BOOKS - INTERVIEW - Orhan Pamuk - The Melancholy Life
Photo by Joy E. Stocke
In March, 2005, after I wrote a review of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I arranged to interview Pamuk at his studio in Istanbul overlooking the Bosporus. We corresponded by e-mail, arranged the time, and I booked my flight.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave, I received an e-mail from Pamuk asking for my phone number. The next day I received a phone call. The voice on the other end was friendly. Pamuk spoke English as fast as a native speaker, his accent inflected with the rhythm of an upper class Turkish background.
He informed me that he had left Turkey for personal reasons, but something in his voice made me doubt what he said. For more than fifteen years, I have been traveling to Turkey and am well aware that Pamuk is a lightning rod in his country addressing subjects of ethnicity, race, and history in his books and in public that have long been considered taboo. At fifty-seven, the author who has been short-listed for the Nobel Prize, has seen public burnings of his books, been vilified in the Turkish press, and has received death threats for remarks he has made that are perceived to be against the State.
Shortly before I was to interview him Pamuk had spoken to a Swiss journalist. In the interview, he made remarks expressing his opinion that during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, 100,000 Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been killed in an effort to rid the Empire of its Armenian population. Pamuk had just addressed one of the most sensitive subjects in Turkey, the charge that the first genocide of the twentieth century took place there. A charge the government has vehemently denied.
Pamuk told me that when he had spoken to the journalist, he had asked that his remarks remain off the record. After those comments were printed, death threats came thick and fast. Eventually Pamuk was charged with committing a crime against the State, and ordered to appear in court for trial. If he were proven guilty, he would be sentenced to prison. (Charges were dropped on January 23.) At the urging of friends, he sought refuge in New York City, which is where, the day after I returned from Istanbul, I interviewed him.
On the afternoon of our interview, he suggested we meet on a street corner. I arrived early and waited until I saw a man walk past wearing a blue trench coat with a blue rain hat pulled over his head. Shoulders hunched, he seemed to hesitate.
I called his name. He turned, and the face I had seen in numerous photographs smiled a charming hello. "Oh, you found me," he said.
He led me to a building with a conservatory and a piano and high ceilings and one table. Ground rules were laid immediately. "I don’t want to talk about my conversation with the Swiss journalist," he said. "I want to talk about literature."
Although the subject of the Armenians and of the responsibilities of journalists lingered in the ether, he sat down and played the piano for me. After, we talked about his work.
WRR: In Europe and the United States, it's not easy to find books by Turkish authors. How did you acquire an English language publisher?
Pamuk: In the mid 1980s there began to be an interest in my books from different countries. I was already published by Gallimard in France and Zulcam in Germany, but there was American/English interest from a small British publisher, Continent, and I began looking for a translator.
The publisher had an office in New York as well, and had ventured into the United States. They were looking for a translator and I came across Victoria Holt who translated my first book The White Castle. I’m very proud of her. She did a fine job and we received good reviews. But I could not continue with her because she was on a tenure track at the University of Ohio in Columbus and my next book was a thick, hard to translate book, The Black Book. She declined it, but suggested Guneli Gun who translated two books for me.
WRR: What was it like to work with a new translator?
Pamuk: Well, the only other language I have is English. But, I’m clumsy in English. Although I approved Guneli Gun’s translations, they received harsh criticism, especially from England. But not only from England, from the US as well. I betrayed Guneli in a way. I haven’t even told her what I tell you. Maybe she will first be reading this here. But I am the person who must be committed to the representation of my books and the only language I have is English so I felt a responsibility to my books.
There were articles in The Times of London harshly criticizing my books. There were writers who praised the first book, but said there was trouble with the next two books. Guneli’s translation of The New Life in England received The Times of London award for the worst translation of the year, while the American Translators Association gave her the prize for the best translation, which made only more confusion for me.
At that time of the reviews I asked Guneli. “Can’t you modify this voice a bit?” But in the meantime, I had changed publishers. Guneli was then with my old publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux.
But here I was in Turkey and I was not in the position to control both works and I was a Turk suggesting things to both the editor and the translator while they were going along well. I changed publishers to Knopf, which seemed to be much more enthusiastic about my books and supportive of a major book, which I thought could be commercially successful. That was My Name is Red.
Around that time I asked Knopf, “May we go ahead with Guneli or may we find someone else?”
Around that time, Guneli was also getting upset by these reviews. So I found a young man who now has his PhD and is teaching at Duke University. I approached him because he had already written some interesting papers on my work. We had met at a conference. He was a wonderful combination, a Turkish/American who understood the nuances of both languages. While he was born in America, he had Turkish roots through his mother and father who spoke Turkish at home. He covers all the nuances of my text and of course all the nuances in English.
His manuscript was revised wonderfully by his professor, Walter Andrews, a professor of medieval Ottoman poetry, which covers many of the technical terms in My Name is Red.
Unfortunately that translator was not getting along with my editor. These things happen. And these are disasters. When there’s a problem, I go around trying to extinguish the fires. It’s not because of me; it’s because of how the translator managed his relationship with the editor. But he also had to finish his PhD. Problems similar to those I had with my first translator, Victoria.
I became desperate. Now I needed a fourth translator. In other languages I only have one translator or two. I’ve been grateful to all the translators. It’s been nineteen years, twenty years. Some of them have died. I have 120 translators. My books have been translated into 40 languages. 160 books in all those languages. But really, I only know English translators. Some of my other translators use the English translations to translate into their own languages. Something that can be very dangerous, which is why the English translation must be true to the Turkish.
