Pamuk does well to hide his Huzunthis particularly Turkish feeling of melancholy that permeates his autobiographical book “Istanbul”, which is a version of Portuguese Saudada, mixing local doses of fatalism and black humor.
Fiction meets reality
Translated into over 80 languages and deeply in love with the art of writing, Pamuk is quick to describe himself as “a lucky man” and offers glimpses of what no one else in our war-scarred world , the pandemic and the rise of the far right could perhaps see: a better future.
In his latest novel, plague nights, it blends real and fictional characters to tell a story of political crises, crime solving and healthcare. The action takes place in 1901, in Minguer, an imaginary island in the Mediterranean – “inspired by Crete”, he reveals – in which the bubonic plague broke out. The Ottoman Empire tries to contain the disease so that it does not spread throughout the continent, and is forced to impose strict sanitary measures which upset part of the population and cause a government crisis.
I was a little jealous of reality.
Sound familiar? Pamuk started writing it in 2016, and when the coronavirus pandemic hit he was forced to edit parts of it so as not to sound opportunistic, he explained during a recent press conference with journalists from Spain and Latin America.
“The same thing happened to me when I finished writing Snow: A few months before its publication, the attack on the Twin Towers took place. In the novel, there were two mentions of Osama bin Laden and I deleted them,” he recalls. “In this novel, I had to shorten the passages in which I describe the quarantine because everyone already knows the details. I admit that I was a little jealous of reality. All my investigative work fell apart.
Vaccinated five times
In Snow, Pamuk was trying to get inside a terrorist’s head to see his motives. According to him, this is the main mission of literature, to put oneself in the place of others to understand:
“Obviously, I don’t understand a fundamentalist murderer, but I’ll give it a shot. It is a paradox inherent in the profession of novelist. For example, I wish I could write a really insightful novel about people who aren’t stupid and who, despite all the information they have, refuse to get vaccinated. In the United States, I met people like that. Respected, intelligent, cultured doctors, who understand the importance of containment and vaccination, but who voted for Donald Trump and who, because they consider themselves defenders of freedom, were against health measures.
These contradictions are a fascinating mystery to Pamuk, who anticipates what it would be like if he faithfully recreated such a character: “Well, as usual. They would say that I defend him! That I am one of them! “, he exclaims between two laughs. “I would have to promote the book by showing my vaccination certificates. And I have five! Because in Turkey they gave us Sinovac, the Chinese vaccine, but it was not valid for traveling to the United States and they gave me three more from BioNTech. And I’m very happy about it!”
Orhan Pamuk’s books have been translated into over 60 languages, making him one of the most famous Turkish writers in the world.
female point of view
In his eagerness to take on literary challenges, Pamuk confesses that he wants to capture the female perspective: “I would like to write a 600-page novel told in a female voice in the first person and that no one would realize that I, a man, wrote it.” And why? “Well, it’s an ethical decision I’m making for myself. I’m a man from the Orient and I know all the stupidity of this world. I’ve had enough. I want to hear this female voice in my novels. And that goes beyond political correctness, with which, on the other hand, I I totally agree.”
In fact, this claim has already been exercised in novels like my name is red or this latest book, plague nightswhich is told from the point of view of Princess Pakize Sultan, the wife of the doctor who tries to control the plague on the island of Minguer.
Still, Pamuk says he has yet to reach the level of perfect transmutation he aspires to. “I’m a big fan of Rousseau and he said one thing I’ve always agreed with: Any grown man who argues with his mother is wrong. [Laughs] And I would add: any writer from the Middle East who fights with his female critics is wrong.”
enemy of the fatherland
Pamuk has always been a strong supporter of Turkey’s entry into the European Union. This cosmopolitan and secular dream, which was close to materializing in the first decade of the 21st century, is today a chimera.
He was not going to have an easy life in Erdogan’s Turkey.
In the years that followed, the Erdogan government closed in more and more vigorously on a nostalgia for the greatness of the Ottoman Empire. This retrograde vision has been endorsed and consolidated in various elections thanks to the support of the Islamists. A writer like Pamuk, who came to speak publicly about the Armenian genocide, the great taboo, was not going to have an easy life in Erdogan’s Turkey. Somehow, his international prestige protects him, but he receives continuous threats, both physical – “I have to move with protection in the street” – and procedural.
The last of them attributed insults to the flag and the father of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, of plague nights. “And it wasn’t true,” he explains.
“The only certain thing is that this novel is a sort of allegory of the rise of nations after the disintegration of great empires. I’m talking about Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Egypt or Turkey, all those countries that were born after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but without any connection with Kemal Atatürk. I went to the prosecutor’s office with the book under my arm and asked him to show me the exact page where these alleged insults were. Of course he couldn’t. My knowledge of the law prevented this case from dragging through the bureaucratic maze of Ankara and turning into a kind of Kafkaesque trial. Let’s not forget that this judicial drift is an important element of the political struggle in Turkey. I was lucky and I don’t want to portray myself as a victim either.” Others are actually worse off.
“People who have problems are not fiction writers like me,” adds Pamuk. These are brave journalists, many of them friends of mine, who write, spend two years in prison, get out, write something brave again and go back to prison.”
To illustrate the political situation in his country, the writer addresses a member of Erdogan’s government cabinet: “We have a Minister of Justice [Bekir Bozdag] who proudly announces that they are building new prisons. With pride! As if they were hospitals!”
Pamuk deplores the Erdogan government’s attacks on freedom of expression. “Without freedom of expression, there is no democracy. This has happened over the past six or seven years, in full view of all humanity,” he says.
But true to his unshakeable optimism, he sees a light at the end of the tunnel: “The latest polls show a sharp decline in Erdogan’s popularity. The economy has collapsed and people may not care too much that there are journalists in jail, but they care about eating. And that’s what we’re talking about now, poverty. Even his Islamist supporters are turning their backs on him. If the next elections are fair, Erdogan will fall. Believe me.”
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