Iletisim Publishing
ORHAN PAMUK: 'Enigma Is Sovereign'

By Judy Stone

Orhan Pamuk is nothing if not ambitious. All he wanted to do in his new novel, The Black Book, he says, was to write a huge, richly textured narrative that would capture the schizophrenic angst of Istanbul, a city in a country straddling two continents. He thus joined the search for an answer to the perennial Turkish question he defines as: "Are we European? Or are we Asian?" Earlier in his career, with his third novel, The White Castle (Braziller, 1991) Pamuk had merged two themes: a culture in the mysterious process of change; and men in the mysterious process of changing identity. These themes emerge again in The Black Book, out next month from Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Forecasts, Nov. 14).

Mysteries Abound

What better way to explore such mysteries than with a mystery? In The Black Book, a lawyer, Galip ("victorious") searches for his missing wife, Ruya ("dream"), and her half-brother, Jelal (a reference to the famous Sufi poet, Jelaleddin Rumi), a famous newspaper columnist and Galip's idol. The chapters alternate between Galip's third-person "investigation" and Jelal's first-person meditations, with each chapter preceded by quotations ranging from Sufi mystics to Lewis Carroll and Isak Dinesen. Two assassinations—and 300-odd pages later—we are no closer to a solution of whodunit or why, but Galip has taken on Jelal's persona, churning out words of wisdom for the next day's fishwrapper. And the reader is left with a Golden Hornful of literary puzzles to ponder.

At the age of 30, Pamuk began to earn a formidable reputation in Turkey with the publication of his first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), which traced the lives of a wealthy Istanbul family over three generations in this century. Pamuk refuses to let his debut effort be translated, but a pirated edition exists—in Syria. His second book, The Silent House (1983), is a modernist novel about three unhappy siblings living with their dying grandmother after the 1980 military coup. The story is sifted through the consciousness of five narrators and has been compared by some critics to the multiple-perspective works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. It has been translated for French, Greek and Italian readers.

In the New York Times review of The White Castle, Jay Parini hailed Pamuk as a "new star risen in the east... worthy of comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino ... a story­teller with as much gumption and narrative zip as Scheherazade." In the novel, a 17th-century Venetian scholar is enslaved by Turkish pirates and given to a Muslim master. They resemble each other as closely as twins, and they eventually swap identities while inventing a superweapon, a putatively fantastic war engine designed to destroy the enemy's white castle and fulfill the Ottoman dream of conquest.

Pamuk's latest work, The New Life, a "visionary road novel," has just been published in Turkey in an unprecedented first edition of 50,000 copies; 35,000 sold in the first 10 days. The book is a bow to Dante's La Vita Nuova and, Pamuk says, "has affinities to German romanticism." The protagonist is a 22-year-old youth who reads a book that changes his life.

Unbelievable Response

The Black Book sold 70,000 copies, an "unbelievable" response in Turkey, Pamuk tells PW when we meet at his booklined study in the old cosmopolitan Istanbul neighborhood of Nisantasi, whose sights, sounds and smells are vividly rendered in the novel.

"Initially, there were huge media attacks on me. The controversy went on for months, and I enjoyed it!" the tall, lean Pamuk declares in lightly accented English, with an impish look that his spectacles can't hide. "They criticized my long sentences and my style. Then they moved to another level, talking about postmodernism. Then there was a political response from leftists and fundamentalists. The fundamentalists claimed that since I use some basic Sufi material, I'm mocking it. I don't take that seriously. Then, I've been criticized for not being a proper Kemalist." (The reference is to Kemal Ataturk, who established the secular Turkish republic in 1924, changed the alphabet from Ottoman Arabic to Latin, founded a system of public education, outlawed the fez, gave voting rights to women.)

Pamuk doesn't take that charge seriously either, but he believes that it's nec­essary to know a little Turkish history in order to understand the complaint.

"The Turkish left has a very Kemalist tradition," Pamuk notes. "In a way, they want to protect the state because the state has been a progressive westernizer, but in a way it's an antidemocratic force in Turkish history. All the westernization attempts have been made by the state itself, not by the civil society. So the Turkish left found itself in a dilemma. If you want westernization, you should defend the state, while on the other hand, leftism is meant to be anti-state. Politically, I'm on the left, but that doesn't mean much. I'm anti-fundamentalist. That's the main danger here now."

Pamuk points out that he was the first person in Turkey to defend Salman Rushdie when the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a death sentence on the author. Most Turkish intellectuals, explains Pamuk, whether conservative or leftist, hesitate to become involved in the controversy. "It's not because they are afraid," he says. "They think if the issue accelerates, we [writers] will lose. I don't agree, but I see their point."

At any rate, Pamuk has never been an outspokenly political writer. "I'm a literary person," he says. "Ten years ago, my friends used to criticize me for not being political enough. During the military coup in 1980, I was sitting here feeling guilty. Years before that, fascists and communists were killing each other in the streets. I stayed at home and wrote books. I always felt guilty because my friends were putting themselves in danger."

