The full text of Orhan Pamuk’s opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2008, hold on 14th October 2008:
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Guests,
This is my fourth visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair. My last visit took place in 2005 when I came to accept the German Book Trade ‘s Peace Prize. It is cheering to look into this crowd and see my friends from the Publishers & Booksellers Association, who bestowed that great honour on me, and to recognise quite a few of my editors and publishers, whom I met when they came from all over the world to attend the ceremony at Paulskirche, along with so many of my friends from the press.
When I first came to the Frankfurt Book Fair, to walk for the first time through its ever larger and more crowded halls, I did not feel as relaxed as I do today. The White Castle – my first novel to be translated into German – was published in 1990. The translation was awarded a prize; my translator and I were invited to Frankfurt. Dr Unseld, who was my publisher at that time, was full of smiles; the critics said sweet things, everyone was very kind to me. I should have been happy and relaxed, but I was tense, for I had been badly disillusioned. As is so often the case when something cuts us very deep, I could not quite manage to define it at the time; eighteen years on, I am finally able to state it openly.
I felt uneasy and disillusioned because, having come to Frankfurt, I could see that the world publishing industry was much bigger and richer than I had imagined in Istanbul. As a booklover, the vastness and diversity of the Frankfurt Book Fair ought to have pleased me but, having seen how large it was, I was painfully aware how small and insignificant I was as a young writer. Even as I walked from hall to hall, floor to floor, building to building, feasting my eyes on the colourful array of books from all over the world, and marvelling at their variety as I leafed through their pages, I could see how difficult it would be to make my voice heard, to leave a trace, to make sure other people could distinguish me from others. It doesn’t matter how old they are, or how young; no writer can come to Frankfurt, I think, without succumbing to this numbness, this hollow surprise. It is not just because we’re made to feel that books have a permanence while writers come and go; it reminds us how small we are next to the totality of books, human memory, and all the world’s voices; there is something about Frankfurt that calls to mind a mosque, a church, or a temple, for it invites a person to be modest. Like the great libraries of legend that contain all the books in the world, like the dreams of infinite libraries that suggest the infinity of time and the universe, an abundance of books warns us against arrogance and at the same time it reminds us that - though we are divided by nationality, history and language - all peoples resemble each other: we share the same sentiments and aspirations.
But we writers do not write our books thinking about the millions of other books in the world, nor do we write them to confirm our humility or our dreams of brotherhood; we write to go in search of that strange voice inside us, and to make it heard, first for ourselves, and then for others, so that readers, all readers, can hear it. That is why we know that we must look into the depths of our souls, until we arrive at the place of difference. That place owes its otherness to our soul, our body, our home, our family, our street, our city, our language, our history. All this reminds us that the urge to sit down and write has something to do with our identity – what others call our ‘national identity’. All authors who have been translated from remote languages have found themselves in this situation: the novelist speaks with conviction about the poetry he sees in his personal life, or the shadows that darken it, but critics and readers read his books as expressions of a country’s poetry, and a country’s shadows. Even the novelist’s most private imaginings and creative idiosyncrasies are taken as descriptions of an entire nation, even as representations of that nation. It wasn’t just when my books were translated into German, but also when they were translated into other world languages: as they worked to find me readers, my friends and editors would say the same thing, not just in Germany, but all over the world:
‘Don’t take this the wrong way, Mr. Pamuk, your book is beautiful, but unfortunately there is no interest in Turkish culture in our country.’
Like any young man who has been denied a position just because he was born in the wrong place, I found this depressing, but I knew they were right. I felt like some sort of demented intellectual, banging on for years about a subject no one was interested in; but they were right, because I had chosen this subject. I would forget that the starting point for my novels is not, in my view, Turkey, but my own troubles, my own interests, and the strangeness I see in the world; like someone so convinced by his bad luck that he embraces it, I came to believe the refrain I heard so many thousands of times during my writing career: who could be interested in a Turkish writer anyway?
