An Interview with Orhan Pamuk

Characters in Orhan Pamuk novels:
An Italian scholar who becomes a slave
A blind miniaturist painter in sixteenth-century Turkey
A poet murdered, possibly, by a political extremist
A biographer attempting to woo the ex-girlfriend of a poet murdered, possibly, by a political extremist
by Alexandra Rockingham
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Orhan Pamuk

Characters in Orhan Pamuk novels:
An Italian scholar who becomes a slave
A blind miniaturist painter in sixteenth-century Turkey
A poet murdered, possibly, by a political extremist
A biographer attempting to woo the ex-girlfriend of a poet murdered, possibly, by a political extremist
by Alexandra Rockingham
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Orhan Pamuk

Alexandra Rockingham
17 Snaps

Orhan Pamuk is the author of nine books—to date, six have been translated into English: The White Castle, The New Life, The Black Book, My Name Is Red, Snow, and most recently, Istanbul. His novels address the nature of faith, God, representation and image-making, the politics of Turkey, nationalism, and love. Perhaps most notable, though, is his exploration of sensitive and pressing questions surrounding Islam and the conflation of “East” and “West.” Nowhere else than Turkey are these questions so manifest in everyday life, and now, thanks to Pamuk, they are alive not only in the literature but in the public discourse as well. In an interview with a Swiss newspaper in February 2005, he uttered a single phrase, “One million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds were killed in these lands [Turkey] and nobody but me dares talk about it.” Pamuk was charged under Penal Code Article 301/1 for “publicly denigrating Turkish identity,” which usually carries a penalty of imprisonment of six months to three years, but because the statement was made in a foreign country, if he were convicted, his prison term would be increased by one-third.

The trial of Orhan Pamuk on December 16, 2005, was bedlam: “marked by constant shouting and scuffling, turning violent at times,” PEN observers reported. It was packed with foreign diplomats, representatives of the European Parliament, Turkish intelligentsia, and international observers from various freedom-of-expression groups. Confrontations and heckling were commonplace both inside and outside the courtroom. Nationalists lining the streets hurled insults at attendees on leaving, and Pamuk’s car was pelted with eggs.

The government eventually dropped the case, citing a legal technicality. But it is assumed by most observers the charges against Pamuk were dismissed in order not to undermine Turkey’s chances of accession to the European Union. Although he is only one of well over a dozen writers, journalists, and publishers currently being prosecuted in Turkey (in the past year PEN has monitored more than sixty such cases) it’s startling that a single freedom of expression trial could have such a profound effect.

I met Pamuk at his office in Cihangir, two months before he uttered the infamous phrase. High on the fourth floor, his desk heaved with papers and books and seemed to float in a mythic vision of Istanbul. The rounded dome of a mosque loomed just outside the window, its Turkish crescent a cardboard cutout on the distant backdrop of the Bosporus.

—Alexandra Rockingham


THE BELIEVER: I read in a May 1997 New York Times interview that you take off your glasses to write. Is that still true?

OP: I think now I have… bipolar, they say?

BLVR: Um… bifocal.

OP: Yes, bifocal, I’m sorry. Bifocal glasses… but most of the time, yes, as I write, I take them off because the habit has stayed with me, and in fact, without glasses, my face can get closer to the paper—which is a nice feeling.

BLVR: So when your face gets closer to the paper—

OP: That means the outside world is closed. You follow what your hand is doing, you are reading and rereading, and even if I raise my eyes from the page, the rest of the world is blurry—which is good. Then after a while, I put on my glasses, and that’s why they’re broken. [He gestures to the joint where the arm meets the lenses] Because I do this most of the time. [Laughs as he pulls off his glasses with a twisting motion]

BLVR: When I read that you took your glasses off to write I thought it had to do with the fact that, in your books, there’s always something describing art making where, for example, in My Name is Red—an ersatz murder mystery set in the sixteenth-century court of the Ottoman Sultan—the best painters, the best of the master miniaturists, are the blind ones.

OP: Yes, OK. But for me the eternal joy of being in this world may be best represented in the joys of seeing. In all my childhood I was terrorized by the idea of going blind. I don’t think this is a unique fear, but whenever I saw a blind man in the street I would try to put myself in his place. Ninety percent of the time they were men, because blind men were at least allowed to go out into the street to beg. In my childhood I saw lots of begging men in the street—whether really blind or not, it didn’t matter.

But also, to be bored in life was, for me, to have nothing interesting to see. I remember going to my mother’s barber, and she told me: “Just sit here for half an hour, OK?” And you just look around and there’s nothing to find. You want to see something, but it’s all empty walls. You just want to commit suicide.

Movies are about seeing for me, not about stories. Sometimes as I watch a movie I forget the story. This used to happen with my wife, who later realized that I’m not an idiot; I just follow the image and then follow my own story, you know, just staring [his jaw hanging open], not necessarily because the film is boring or slow. And then occasionally I would say, “So what’s happening?” And she would say, “Don’t you understand?” [Laughs]

BLVR: I know exactly what you’re talking about. But then that’s very interesting because—in Snow, for example, there’s a phrase where you say, “a poem has arrived,” and it’s like a mystical experience, or it comes from God—

OP: Whatever. Hmm. God or Coleridge. [Laughs] Yeah.

