An Italian scholar who becomes a slave
A blind miniaturist painter in sixteenth-century Turkey
A poet murdered, possibly, by a political extremist
A biographer attempting to woo the ex-girlfriend of a poet murdered, possibly, by a political extremist
Orhan Pamuk is the author of nine books—to date, six have been translated into English: The White Castle, The New Life, The Black Book, My Name Is Red, Snow, and most recently, Istanbul. His novels address the nature of faith, God, representation and image-making, the politics of Turkey, nationalism, and love. Perhaps most notable, though, is his exploration of sensitive and pressing questions surrounding Islam and the conflation of “East” and “West.” Nowhere else than Turkey are these questions so manifest in everyday life, and now, thanks to Pamuk, they are alive not only in the literature but in the public discourse as well. In an interview with a Swiss newspaper in February 2005, he uttered a single phrase, “One million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds were killed in these lands [Turkey] and nobody but me dares talk about it.” Pamuk was charged under Penal Code Article 301/1 for “publicly denigrating Turkish identity,” which usually carries a penalty of imprisonment of six months to three years, but because the statement was made in a foreign country, if he were convicted, his prison term would be increased by one-third.
The trial of Orhan Pamuk on December 16, 2005, was bedlam: “marked by constant shouting and scuffling, turning violent at times,” PEN observers reported. It was packed with foreign diplomats, representatives of the European Parliament, Turkish intelligentsia, and international observers from various freedom-of-expression groups. Confrontations and heckling were commonplace both inside and outside the courtroom. Nationalists lining the streets hurled insults at attendees on leaving, and Pamuk’s car was pelted with eggs.
The government eventually dropped the case, citing a legal technicality. But it is assumed by most observers the charges against Pamuk were dismissed in order not to undermine Turkey’s chances of accession to the European Union. Although he is only one of well over a dozen writers, journalists, and publishers currently being prosecuted in Turkey (in the past year PEN has monitored more than sixty such cases) it’s startling that a single freedom of expression trial could have such a profound effect.
I met Pamuk at his office in Cihangir, two months before he uttered the infamous phrase. High on the fourth floor, his desk heaved with papers and books and seemed to float in a mythic vision of Istanbul. The rounded dome of a mosque loomed just outside the window, its Turkish crescent a cardboard cutout on the distant backdrop of the Bosporus.
THE BELIEVER: In My Name Is Red, Black takes off to the east of Anatolia, as a young man, and comes back ready to begin his story. I am interested that, even in your book, which is—well, Turkey is “East” in my worldview—but even in your book set in Turkey, “the East” functions as the wilderness, as the place where the characters go to find themselves and endure suffering—
ORHAN PAMUK: I’ll tell you something. I have just come back from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taipei. And you know what they say? This is very peculiar…. No one thinks his country is completely East. In China, they say, “Yes, Mr. Pamuk, we have the same East/West question here.” They think that they are also torn between the East and the West, the way we are here in Turkey. They don’t consider themselves in China or in Tokyo completely “East.” They think that they have some part of the “West” and “East,” you see? No one, except some few British, and some Americans—maybe some French—think that they are totally Western. [Laughs] And no one—this is maybe more surprising—thinks of themselves as thoroughly Eastern. Where is west in China? Or Tokyo? They have an abundance of West in themselves. And they will tell you this, and then they will smile—knowing the strangeness of it. There is no place, perhaps, in humanity, where the subject considers himself completely Eastern.
BLVR: That’s very interesting. What does that tell us?
OP: I don’t know. I don’t want to go into it. Let me enjoy the poetry of this—the strangeness of it—first. Let’s not try to understand it.