Orhan Pamuk: Turkey's Controversial Faulkner In his native Turkey, Orhan Pamuk is considered the William Faulkner of contemporary fiction. Frank Browning talks with the writer in Istanbul about his relationship to the ever-changing city and his controversial opinions on Turkey's history.
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Orhan Pamuk: Turkey's Controversial Faulkner

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Orhan Pamuk: Turkey's Controversial Faulkner

Orhan Pamuk: Turkey's Controversial Faulkner

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Turkey is trying to become part of the European Union, but Europe is ambivalent and so for that matter are the citizens of Turkey. The country's bittersweet romance with the West permeates the work of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. His books have been promoted on billboards in Istanbul and translated into more than 30 languages. Yet now he is being prosecuted for defaming Turkish honor. Frank Browning went to Istanbul to talk with Orhan Pamuk and brought back this report.

Mr. ORHAN PAMUK (Author): This is Orhan Pamuk. We are in Istanbul at my office overlooking the entrance of Bosphorus. So many people come here and visit me, and each time I'm embarrassed to have which I sometimes call the best audio studio in the world.


It's late morning. The eternal mist of the Bosphorus nearly burnt away, the constant rumble of diesel-driven ferries echoing up the slopes. Soon the muazzin will launch his call to prayer from the mosque of Sangir(ph), built 450 years ago by Suleyman the Magnificent. This ancient landscape forms the terrain of Orhan Pamuk's work.

Mr. PAMUK: From my desk, I can see inside the Topkapi Palace, various buildings. I know all these buildings by heart. Next to it is Saint Sophia.

BROWNING: Orhan Pamuk's latest book is called "Istanbul." It's a love letter to the great melancholic city, but now it's no longer clear that he will be able to continue living in Istanbul.

Ms. MAUREEN FREELY (Journalist and Novelist): He was declared a traitor in a number of newspapers.

BROWNING: Journalist and novelist Maureen Freely has known Orhan Pamuk since they were in high school in Istanbul.

Ms. FREELY: There were death threats. There were invitations on Web sites for somebody to silence this person forever, that kind of thing. And so he was forced to leave the country and he had to stay more or less in hiding for several months.

BROWNING: Pamuk's offense was an offhand, almost incidental remark made last spring to a Swiss newspaper.

Mr. PAMUK: I just made a statement about one of our great taboos: What happened to Ottoman Empire's Armenians in 1915? This is a taboo we still cannot discuss.

BROWNING: The next day, his reference to the most contentious issue in Turkish history, the massacre of Armenians during World War I, made headlines across the country. It also brought the denunciations that eventually led a prosecutor to charge Pamuk with defaming Turkish national honor. Again Maureen Freely, Pamuk's friend and translator.

Mr. FREELY: He can't imagine living anywhere but Istanbul. So he's trying to stay and defend his right to stay and also defend his country because the irony about this is that he's a patriot.

BROWNING: Few believe Pamuk will go to prison, but the sentiments beneath the case cut to the deeper themes he explores in his memoir. The Istanbul of his childhood in the 1950s and '60s was bathed in a heavy atmosphere of melancholy.

Mr. PAMUK: From a very young age, I suspected there was more to my world than I could see. Somewhere in the streets of Istanbul in a house resembling ours there lived another Orhan, so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double. I can't remember where I got this idea or how it came to me. It must have emerged from a web of rumors, misunderstandings, illusions and fears, but in one of my earliest memories, it is already clear how I've come to feel about my ghostly other.

BROWNING: It's a collective sadness born of the city's history.

Mr. PAMUK: All the riches of Middle East and Balkans came to this town and the Ottoman Empire fell apart. And this glorious empyreal city went into ruins. I spent my childhood in that ruins and I wrote about how beautiful it is, something to do with what the Japanese call nobility of failure, the willing embrace of failure.

BROWNING: For a nation struggling to be a modern European partner and a city determined to reclaim its metropolitan glamour, any talk of failure these days, and worse of guilt, provokes jitters even among liberal Western-orientated Turks like Tharia(ph), an independent tour operator on a busy street near the ancient Hagia Sophia mosque. Tharia credits Pamuk as a great writer, but...

THARIA: Mr. Pamuk, he say one million Armenian killed, Turkish people killed them. And we didn't like his word because at the moment we want to be one hand. You understand what I mean? We feel we have to be a legal nation at least at the moment especially.

BROWNING: Others like Ebrahem(ph), who runs a Turkish sauna in a crowded cafe district near Taksim Square, told me in French that he views Orhan Pamuk as a sort of tool of the Europeans.

EBRAHEM: (French spoken)

BROWNING: `Here in Turkey,' he said, `there are a few left-wing intellectuals who are very well organized and connected to the media who operate more or less like the Masonic societies. Well, Orhan Pamuk said we killed the Armenians because the Europeans, they wanted someone who would say that the Turks killed the Armenians.

EBRAHEM: (French spoken)

BROWNING: Both Ebrahem and Tharia are torn by deep Turkish patriotism and their yearning for a democratic Turkey that respects free speech and human rights. Yet they're also afraid that too much European-style criticism could provoke internal separatists and the hard-lines. These are the tensions that course Orhan Pamuk's melancholy prose.

Mr. PAMUK: This fight is going through the souls of all the people in this country. It's not a fight between good people and bad people. It's a fight between two spirits of the same person. And the popularity of my books in just five years is due to the fact that Turkey's problems between east and west, between modernity and traditional Islam turn out to be the...

(Soundbite of call to prayer)

BROWNING: Just then, the muazzin at the Sangir mosque(ph) sounds the midday call to prayer.

(Soundbite of call to prayer)

BROWNING: Though neither Pamuk nor his family were ever religious, he's not opposed to religion. In fact, Islam's imprint, he says, persists on everything from art and science to war and politics, and the dance between Islam and secularism generates the stuff of literature. The history feeds the melancholy and the melancholy nourishes the revenue of moods that fill his journals, his essays and his novels.

Mr. PAMUK: If one writes honestly about one's moods, I think, then one knows about not oneself but all humanity, and that we are all made up of so many moods which continuously deceive us.

BROWNING: Deceive us?

Mr. PAMUK: Mm-hmm. In, say, for three hours, a bit sad, and for another four years, you're OK. And in another five hours, I may be angry. Getting down your sentiments is the essential reflex of an inborn order, I think.

BROWNING: Orhan Pamuk hopes he'll be able to continue penning down and writing about those sentiments in his home in Istanbul. His hearing on charges of defaming Turkish honor is set for December 16th. For DAY TO DAY, I'm Frank Browning.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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