columbia, he lived in Morningside Heights and sequestered himself daily in a carrel in Butler Library, where he wrote much of what would become The Black Book (1990), about a lawyer in modern-day Istanbul searching for his missing wife. Other novels include The White Castle (1985), My Name is Red (1998), and Snow (2002), which concerns a journalist who travels to a small Anatolian town to investigate the suicides of young girls who had been forbidden to wear their traditional head scarves in school. Along with the “insulting Turkishness” charge, the politically charged subject matter of Snow did much to foster the notion of Pamuk as a “political novelist” in the public imagination. But as Pamuk’s friend and colleague Andreas Huyssen, Villard Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia, reminds us, this perception is misleading.

“Orhan wants to be known as a writer,” Huyssen says firmly. “He’s not a political creature.”

Indeed, as Pamuk wrote in The Black Book, “After all, nothing can be as astounding as life. Except for writing. Yes, of course, except for writing, the sole consolation.”

Orhan Pamuk holds an appointment in Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures and at the School of the Arts, and is the first visiting fellow on the Committee of Global Thought.