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The novels of Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk often seem to be prophetic, and his latest is no exception. By Amal Awad.

Writer Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk.
Orhan Pamuk.
Credit: Miquel Llop / NurPhoto via Getty Images

“When I finish a book, something happens after two or three months that my memory empties, my brain empties itself,” says the Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. “When the book goes to print, I’m so full with it – read me a sentence, I’ll tell you the next sentence. But in two or three months, my memory unloads the book, perhaps because it’s now in the new book.”

It seems that Pamuk is still deeply immersed in his latest novel, Nights of Plague, but perhaps this is more to do with its subject matter. A historical murder mystery set on the imaginary Mediterranean island of Mingheria during an epidemic, it’s Pamuk’s Moby-Dick, weighing in at nearly 700 pages. “I’m not proud that I wrote so many pages,” he says. “I’m proud if people also enjoy these pages.”

Before Covid-19, Pamuk says, no one thought a story about bubonic plague was going to be of interest, which was perhaps disheartening for a novel he had thought about for 40 years. “They switched afterwards: ‘You’re lucky. Now your book is topical’. True and false. It’s not luck, you know.”

Pamuk is speaking on Zoom from a New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River. He is a chaired professor at Columbia University, where he teaches every fall semester.

He takes a moment to point out the weather. “Last time you called, it was sunny weather, beautiful,” he says, giving me a limited tour of the apartment. “Now it’s foggy and rainy.” The sun will set in an hour but it’s already dark and he has the lights on. They are minor details but demonstrative of Pamuk’s expansive awareness, a trait that infuses his speech and works.

“Writing a long novel is, in a way, psychologically being alone in the world you invented … I was alone for three-and-a-half years, intimate with this book, with a lot of esoteric subjects like lockdowns,” he says. “Then suddenly – bing! The whole world was caught with this coronavirus pandemic and I felt that my intimacy, what I was writing slowly and slowly, was suddenly in the newspapers all over the world. And it felt as if the coronavirus … spread to the world from my manuscript.”

Is there an alchemical magic in spending years deep in a distant history only to see it become a potent present-day reality? “Everyone is asking me and [it’s] partly magic, partly coincidence, partly statistics,” Pamuk says.

The same thing, he says, happened with his political novel Snow. “I was about to publish this book and 9/11 happened and there were two appearances of Osama bin Laden in my novel.”

Pamuk deleted the references in a panic, but points to the predominance of political Islam before 9/11. “There were so many predictions that something like this would happen,” he says. “If tomorrow I write … a book about [an] earthquake, there will be an earthquake in Istanbul unfortunately. So it will not be prophetic but [statistical].”

Pamuk says his real fantasy when he was writing Nights of Plague was that interviewers would ask him about the best plague books. He planned to say: Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, then Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed with its “interesting quarantine descriptions” and finally, Albert Camus’ political allegory The Plague. “I thought that unfortunately, or fortunately, all of these writers who wrote the best plague books have never experienced a plague, nor any pandemic. And I was going to say, my fantasy of fantasies, I am the fourth one … Then suddenly, bing!”

The appearance of a real plague didn’t prompt him to rewrite or delete passages. However, his characters were not as afraid as he was, although bubonic plague is much deadlier. “So I injected some of my fear into my characters.”

The novel is an acerbic observation on humanity’s responses to pandemic, which Pamuk says are always similar. “First, there is always denial. And it’s not only Trump or bad governments denying. All governments deny, they don’t want trouble.” Then the numbers rise, prompting the outbreak of rumours and conspiracy theories. “Then sometimes governments collapse, or civil servants don’t come to the office, people are afraid, or governments in medieval times run away from the city...”

There may be uprisings against impositions or the general horror of a pandemic. But governments understand that quarantine lends them power. “They get repressive, authoritarian,” he says. “And in fact, that’s the novel that I’ve been thinking about for the last 40 years: to write a historical, detailed Ottoman historical plague novel.”

As the Erdogan government in Turkey was growing increasingly authoritarian, Pamuk says, he realised this was the time to write an allegorical novel. “Then my canvas got bigger and bigger.” It became a “panoramic, realistic description” of the Ottoman Empire in its last two decades as it was falling apart. “This book is about both collapse of families [and] collapse of values, both private family values and values that run as government, estate and empire.”

