Iletisim Publishing
Talking Turkey
Maureen Freely

It is unnerving to discover a writer who knows your childhood home better than you do. It's extra unnerving if you work out from the biographical details that you went to the same schools at the same time but draw a blank with the author's photo.

I have been curious about Orhan Pamuk ever since 1 found The White Cas­tle, his third novel and first English trans­lation, in a newspaper bookroom six years ago. Set in seventeenth century Istanbul, it is the story of an Ottoman astrologer who buys a Venetian scientist from pirates in the hope of plundering his brain. Because it reverses the fond conventions of Orientalism, it sits comfortably in the western literary tradition, but it is also sublimely and unapologetically Turkish. So is The Black Book, which has just been pub­lished in paperback (Faber £6.99) and has been translated into 13 other languages. Set in 1980, it is about a man who takes on the identity of his uncle, a famous colum­nist, in order to track down his wife. Again the obsession is to dream yourself into a superior life, and again Orhan Pamuk's genius is in describing the strange and tragic things that happen when real peo­ple aspire to that greatest of all modern fictions, the West.

Reading it was like going home, so when I did go back to Istanbul last summer, I asked my old classmates if they'd heard of this Orhan Pamuk. Heard of him? they exclaimed. His new book had sold more than anything in Turkish printing history, and fame had made him a recluse.

But last week he did take time out to appear at the Hay-on-Wye Festival, and on his way home he stopped off in Lon­don and I got to meet him. Having pre­pared myself for an audience with Mount Rushmore, I was relieved to find instead an... old classmate.

He has strong views -for example, about the importance of keeping fiction from becoming too political. That means one thing here, though something else in Turkey, as I remembered after I asked him about the 96 Turkish writers on trial for sponsoring the publication of a collection of essays about the treatment of Kurds. “Oh, that. Yes, as it happens, I'm one of them.” It had been going on for a year, he said. They don't know what to do with us.' Had he had to go to court? 'Oh, yes.' He had avoided his summons for months, but when the visits from policemen began to upset his young daughter, he decided to get it over with. It was as if we were dis­cussing a trip to the dentist.

He was more forthcoming when I asked himhow he became a writer at all. I knew it was not the done thing in his sort of cir­cle. Boys from good Istanbul families were supposed to 'serve their country' by going into engineering, architecture or business. His was no exception, he confessed. His grandfather had made his fortune build­ing railroads. His father and uncles were all 'positivist' civil engineers who thought anyone preferring any other profession 'should be a pervert. But you can have one black sheep.' His first ambition was to be a painter, but his family talked him into architecture. Then at 21 'a screw began to get loose in my head. I dropped out of school and began to write at home, and that was the beginning...'

'I was reading a lot. I was a Marxist first of all so I was reading a lot of theory and lots of novels - Faulkner, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Sartre. These were my heroes.' What he admired most was how they were 'engineers both politically and artistically'. An odd choice of words, per­haps, but appropriate nonetheless. His books are radically different from the social realism of his Turkish predecessors. Until he arrived on the scene (after eight years of writing without publishing anything, and living on his father's pocket money) the Steinbeck tragedy and the village novel reigned supreme. No one was writing imaginatively about middle class life in urban Turkey. He had this territory all to himself. He says this is why his first novel, a family saga, made such an impression on Turkish readers.

I would say it's also because he gives substance to the headaches of rapid mod­ernization. These are best expressed in The Black Book by a craftsman who can't sell his mannequins because, with their moustaches, dark complexions and bow legs, they look too much like real people. What the customer wants, a storeowner tells him, is to 'slip into a jacket worn by a new and beautiful person from a distant and unfamiliar land, so that putting on the jacket he can believe he, too, has changed and turned into someone else.' As with clothes, so it is with even the tackiest of western novelties - lip gloss, reflecting shades, musical cigarette boxes, Japanese fountain pens, dolls with moveable eye­lids. All promise deliverance, and yet no western idea is quite the same again after a Pamuk character has made it his own.

'I am angry at the silliness of the imita­tor. It's not because I think everything should be ours, or Islamic, or traditional, but because 1 think the raison d'etre of everything should be logical. 'The best way to modernise a country, he says, is to draw consciously upon the traditions that are already there. This did not happen in Kemal Ataturk's Republic. 'For example, there were a lot of religious sects in Turkey - some radical, some fundamentalist and some very liberal. They were fighting and competing. Reforms were evolving in these heretical places. But Kemal Ataturk closed them, saying they were corrupt, and the hybridity of Ottoman or Turkish Islam was destroyed.' instead there was a 'void' that turned into this 'unified, single colour fun­damentalism'.

Even the Bolsheviks made an effort to replace the old traditions with a new humanist one. 'And Kemal Ataturk could­n't even do that. He encouraged people to "build everything like engineers, even souls". And so religion got labelled back­ward. Art was an afterthought, and the intelligentsia politically suspect The lack of homegrown culture made the import­ed variety all the more attractive. Reform only happens, he told me, when you have 'a central something, when a text is being discussed.' Paradoxically, it is the political void he so deplores that gives him his artis­tic direction.

His new book, due out in Britain next year, is called A New Life. Its hero is a 20 year old whose life is changed by a book. We find out where he reads the book, and what the books spurs him on to do, but we never find out the title. In a country where owning the wrong book at the wrong time  - can land you in prison, this is probably a wise political decision as well as a clever artistic one.