BLVR: And making art, writing or painting, in your books, seems to be something that has to come from outside of a person. Like the way, in Snow, the main character, Ka, returns from exile in Frankfurt. He travels to Kars in eastern Turkey to research the suicide of the Islamist headscarf girls, and he is beset by poems. And being blind and having painted for fifty years, the miniaturists in My Name is Red are now able to do really good work. It’s not that they’re able to paint an earthly, normal horse well, but that they’re able to paint what God intended when he created the horse. Is it that you believe that, in order to make good work, an artist needs to be somehow blinded?

OP: No. No. In fact, as you say, behind that blindness lies so many years of labor. Those painters in My Name is Red are able to draw when they’re blind because, now that they have given thirty years to drawing the same horse, without their will or decision or their personal intended energy, even their hands have now memorized the beautiful thing.They can do it almost without any self-involvement. The implication is that art is also about craftsmanship, learning the technique, lots of repetition, and mastering an image. The time they have devoted to mastering just one line or one figure is so great that even if they don’t see, they are now gifted with God’s vision. Now that they are masters they can turn out their vision inside their heads.

And the relation of this with, say, Ka, is that he spent so much frustrating time not being able to write poetry, which was also a sort of a refining of his soul or his intellect.When it finally comes, it’s not something that he acquired for nothing.When God’s grace, so to speak, fell on him, it was because he gave—again, just like my painters—so much time and so much spiritual energy and agony to be a good poet. So I don’t think it’s essentially about blindness. Blindness is perhaps a stage, or a situation that may refer to perfection. But at first you have to give your labor, or your time, your devotion to art. That is essential. That is what I think.

BLVR: But when Ka’s poems come to him there’s mockery in your tone.

OP: Yes.

BLVR: Mockery of the inspired moment.

OP: I am aware that the reader will be aware that, just as you say, nothing of this sort can ever happen. No poem will come as it is described by Coleridge, which, we can guess, is probably a lie. But I don’t trust my own authority to convince the reader, so I refer back to Coleridge. This mannerism is not mine but Coleridge’s—it lies at the heart of Western Romantic poetry—that you’re almost possessed by the poem, then it comes, and if you make a mistake it disappears—so fragile, so graceful, and so wonderful. So Ka is doing a bit of a mechanical reproduction of Coleridge’s more genuine act, because in Coleridge there is something genuine. Even inventing that lie—it is an elegant lie—is as important as the poem itself. A sort of frame for the poet which says,“God talked to me.”


BLVR: Your books often examine the interaction between the realm of art and ideas and the realm of action. For example, in Snow, a murderous coup staged by a theater troupe during a live broadcast of their politically inflammatory play—a coup de theatre, as you call it—is undermined by the absurdity of the situation. Even to use the term coup de theatre says a great deal, probably, about your opinion of Turkish politics and the various coups that have occurred here over the last several decades, and possibly about political action or even action in general. Is there something you can say about how action and ideas—

OP: Well, I just want to interrupt you and say I’m a bookish person. To make a point about these references you’re making, my bookishness should be admitted. I should confess it. And then the Cartesian distinction between life and mind, between the perceiving and seeing and categorizing mind and the rest of human experience, and creating a strong boundary between them, which lies at the heart of positivistic Cartesian post-Renaissance Western thought beginning from, say, the seventeenth century, is, of course, another strong bookish invention. Bookish people feel comfortable when there is a boundary line between the life of the mind and the life of the body, whether obviously or in a hidden way, which is, of course, artificial. I may be that kind of person.

BLVR: In the end it does seem that you give the last word to art.

OP: Yes. Of course. We are in the world of the text. When you’re writing a book or when you’re producing a painting, you’re addressing people who’ve chosen that work. And you know that it’s a minority—no matter how popular your books are, you belong to a sort of… almost a sort of a religious minority. And in the long run we all go there, to books, for a sort of a consolation, along with some joy. We need books or paintings— I never refer to music because I’m stupid in that— because we need to be consoled.And of course, the fact that we go to the imaginary is also related to the fact that this real world—maybe the distinction is also false—is not satisfying enough.

BLVR: And art usually, or often, prefigures something which happens in the world of the book. In your books life often imitates art.

OP: Not all the time.

BLVR: But quite often.

OP: I can’t make that kind of generalization about my books, you know. If you make them, I am titillated and turned around by your observations. But if you continue to make these kinds of general statements about my work, I’m a bit disturbed. I don’t want to say yes or no, because that’s not what I do for myself.