WRR: What did you do?
Finally, I found Maureen Freely. We are the same age. She spent part of her childhood and high school years in Turkey. She’s from Harvard as was Victoria Holt. She established herself as an author at a very early age. I remember I was trying to get my first book published in Turkey. Here I saw in Newsweek that Maureen had already published her first book. In the early 1990s when my books began to get published in England, she generously reviewed them.
We got to know each other, meeting when she came to Turkey. When I was in that desperate position I proposed that she become my translator. And she generously accepted. She is very intelligent, very quick and perceptive. She can speak several languages and began reading my books in Spanish translation
WRR: Maureen Freely translated your novel Snow to great acclaim, sensitively portraying your main character, Ka. Is he based on you?
Pamuk: He is based on a friend who left Turkey and now lives in England, a writer living with loneliness trying to make it in England. He is married to an English girl and missing his home, having second thoughts. He is a very literary person, someone I like and respect. I spent a week in London and told him, "In fact this book is based on you. Let’s do a bit of a post-modern trick. Let’s put your name in the book, but the character will be from Germany so it will confuse the reader." He didn't like that I wanted to use his name so I picked Ka, which is an allusion to Kafka: a man becoming detached from all of his surroundings.
Ka is so lonely that it looks Kafkaesque. The mind he carries, the logic, the western outlook is so different from the parochial nationalism and the political troubles of my country. He feels strange, an outsider. But, of course Ka is me after all. All the things that happened to him in Kars (a city on Turkey’s eastern border with Georgia) are word for word copies of my experience in Kars.
Like Ka, I was also followed by the police; and like in the book there really was a newspaper with a circulation of 250. Most of the people Ka met in the poor neighborhoods, I have met too. When I wrote the book, I kept my friend’s name in it all the way to the end. Only when I finished did I remove it.
WRR: What kind of reception did Snow receive in Kars?
Pamuk: My book had a good reception in Kars. The ultra-nationalists organized a press conference saying I wrote Armenian propaganda trashing their wonderful city of Kars. They said I created a character that embraced political Islam and that there is not that much political Islam in Kars, which is slightly true. But then I exaggerated that because I wanted to turn the city of Kars into a microcosm of Turkey.
More heavily in the making of the Turkish public opinion was the response of people who said they were from Kars, but had been there maybe thirty to forty years ago, or that their grandparents were from Kars. These people had invented a sugary Kars. I say in the book that once Kars was a rather sophisticated place with the Russian influence. Troops from Istanbul would come. Literary magazines were published there. There was an emerging secular middle class. These were golden days, but those days are gone and Kars is now a small and poor city with so much of its beauty destroyed. People want to live in the past and they don't want to see what's happened to their beautiful little town. They don’t want to hear it and they want to reduce our culture to a simplistic level.
WRR: You created a nemesis for Ka. A person named Blue. He seems more like an antihero to me. Who is he?
Pamuk: Some people in Turkish newspapers wrote that he is a bad guy. But so many women loved him and have said that the problem with my novel is that Ka is so weak. Women honestly don't like Ka. Ka might be the commercially weak point of the book, but maybe I am that kind of person and I like to write those kinds of books.
You know even though I have written eight books, I am very hard on myself and I don't consider myself to be prolific. But, in all my books I identify with the main character. It's always hard to give them a name so I simply call them something simple like Ka.
WRR: When did you begin doing this?
Pamuk: It began with The Black Book. In My Name is Red, the character was called Ka for quite a length of time. In my newest novel whose name is The Museum of Innocence, again the main character is called Ka. But I finally made him Kemal, which is a perfectly regular Turkish name. I feel uncomfortable if I begin a book with a central character who does not have this letter K.
WRR: Your memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, is very personal. How has your family responded to your writing?
Pamuk: With the publication of Istanbul: Memories and the City, my family was furious with me. More than my mother, my brother was furious. I lost him because of this. But then I wanted to write this. Let me tell you the psychology behind this book. Okay, I will be honest about that.
First of all I did not intend to write a book about Istanbul. As my agent Andrew Wiley was shopping around Snow, I said, “I have so many articles about Istanbul; we have to put them together and sell that book too.”
Publishers were very enthusiastic and I said to myself, I can’t just give these guys who are so honest and so strong in their support a mere collection of articles. I’m going to write a new book.
I don’t know why I did this. The New Life, for example, was written in the middle of My Name is Red. I decided I was going to write Memories and the City and stopped everything on my new book The Museum of Innocence, which is more ambitious than anything else I’ve written.
I thought I would write Memories and the City in six months, but it took me one year to complete. And I was working twelve hours a day, just reading and working. My life, because of so many things, was in a crisis; I don’t want to go into those details: divorce, father dying, professional problems, problems with this, problems with that, everything was bad.
I thought if I were to be weak I would have a depression. But every day I would wake up and have a cold shower and sit down and remember and write, always paying attention to the beauty of the book. Honestly, I may have hurt my mother, my family. My father was dead, but my mother is still alive. But I can’t care about that; I must care about the beauty of the book.
Also, I was doing a little new thing in Turkey where no one writes about these things. It was more radical. And unfortunately all the media picked up on that, a little sexual detail or masturbation or mothers or whatever, and they wrote articles that were horribly exaggerated. But anyway you have to survive it then.
WRR: How are you surviving now?
Pamuk: By writing. Day by day in my notebook, I write.
Pamuk Apartments, Nisantasi, Istanbul