1135) The Last Word: Orhan Pamuk : 'I Wanted to Be a Painter'

Oct. 23, 2006 issue - The three most important things to remember about the new Nobel laureate in literature, Orhan Pamuk, are location, location, location. No author better explores the divisions between East and West, in precise yet strange novels like "My Name Is Red" and "Snow," as well as the melancholy memoir-cum-mashnote to his native city, "Istanbul." Hours after winning the Nobel, Pamuk spoke to NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How important is a sense of place in your work? . .

Very important since I am the sort of person who stayed at home, who let myself become attached to streets and neighborhoods. But on the other hand, it was never self-conscious. Then I began to write "Istanbul" [a memoir that is both autobiography and a bittersweet love letter to his native city], and I began to be a bit self-conscious about my attachment to my streets.

In all your books, there seems to be a deep importance attached to where you are—and to the effect of place on how we live.

Yeah. I agree. Partly it may have had something to do with the fact that 20, 30 years ago, when I wanted to make myself a writer [Ihad] one of these things that every aspiring author has, this feeling of, Well, who cares about Turkey? Who cares about what Faulkner called his "little postage stamp of native soil"? Deciding to become a writer in a place made provincial by the fall of the Ottoman Empire, where the future for an aspiring author was not so great, that gives you a stubborn, almost reactionary attachment to your places, to your neighborhoods, to the imagery the town gives you. And you insist, Now I'm going to make this also known.

Some of your early work seems fairly fantastical compared with your later books.
But my first book, "Cevdet Bey Ve Ogullari," is like Thomas Mann's "Joseph and His Brothers"—a very realistic family saga, straight 19th-century realistic fiction. In the second, "The House of Silence," I got more into point of view, more Faulknerian, narrative voices, which I developed in "My Name Is Red." People have told me that they think I began to find my voice in "The White Castle" and "The Black Book," where I began to combine all these inner voices. Compared with some others who are more fantastic, more surrealistic, more experimental in their youth and then become perhaps wiser and more mature and more sober voiced, I developed the other way. But on the other hand, yes I agree that "The New Life," a very experimental book that I am proud of, but a tough book, is followed by "Snow," a more realistic book, almost journalistic at times. But there are hyperrealistic, almost grotesque scenes in "Snow," as well.

Do you do much research for your books?

Depends on the book. For "Snow," the research was not reading but going to that place, interviews with lots of people. Also I videotaped all the streets of that town, of Kars. For "My Name Is Red," it was lots of reading, lots of looking at pictures. For the book I'm writing now, which concerns Turkish movies from the 1970s, I see movies, I read, I think. But if someone says the value of my books rests on their painstaking research, I'm not impressed. I do the research, but I'm an artist. Or I aspire to be an artist.

What made you want to be a writer?

Originally I wanted to be a painter. I am the sort of person who cannot work in an office with others, who cannot give or take orders from others. I have to be in a room, alone, and be fanciful and dreamlike. So when I switched from painting to writing, it was a major change, of course, but in lifestyle it wasn't a change. I was still alone in a room. And years ago, when I was thinking if I'm not going to work with painting now, then I want to write [it was] because at that time, I was reading those good, thick books like "The Possessed," "The Brothers Karamazov," "Buddenbrooks," "Anna Karenina." These were books that left their mark on my spirit. For me the great authors of fiction are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mann, Proust and Nabokov.

A lot of writers have to leave home to get the attention they deserve. What was your experience?

I was here in New York 20 years ago when my wife was getting her Ph.D. at Columbia University, but I didn't get any recognition. I returned to Turkey, and recognition came afterward. I embraced my Turkishness, so to speak. I focused on what I have. I did not want to sugarize myself or do anything just to appeal to non-Turkish readers.

How important is it for a writer to bear witness to what goes on in his country?
It's not being a writer, it's being a person troubled by moral problems. You don't have to be a writer to do that, but if you happen to be a writer who's troubled by moral problems, then you get to be political. And then you have to draw a line. You have to say to NEWSWEEK, this is a day to celebrate this happy event rather than making political comments.

By Malcolm Jones
Newsweek International
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

Congratulations, Orhan Pamuk
As the Christian world knows so well, before being declared a saint, Paul was a Jew. Maybe one could go so far as to claim he was a very radical Jew. When another Jew, Jesus, began preaching what he preached, no doubt Paul got very upset. The fact that more and more people began to believe that Jesus was really the awaited "messiah" must have been the straw that broke the camel's back in Paul's mind.

We don't know the people Paul discussed his feelings with on this issue. We have no knowledge of when he decided that the death of Jesus would be best for the Jewish people. I'll bet he saw Jesus as only a stirrer-upper of events and a causer of commotion. All I can imagine is that Paul possibly made a vow to finish off this wandering, trouble-causing man and put a stop to his poor and poverty-stricken audience-like followers.

He must have lobbied hard to get the events to the crucifixion stage. I'll bet Paul was on the sidelines watching as Jesus bore the cross on his back, and he also must have been under the cross when Jesus was being crucified. I imagine victory gleamed in his eyes during those moments.

Well then, how did a man who disliked Jesus so very much turn into his greatest advocate and a spreader of his word?

From what I have read I have learned that following the crucifixion of Jesus, as Paul was returning to his home province of Tarsus, probably with a tune in his head and a whistle on his lips, he saw Jesus hovering in front of him. That must have been a frightful moment for Paul. Here was the man in whose death he had been primarily instrumental and who had died and been carried away to a cave without a breath of air in his body hovering right in front of him. Did Jesus speak to Paul? I understand he did. I understand he told him that he forgave him.

We learn that is the point in history when Paul dropped to his knees, begged for forgiveness and promised he would spread Jesus' word around the world.

He began his sojourn in the land that was the most effective of those times; like what New York and London are today. He crisscrossed Anatolia several times, beginning with what is now called Thrace and talked of nothing but the goodness of Jesus and his teachings. Through St. Paul's truthful and sincere teachings, Jesus gained respect and dignity among the pagan and Jewish worlds living in Anatolia.

With the coining of the word "Christians" by the people of Antakya, where the first cave church was secretly established, so began the journey of Christianity, and look where it has come to today.

Paul was persecuted in Rome when his head hit the ground and bounced three times. He became a saint. That is where all the tourists go today, to turn their backs to the Fountain of Trevi and toss a coin into the pool and make a wish.

I congratulate Orhan Pamuk on his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I hope this becomes a turning point in his life. I hope in all the speeches he is to make and all the discussions he will be participating in around the world over the coming year that he treats Ottoman history with dignity and respect, with truth and documentation to support and guide him. If he speaks to the countless learned historians who have no cause whatsoever to lie and if he avidly checks the records in the European, Armenian and Turkish archives, he will personally see that those who opposed him have done so on facts and knowledge and not on hearsay and emotional exaggeration. There was a very tragic turn of events in the latter history of the Ottoman Empire that concerned not only the Armenian subjects of the dynasty but the forefathers of all other subjects living in this land.

In one of your interviews, I heard you mention that your work was not as easy to read and comprehend as a Danielle Steel story. Even though I personally have read all classics with ease and pleasure but found your work slow-moving on first attempt, I, in turn, promise to re-read with patience and determination and try discover the hidden gem that is surely concealed among your words which the Nobel judges and the world at large have unearthed, and hence be a wiser and more enlightened person as a result.

Congratulations again, Orhan Pamuk!

October 15, 2006


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