Iletisim Publishing

The Independent 24 August 2001

Books Interview

The deadly style wars of Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's bestselling novelist, mixes the methods of Islam and the West. It's an art to die for, he tells Guy Mannes-Abbott

Orhan Pamuk is a huge success in Turkey. When his last novel appeared, it sold so many copies so quickly that his publisher was forced to prove the figures in court. The case was a politically-motivated attack on Pamuk, a fierce critic of his government's human rights record, but that only highlights the singular scale of his success.

Beyond Turkey, Pamuk's novels have arrived in English to rapturous comparisons with Borges, Calvino, Faulkner and Proust, as well as Salman Rushdie. Such names are wielded as supportive props to an important emerging writer, but they obscure the fact that Pamuk is his own man. While Borges and Faulkner have certainly been enabling influences, Pamuk is at least as significant a writer as Rushdie, though very different. Although he also admires Garcia Marquez, Pamuk finds "the impact of magic realism damaging, even damning".

Three years after its appearance in Turkey, Pamuk's novel My Name is Red (translated by Edrag Goknar, Faber, £10.99) is now published in an excellent English version. This pivotal book, which absorbed Pamuk through the 1990s, could conclusively establish him as one of the world's finest living writers.

We meet at his hotel in London, where he is en route to promotional duties at the Edinburgh Books Festival. Pamuk is a tall, slim and handsome man neatly dressed, in a dark linen suit and polo shirt. He seems ominously contained until we really start talking, and a signature intensity emerges, to be broken up by a merry laugh. Pamuk is a generous and expansive talker, recircling to develop a subtlety or delimit a precise "vagueness". He talks fast and lucidly, rallying his thoughts into crescendos of emphasis often capped with that laugh.

He is currently editing the complete works of Dostoyevsky in Turkey, and writing introductions. "The great Dostoyevsky book that I like is The Possessed," he says, drawing out the Ss in emphasis. The project involves returning to a key inspiration of his youth and a writer whose "demons" he shared. Until his daughter was born, Pamuk says he was "that kind of angry person: who would have to work till 4am and cannot reconcile with daylight, with acid in the stomach, very frustrated, angry, can be very nervous, can easily fight with people, can break hearts. That kind of person. So it's easy to identify with Dostoyevsky."

Both are writers passionately bound up their work, which marries temperament with intellect in idiosyncratic ways. This is why, despite being the ultimate writer's writer, Pamuk somehow breaks all the rules and expectations that go with that. His books are free of the porcelain poise that "literary" sometimes signifies. Instead, they contain all the passions and reflect a fiercesome appetite for ideas, cultural treasure and a world of constant change.

Crucially, Pamuk adds that he also identifies with the Russian's "involvement and problematic love/hate relationship with the West." Dostoyevsky came to see "the particular qualities of being Western [as] being rational and being proud: the characteristics he hates most". Pamuk laughs happily and sweetly, as if slightly surprised at himself.

My Name is Red crystallises this inexhaustible ambivalence towards all things Western, including its art forms. Edward Said has written of the Koran's completed world-view: "Thus the word heresy in Arabic is synonymous with the verb 'to innovate' or 'to begin'." Pamuk's novel is about a group of miniaturists and illuminators working on a traditional Islamic book, and an illicitly Western-influenced book, in 16th-century Ottoman Constantinople. The latter has been commissioned by the Sultan, who wants to demonstrate his sophistication to Europeans by appropriating their techniques. It proves a fatal endeavour, in more ways than one.

"When I was a kid I wanted to be a painter," says Pamuk. "Between the ages of seven and 20 I seriously, commitedly, painted. I was considered the artsy person in a family of engineers." Architecture and journalism were natural compromises, which he rejected to begin writing with furious dedication aged 22. He saw his first novel published after eight years: an autobiographical saga about a wealthy Turkish family in decline. Painting, however, produced "the first little seed of My Name is Red. When I was 13, 14 I used to copy reproductions of Ottoman and Persian miniatures," along with various French Impressionists. The inspiration for the book developed over many years.

My Name is Red is an involving meditation on Eastern and Western art. "The distinction between them, if anything, is portraiture." The Koran expressly forbids such things, and Pamuk's novel conjures with the impact of an Ottoman ambassador's first sight of Venetian portraiture. The ascendent Western techniques were about perspective and point of view, whereas the traditional Islamic approach involves memory, an illustrated hierarchical world, and idealisations free of individual style. The dilemma is irreconcilable: "They paint what they see, whereas we paint what we look at."

In Istanbul, Pamuk works in a studio overlooking the Bosphorus. Anchored in Europe, his view incorporates international sea traffic, Turkey's eastern bulk, as well as the Topkapi Palace which features in this novel. He grew up in an apartment building that accommodated a large extended family freshly transplanted from their mansion next door. In their modern building, everyone occupied separate apartments but left all the doors open.

Eventually, his parents moved out, his father decamped to Paris and returned as a card-carrying Sartrean. So Pamuk grew up in "a very positivist, almost atheistic family" surrounded by a fine Gallimard library, and subsequently chose to investigate an Islamic cultural legacy "repressed by Occidentalism".

Pamuk's unique strength is the way he blends all these elements. My Name Is Red is a fabulously rich novel, highly compelling while being patterned by ideas and essayistic meditations. It's a great love story narrated by a cosmopolitan hero-of-sorts. It conjures the chaotic vibrancy of an ancient city on the cusp of change, as well as the legendary manuscripts of Sultans and Shahs.

The novel is driven by a murder mystery set amid religious conflict. Style, as personal ambition and unconscious flaw, is the key to the mystery. "Just like a murder," Pamuk says, "what distinguishes a unique artist is the blunder. So, at the root of the novel, blunders are producing corpses or styles." Playing against this western model of detection is Pamuk's notion of "art as a texture, a sort of vagueness: art where there is no centre". This storytelling "is not about beginnings, ends and results but about being exposed to... patterns and intricate designs". Pamuk remains a man possessed by a discomforting appetite for making. His fiction combines authenticity, literary power and readability ­ qualities which will ensure him a large presence in our new century.

Orhan Pamuk, a biography

Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 and brought up in a large cosmopolitan household. Educated at an American secular school, he studied architecture before taking a diploma in journalism. His first novel, Cevdet Bey and his Sons, appeared in 1982, followed by The Silent House (1983), set during Turkey's 1980 coup. Then came The White Castle (1985), whose translation gained him an international reputation. The Black Book (1990) and The New Life (1994) were further successes. His latest, My Name is Red, is now published by Faber. His novels are translated into 24 languages and a selection of political writings appeared last year in Turkey. He has taught at Colombia University, but has always lived in his family neighbourhood north of Istanbul's Golden Horn. He has a 10-year-old daughter, Ruya.

© The Author © Independent Digital (UK) Ltd. 2001.