Orhan Pamuk: Bridging Two Worlds

November 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Turkey’s leading novelist, Orhan Pamuk, works in a neighborhood of Istanbul that lies on the edge of Bosphorous, the great waterway that divides Europe and Asia.

His novels are infused, almost haunted by the magnificent geography and the sometimes terrible history of this place. Istanbul has been the center of both Islam and Christianity, and Pamuk’s work is often about the meeting of the two.

“My Name is Red,” his latest novel to be translated into English, is a detective story of sorts, a multi-layered tale of revenge and jealousies growing out of the decline of the Ottomans and the rise of the Christian West. I spoke with Orhan Pamuk at his office overlooking Istanbul.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, you can see everything from here.

ORHAN PAMUK: Yes. This is Topkapi Palace, where the action of “My Name is Red” takes place, and this is my bridge, which they built 30 years ago.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The bridge spans the Bosphorous and unites the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Pamuk considers the bridge a metaphor for himself because it belongs nowhere, but has a foot on two continents. He knows East and West well, having lived most of his life in Turkey, and having also studied writing and literature in the United States.

ORHAN PAMUK: I want to be a bridge in the sense that a bridge doesn’t belong to any continent, doesn’t belong to any civilization, and a bridge has the unique opportunity to see both civilizations and be outside of it. That’s a good, wonderful privilege.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The main characters in “My Name is Red,” are artists based at Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire in the late 16th century. The sultan has ordered the artists to surreptitiously learn western artistic techniques rather than to continue the highly stylized paintings like these, which are known as “miniatures” and which were permitted under Islam.

The sultan wants his artists to learn to paint portraits, likenesses of people, which was not permitted by Islam. For Pamuk, the miniatures offered a way to explore differences between East and West.

ORHAN PAMUK: I really love these paintings, and I wanted to glorify the little romantic beauties of these hidden little pictures– the way they talk to spirit, the way they talk to eye. All these artists are dead now. Everyone forgot about them. So the book addresses that lost beauty.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This lost beauty of these miniatures does give you a sense, does it not– and I hate to use this term– but of the soul, of somehow the very meaning of the East?

ORHAN PAMUK: My miniaturists saw the world through the God’s eye, so that’s a very communitarian world where the rules are set and there is an endlessness of time. So from this single, all embracing, medieval or Islamic point of view, transition to a multi-voiced, multi-perspective, rich, western point of view, maybe is something easy to summarize as I do it now, but it’s full of agony. That means leaving aside a whole tradition, a whole way of seeing things.

So I dramatized this clash of different ways of seeing the world, since I love dramatizing the eastness of East and the westness of West. My artists, in the end, cannot acquire the ways of seeing, a post-renaissance portrait… art of making portraits.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With perspective and shadows.

ORHAN PAMUK: With perspective, shadows and all that. And then they failed and began to kill each other. So compared to my artists, who cannot acquire the methods of the West– which they want to acquire– I feel lucky, and I wrote novels in my fashion, but learning from the West.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m going to read a quote from your novel, from “My Name is Red.” “There are moments in our lives when we realize, even as we experience them, that we are living through events we will never forget, even long afterward.” Do you have the feeling in the last year that you have been living through events like that?

ORHAN PAMUK: Yes, but on the other hand, the 11th of September is not the only thing, is not the only time that I have experienced the so-called clash between East and West or the clash between civilizations. Let me point out, though, that I don’t believe in this clash, although it’s happening. When it happened, when I saw the twin towers…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Wait, wait, wait. You don’t believe in the clash even though you say it is happening?

ORHAN PAMUK: Yes, because I think the naming, the understanding of the clash from West is wrong, and from East, my part of the world, is also wrong. And in my novels I try to say, turn around this… all these… “all generalizations about East and West are generalizations. Don’t believe them, don’t buy them.”

So East and West in a way, as generalizations, exist, but then if you believe them too much, then you are paving the way for war. Turkey, I believe, has destroyed its democracy in years because its intellectuals, its media, its press believed in, too much, in the westness of West and the eastness of East.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Though he is a staunch secularist, Pamuk is critical of the way Turkey has dealt with East-West differences over the past 80 years. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, wanted desperately to make Turkey more modern and western, and Pamuk believes Ataturk moved too harshly against religion, leaving many people confused and lost.

ORHAN PAMUK: When Turkey became westernized, the backwards sections of this country– the conservative, the poor, the uneducated, the lower classes– as it happens everywhere, resisted the demands of modernization to the fact that religion has less space in daily life. To the… they wanted to conserve the traditional life. That is very normal, some people do that when there is modernization.

But the reaction of the Turkish state and various governments was to bomb these people, look down upon these people, look at their culture as low culture rather than address the issues and understand their sorrow because that past is lost. I think now after the 11th of September, the United States and Europe and the West is falling, doing the mistake Turkey had done in the last 80 years.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You wrote after September 11 that the United States needs to understand that “the West must not only discover which terrorist is preparing a bomb but to understand what the poor and scorned and wronged majority that does not feel they belong to the world, what they want, what they feel.” Is that right?

ORHAN PAMUK: Perhaps the majority of the world is living in ten times… a condition ten times poorer than western countries. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they will be angry or fall into hands of fundamentalists, but these issues should be addressed by Europe, by the United States.

If you want a peaceful world, those who are not benefiting from the way it is run, their anger, the way they feel that they are mistreated, their fury, their frustration should definitely be addressed. They should not be called, you know, fundamentalists, radicals, Islam… whatever religion they belong to. These things should not be despised in a condescending language, should not be looked down upon.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How would you address them? How would you advise that the western leaders to address them?

ORHAN PAMUK: I’m a novelist. I don’t have a solution for these things, but ironically, my novels perhaps– I’m writing them for the last 25 years– are addressing the issue that we have all these general questions– questions of identity, belonging to a civilization, the fact that some people tell you that civilizations don’t come together, or there are likes of me who through literature have addressed these issues and tell to the reader that actually what matters are not civilizations but human lives, little things about daily life– little smells, colors, and atmosphere of daily life and little stories that we live.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And here you have this opportunity to address Americans directly, what do you have to say to Americans? What sort of fundamental message?

ORHAN PAMUK: I’ll be modest, and I will repeat what I’ve been saying to my Turkish readers for the last 20 years, that… and I’ve been saying to my readers that what is important is not clash of parties, civilizations, cultures, East and West, whatever. But think of that other peoples in other continents and civilizations are actually exactly like you and you can learn this through literature. Pay attention to good literature and novels, and do not believe in politicians.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you so much for being with us, Mr. Pamuk.

ORHAN PAMUK: Thank you.