BLVR: Snow is almost like a Platonic dialogue about the nature of faith, God, political action, Islam…

OP: Snow is also about the distinction between being a poet, and a novelist or prose writer. The tradition here in Turkey is that the poet is the person through whom God speaks. That is the art. That is the thing that you should be inborn with. That is the prestigious and glorious thing. While fiction writing—at least it used to be, maybe it’s changing—was seen as more of a sort of journalism or craftsmanship. Most of the Ottoman statesmen, and some of the Sultans and rulers, one out of three, would be poets. They would create their collection of poetry in order to prove that they were a distinguished person, educated. So in Snow, there is a sort of rivalry between the poet and the prose writer. Of course, a very boyish rivalry. Good friends, Ka and Orhan, the poet and the prose writer…

BLVR: Because Orhan turns up in Snow. Orhan is a character writing a book about his friend, the poet Ka, who is murdered, possibly by a political Islamist. So Orhan, we learn, has followed in Ka’s footsteps to try to research the book about him. Even going so far as to try to fall in love with Ipek, the woman with whom Ka was determined to fall in love—

OP: Yes. Orhan, who I sometimes jokingly say has his revenge on his character, the poet Ka, who is dead. Orhan even attempts to get his girl! [Laughing] A very bad guy! My Kurdish, old-fashioned, premodern friends, after they read Snow, say, “Orhan, how can you flirt with your dead friend’s girlfriend, or make a pass at your dead friend’s girlfriend? How can you?!” [Laughing more] They seriously said this. Suspicious of me! [Laughing really hard]

But anyway, there is that kind of boyish rivalry there. In fact, my joke about poetry is a sort of a defense, an idea that runs between the lines of Snow—that I also wanted to write poetry but God did not whisper anything to me. God only whispers to real poets, genuinely possessed. I waited and waited and waited. Nothing came. OK, he’s not telling me anything. Let me imagine, what would he tell me if he whispered? So I begin to imagine.And the things that I imagined and wrote down are my novels. [Laughing still] God’s not whispering anything, but at least I’m imagining that he is whispering, and writing that down. This is what he would have told me if he whispered. Here it is, Sir. Here are my novels. Read them. [Laughter]

BLVR: In My Name is Red, Black takes off to the east of Anatolia, as a young man, and comes back ready to begin his story. I am interested that, even in your book, which is—well, Turkey is “East” in my worldview—but even in your book set in Turkey, “the East” functions as the wilderness, as the place where the characters go to find themselves and endure suffering—

OP: I’ll tell you something. I have just come back from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taipei. And you know what they say? This is very peculiar…. No one thinks his country is completely East. In China, they say, “Yes, Mr. Pamuk, we have the same East/West question here.” They think that they are also torn between the East and the West, the way we are here in Turkey. They don’t consider themselves in China or in Tokyo completely “East.” They think that they have some part of the “West” and “East,” you see? No one, except some few British, and some Americans—maybe some French—think that they are totally Western. [Laughs] And no one—this is maybe more surprising—thinks of themselves as thoroughly Eastern. Where is west in China? Or Tokyo? They have an abundance of West in themselves. And they will tell you this, and then they will smile—knowing the strangeness of it. There is no place, perhaps, in humanity, where the subject considers himself completely Eastern.

BLVR: That’s very interesting. What does that tell us?

OP: I don’t know. I don’t want to go into it. Let me enjoy the poetry of this—the strangeness of it—first. Let’s not try to understand it.


BLVR: What about doppelgangers? I love the way you articulate it in Snow, as somebody who thinks your own thoughts.

OP: Yes, yes… or thinks the same thing at the same time.

BLVR: The relationship between the two young political Islamists, the two boys, Necip and Fazil, who thought the same thing at the same time, was very touching. And actually, in The White Castle, the relationship between the two main characters, Hoja, the master, and the Italian scholar, who is captured and becomes his slave—that relationship, surprisingly, becomes very moving. They become so intimate that their identities merge and are finally exchanged. Master and slave. And it’s—

OP: Almost, sometimes, implying bordering homosexuality, right?

BLVR: No, I don’t…

OP: Good. I’m pleased that you’re not saying that. All the male readers say: “Well, you know, Orhan, are you gay?” They love this kind of approach. I’m pleased that you’re not focusing on the eroticism…. But probably the boyish wishfulness as I wrote these things is this: the delight or fantasy of effortless, cheap communication. I have never, in my life, managed to have a good, fully developed intellectual friendship with anyone, I confess.

BLVR: Oh no…

OP: Don’t say, “Oh no.” I don’t think many people achieve that either. [Both laugh] When I was twenty I read André Gide’s journal. Maybe I’ll bring… [Pamuk leaves the office for the other small library room in the flat. His voice grows fainter and fainter as he goes down the hallway.] I’m sorry! I’m coming… [He comes back a moment later with the book.] This is selections from his… some place, I think at the beginning, should have…. [Searching for the passage] He says something:“I should not talk with the others… the desire to communicate kills my spirit.”[Long pause] “I destroy my best thoughts trying to communicate and share them with others, when I tell them in conversation.” [Long pause] These are things that stayed with me from the early journals of André Gide. Wait… here it comes…

BLVR: What?

[Pamuk sits gripping his armchair in silence. Suddenly the call to prayer blasts out of the minarets just outside his window, blaring so loudly it’s not possible to speak.We listen to the entire call to prayer, which ends eventually with the screeching click of the speakers being turned off.]

AR: It’s strange… I wanted to ask if there was anything you had written in Snow which might be dangerous or cause trouble for you… It deals so deeply with Islam… But now, I don’t think I will.

OP: Good.

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