Pamuk grew up in a wealthy secular household, headed by his grandfather, an engineer who ran a factory and made a fortune building railways. "My father and uncles—they were all civil engineers—spent 20 years wasting that money. Then my father got involved in politics and taught at the university." Theirs was a typical Ottoman home with relatives on every floor. The atmosphere gave Pamuk a feeling of freedom and the opportunity to indulge his bookish and artistic interests.

Revenge of the Poor

Pamuk's grandmother taught him to read before he started school. She also recited "almost atheistic" poems to him. "In my childhood, religion was something that belonged to the poor and to servants. My grandmother— who was educated to be a teacher— used to mock them. Now with the rise of the fundamentalist movement, it's the revenge of the poor against the educated, westernized Turks and their consumer-society life."

For the last 20 years, Pamuk adds, the Turkish economy has grown immensely, "but the division of this wealth has been unjust. The poor are very poor and the two or three percent of Turks are very rich. Now the ruling elite has lost the culture that once held everyone together. The identity of the ultra-elite is now so westernized that they're not Turks anymore in that [cultural] sense. Their TV, their shows, the way they openly enjoy their life, paved the way for the rise of ultra-fundamentalism."

The White Castle may have been a reaction to the omnipresent question of identity. "What I'm trying to do here is to make a game of it and to show that it doesn't matter whether you are an easterner or a westerner. The worst way of reading—or misreading—the book would be to take very seriously the ideologies, the false consciousness, the stupidities that one has about these notions. The problem of east or west has been a huge weight for Turkish intellectuals."

In embroidering on that theme, Pamuk's basic goal was to invent a literary language that would correspond to the texture of life in Istanbul. "I wanted to make you feel the terrors of living in this city, but not to describe it realistically. Imagine yourself walking in the streets of Istanbul, or crossing the Golden Horn on one of the bridges. Think about the images you see. All these sad faces, the huge traffic, the sense of history—more than 2000 years of history—with Byzantine buildings converted into factories next to kitsch billboards. All this shabbiness. The book takes place just before the 1980 coup, when people were dying in the streets. I wanted to convey the idea of hopelessness, the idea of despair."

To weave that texture, Pamuk drew upon obscure stories he unearthed from traditional Sufi literature—largely unknown to the Turkish public; from the Arabian Nights, folktales, anecdotes and murders from old newspapers, "believe it or not" columns and scenes from American and Turkish movies.

"The book has an encyclopedic side," he says, "with all kinds of trivial knowledge about the past put together in a way that's not realistic but gives a sense that Mr. Pamuk is doing what Joyce has done for Dublin." He insists, however, that he was not "literally" inspired by Joyce.

As for the persistent theme of the doppelgänger, he insists "that's not hardcore Pamuk." Language comes before theme on his agenda, but he admires others who have played with that idea. He has read Freud and Jung on the doppelgänger themes "for fun," but he's never been in analysis himself. "I'm a straight Turk" he grins.

Did he ever want to be someone else? "That's a good question and I take it very seriously. Yes, I have. I think writing is trying to be someone else. All the 19th-century classical realists in effect impersonated the characters they invented. Let's say that creating a character is to be in the position of a double: to put oneself in another person's place."

As a youngster, he painted, then decided he would apply his artistic skills to architecture. But he dropped out of engineering school to start writing. Later, he earned a degree in journalism from the University of Istanbul. Living at home with no need for an outside income, he wrote diligently from age 22 to 30. With the success of his first book he married, although his rigorous schedule doesn't seem to offer much time with his wife, Aylin, and their three-year-old daughter, Ruya (yes, named after the shadowy character in his book). He writes every day from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., sleeps until noon, and resumes work from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

A Normal Pursuit

Pamuk says that when he began writing he felt very unsure of himself. Four months at the Iowa Writers Workshop, however, convinced him that "being a writer was a very normal thing in America. So I got rid of some of my tension." He wrote most of The Black Book in Manhattan, while his wife worked on her Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia.

There were no American takers for The White Castle. Carcanet, a small but prestigious British firm, published it with Victoria Holbrook's translation, and after it was a success in England, Braziller snapped it up. The arrangements for both books were made by agent Anne Dubuisson of the Ellen Levine Agency.

Holbrook didn't have time to cope with the 450 "dense and complex'' pages of The Black Book, so Pamuk turned to Guneli Gun, an Ohio-based Turkish-American novelist. The translation took her two years. Since Turkish is an inflected language with the verb at the end of a sentence, Gun had to change the order of Pamuk's clauses and put them in logical and colloquial English while retaining his intricate effects. She says she would occasionally spend an entire day translating one of Pamuk's half-page-long sentences, working "until there was snap and style and sense to it." She also acknowledges the "scrupulous editing" of FSG editors John Glusman and Robert Hemenway. And, she says, "Orhan doesn't worry about his holy word."

But Pamuk does like the "holy" words of a mystic poet: "Enigma is sovereign, so treat it carefully."