When I was in my twenties and trying to find a publisher for my first novel, an eminent writer from the generation that came before me once asked me in jest why I’d given up painting. A painting did not need to be translated. No one would ever translate a Turkish novel into another language, and even it someone did, no one living in a foreign country would be interested enough to read it. All the educated Turks I met in America in the mid-eighties were always complaining that Americans were not just ignorant about Turkish culture and literature – they didn’t even know where Turkey was on the map. If they knew just a little about us, either they misunderstood us or they didn’t understand us at all. Over the past ten years, I have travelled all over the world and with the exception of few western nations, I’ve heard the same complaints, the same tales about being overlooked by other nations, or misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Ideas about identity and character may change from person to person, and from country to country; what is constant is the preoccupation with being misunderstood by the rest of the world.
This is why, when I express my own views on this subject, I naively believe that I am expressing feelings shared by the vast majority of humankind. Especially during the last century, we Turks have complained so much about the world misunderstanding us that it has become part of our national identity. Most of us believe that our culture and our literature owe their power and their uniqueness to the very fact that no one else knows about them. In the same way that people sometimes praise difficult experimental writers by suggesting it perhaps makes sense that they are little read, some people are of the view that Turkish literature's strange and unique soul is what keeps it from being better known. Perhaps! But when we say that a culture that is insufficiently read because it is impossible to read, when we argue that outsiders rarely understand it because it is inherently enigmatic, we give credence to a dangerous idea: that Western ideas about equality, women’s rights, democracy and free expression are ‘foreign’, running counter to with nationality identity, and even eroding it ... when I say this, I am not just thinking of Turkey.
We are all aware that the world’s cultural centres are slowly changing, and that the power and pull of the old centres is diminishing. I am speaking of the rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies, and of the new wealth and new elites that we see outside the West. The ascendance of the novel, the emergence of new national literatures, and very shape of the publishing industry – these all have to do with the way in which the new non-Western bourgeoisies define their identity. Are we going to convince ourselves that our own culture and identity is unique, and then shut ourselves away, or are going to value the richness of our cultural traditions and our own uniqueness while giving equal value to free expression?
The political and cultural developments of the last twenty years have made the story of Turkey’s two-century-long struggles between tradition and modernity more interesting to world audiences. These days, I almost never hear people complaining about how no one can find Turkey on the map. There are hundreds of Turkish writers and publishers here, and since they have come to Frankfurt to let the whole world hear their voices, it follows that we can shake off just a bit of our gloom about no one understanding us. We are in a position to speak openly about our experiences over the past century.
A century of banning and burning books, of throwing writers into prison or killing them or branding them as traitors and sending them into exile, and continuously denigrating them in the press – none of this has enriched Turkish literature – it has only made it poorer. The state’s habit of penalising writers and their books is still very much alive; Article 301 of the Turkish penal code continues to be used to silence and suppress many other writers, in the same way it was used against me; there are at this moment hundreds of writers and journalists being prosecuted and found guilty under this article. While I was working on the novel that I published earlier this year, I needed to research old Turkish films and songs. I did this easily on Youtube, but now I would not be able do the same. Because Youtube, like many other domestic and international websites, has been blocked for residents of Turkey for political reasons. Those in whom the power of the state resides may take satisfaction from all these repressive measures, but we writers, publishers, artists feel differently, as do all other creators of Turkish culture and indeed everyone who takes an interest in it: oppression of this order does not reflect our ideas on the proper promotion of Turkish culture.
But do not assume from this that writers and publishers have let their spirits flag. Over the past fifteen years, Turkish publishing has expanded at an astonishing rate; there are more books being published in Turkey than ever before, and in my view, Istanbul’s vibrant book trade at last represents its rich and layered history. This strange, rich, and extraordinary history is with us here in Frankfurt this year, as are our finest writers and publishers. When young writers coming from Turkey to Frankfurt see how large the world publishing industry is, I can well imagine that they will feel as empty and useless as I did. But when Turkey’s young writers turn in on themselves to find the inner voices that will turn them into interesting writers, they will no longer need to succumb to dark thoughts like, ‘No one would be interested in a Turkish writer anyway!’ May the Frankfurt Book Fair bring hope and happiness to us all.
Translated by Maureen Freely