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Controversial Turkish Novelist Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

October 12, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Orhan Pamuk, according to the Nobel Committee, has, quote, “discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.” The 54-year-old Turkish novelist is widely recognized in the U.S. and internationally, most recently for books such as “My Name is Red” and “Snow,” which explore the tensions between East and West, secularism and Islam. His latest is “Istanbul: Memories and a City,” a book of history and personal reminiscence.

In 2002, Elizabeth Farnsworth profiled Pamuk for the NewsHour in his home city of Istanbul. Here’s an excerpt.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH, NewsHour Correspondent: Turkey’s leading novelist, Orhan Pamuk, works in a neighborhood of Istanbul that lies on the edge of the 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.

FARNSWORTH: Oh, you can see everything from here.

ORHAN PAMUK, Turkish Novelist: Yes. This is Topkapi Palace, and this is my bridge, which they built 30 years ago.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The bridge spans the Bosphorus 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: 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: Whoa, whoa, wait. You don’t believe in the clash even though it is happening?

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

Writing past the generalizations

Orhan Pamuk
Nobel Prize, Literature
My books are made by the tensions between high generalizations about East, West, humanity, meaning of life, and damningly realistic observations about daily life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, Pamuk was in the news for more than his books. After a newspaper interview in which he spoke of Turkey's unwillingness to deal with the killings of Armenians during World War I and the recent fighting against Kurds, he was charged with insulting Turkishness. The trial brought worldwide attention and much condemnation on Turkey at a time when it was trying to join the European Union.

The charges against Pamuk were dropped in January. Orhan Pamuk is spending this fall as a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York, and he joins us now.

Welcome, and congratulations to you.

ORHAN PAMUK: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me start where you ended in that excerpt with Elizabeth. You said, "All generalizations about East and West are generalizations. Don't believe them; don't buy them." So what does a writer do, what do you do to get past those generalizations?

ORHAN PAMUK: Forget about the ideas. We writers focus on human situations, particulars, colors, images, chemistry of the streets. My books are made by the tensions between high generalizations about East, West, humanity, meaning of life, and damningly realistic observations about daily life.

I like that irony. I like the ironies of people with radical thoughts or with grand generalizations but then who are refuted by the simple facts of daily life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what makes you want to or have to write a particular novel? Is it the story, or is it trying to explore a particular problem?

ORHAN PAMUK: Both. I think I have a galaxy of thoughts, ideas, Nabokov would have called "nerve endings," which I collect for quite a long time. Then I put them in a book. A novel, in fact, is a way to express myself along with, of course, the culture, the civilization, the society I'm embedded in.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when you say that you wanted to be a bridge, a bridge to what? I mean, what is the problem that needs to be bridged?

ORHAN PAMUK: I quite agree that now this bridge metaphor is getting to be too worn out, too cliched. Since it's a way of pointing out that my work, my books, my novels are nourished both by the great Western art of fiction, novel-writing, and also traditional Sufi Islamic texts. If you put two things quite different together, there is always, if you're lucky, a sort of an electricity in between them. My work is, perhaps, that electricity.

The tensions of politics and life

Orhan Pamuk
Nobel Prize, Literature
A clash of civilizations is a fanciful idea which, unfortunately, is getting to be true.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, your most recent novel, "Snow," was -- you said in an interview it was a political novel. It could be seen that way. And you said in an interview that you thought to yourself, "Why don't I once write a political novel and get this off my chest?" Now, what was it you were trying to get off your chest?

ORHAN PAMUK: Well, all the little angers, regrets, resentments I have about politics in my part of the world, whether it's Turkey -- you may call this Turkey, Balkans, Middle East -- my anger towards the culture of intolerance, repression.

But also I thought it's very humane how people react to that. I also wanted to tell stories of all these idealists, whether they are conservatives, progressives, seculars, nationalists, Turkish nationalists, Kurdish nationalists, whatever. I wanted to put this whole culture into a political novel.

But on the other hand, not to make any political propaganda, not to point out to one single truth, but, in fact, explore painstakingly details of life at my part of the world and also essentially talk about meaning of life, love, poetry, art in our lives. What is the essential truth about life? Although on the surface "Snow" is a political novel, it's about life, poetry and love.

JEFFREY BROWN: These tensions that you write about, of course, you wrote about it in Turkey in your part of the world. It has been moving West. We see it in the daily news in tensions in Europe between Western values, so to speak, and Islam. Do you see a growing clash of cultures now, perhaps even more than you did after 9/11?

ORHAN PAMUK: Look, conservatives in West and fundamentalist conservatives in Islamic countries are pushing these countries -- pushing us towards a fight between Islam and West or East and West. I don't believe in this. A clash of civilizations is a fanciful idea which, unfortunately, is getting to be true.

But that's not the picture about the world that I have in my mind. I believe -- and my whole work is a testimony to the fact that, in fact, cultures, East and West, come together to combine something new and that, in fact, a culture is something that is made of different sources which then harmoniously can combine.

The writer as an activist

Orhan Pamuk
Nobel Prize, Literature
I am not essentially a political person. I am a storyteller, and I've been making this clear for so many years, and because now that I was in trial and political trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I mentioned in our introduction your trial. When you speak out on these very sensitive issues, do you see yourself speaking out in your role as writer, as a well-known public figure in Turkey, as a citizen? What is it?

ORHAN PAMUK: It's a citizen, but I am a citizen who has some moral concerns and who happens to be a writer. So there is that Zola-Sartre tradition in French culture. Probably, I'm influenced by that. As an author, I have occasionally addressed political issues which it's hard to address in my country.

But on the other hand, I am not essentially a political person. I am a storyteller, and I've been making this clear for so many years, and because now that I was in trial and political trouble.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's been noted that the Nobel has in recent years gone to some writers who had political problems in their own country. So you're not...

ORHAN PAMUK: Yes, I belong to that tradition, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it sounds like -- I'm asking, are you comfortable with that tradition of the writer as political activist?

ORHAN PAMUK: I am very comfortable with my prize, sir.

Art breaking down barriers

Orhan Pamuk
Nobel Prize, Literature
That's the essential function of literature, that the other person that culture, politics, propaganda who is represented as enemy, is no enemy. He is like us; she is like us. We are the other.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The last thing I want to ask you is just to go back to that interview with Elizabeth when you said -- the last line there was that you suggested that readers should think that other peoples in other continents and civilizations are actually exactly like you and you can learn this through literature.

ORHAN PAMUK: I agree with that. Yes. That's the essential function of literature, that the other person that culture, politics, propaganda who is represented as enemy, is no enemy. He is like us; she is like us. We are the other.

That is the job of art of fiction. If I'm ever a political person, then, in my art, in my novels, I try to represent the other person just like myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Orhan Pamuk is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Thank you very much, and congratulations again.

ORHAN PAMUK: Thank you very much. It was a joy.