Nights of Plague has a lightness of touch that belies its dark subject. Pamuk found unexpected humour in scenes about bureaucracy, the old-fashioned Ottoman pasha governor and people’s lack of communication and understanding. “It is as political as my other political novel, Snow,” he says.

Pamuk worried about publishing a humorous story in which people were “dying like flies” at the same time people were dying from Covid-19. He checked in with his wife, Aslı Akyavaş, his first reader and partner for 10 years, whom he married last year. “‘Do you think people would think that I’m heartless and I’m a strange guy?’ And her answer was, ‘Continue writing’. So I did.”

He speaks with care and precision, his words tumbling out of a deep well of knowledge and experience. He laughs softly and low. Occasionally, he stops himself when he’s on a roll. At one such moment, I prompt him to continue. He says, “Ask me more.”

There is plenty to talk about. Sherlock Holmes’s influence on Nights of Plague (“nothing is invented there”); how “everyone wishes to go back to Istanbul” with his books; why he chose a fictional island for a historical tale (“we want real imaginary people because we don’t want to read history”), and the power of characters.

“E. M. Forster said, in his Aspects of the Novel, sometimes characters take over. And Nabokov said, ‘No, they are my galley slaves. I control all of them’,” says Pamuk. “If you’re asking [about] this duality, I think I agree with both, that sometimes you have to give the character its freedom, which means that you invent or change storylines the character takes over. It’s happened to me many, many times…”

We talk about criticism – both literary critique and hate speech – how the Turkish media is full of people expressing their hatred of him. “They haven’t read anything [I’ve written] and I’m proud to say that,” Pamuk says, laughing. “If a literary criticism hurts, there are two criteria. One, it damages economically, the book won’t sell; that is very bad. And the other is you actually have a high opinion of this person and you want his approval.”

Pamuk rarely worries about the latter nowadays, but says he has benefited from literary criticism and acknowledgment from his elders throughout his life. “John Updike made me famous in the United States,” he says. “A critic who is 30 years older than me, made me in Turkey. There’s always been good, nice critics.”

After writing for 48 years, Pamuk has thick skin. “I used to say, ‘Oh, I wish Edward Said liked me, Susan Sontag liked me. Ten years later I was introduced [to and became] friends with these people …” The noted Palestinian professor and critic Said, Pamuk adds, was fatherly, friendly and protective, and visited his home in Istanbul. “I was not famous then. I had only one book published, I think White Castle, and Edward Said was happy to see a writer who has Muslim origins get recognition in the United States.”

Sixteen years ago, Pamuk’s fame reached a new level when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. “It made me happy. It bought me a bit of protection, it gave me a sense of security,” he says. “I started writing fiction because I wanted a solitary life, a creative life, a life based on my imagination. And then it brought me readers, it brought me international readers, then that gave me … a responsibility to comment.”

He began to answer journalists’ questions. If he is silent, he says, people get angry. If he talks too much, some of his readers do, too. Worse has happened to him: “political strange situations”, such as when he was charged with “insulting Turkishness” after referring to the 1915 massacre of Armenians in an interview. There have been discussions with his wife about whether they may have to leave Turkey. Recently, the public press prosecutor in Turkey launched an investigation into whether Nights of Plague insulted Turkey’s founding leader, Kemal Atatürk. The case, he says, “is lost in the labyrinth of Ankara bureaucracy”.

Pamuk says he deliberately wrote a hero who was markedly different to Atatürk. He suggests the controversy stems from jealousy or resentment. “It was upsetting. It was all in the newspapers,” he says. “My book sold a quarter of a million copies, but Turkey is 80 million. Eighty million people believe, only the readers of the book don’t believe.”

Pamuk is philosophical about the controversy, likening his life to being like a skier: slowly moving around the problems, yet still trying to go fast without hitting anything. “You can’t plan this, you don’t plan this,” he says. “We’re not in control.”

With all this resistance to truth, I ask Pamuk why he thinks people read and consume art. “People don’t read novels to reach the truth,” he says. “I don’t write novels only to tell the truth. We write and read novels for many reasons. Yes, partly there is truth in it, criticism of this, criticism of that. But we also read for entertainment, we also read novels to understand other people.

“We want to know about other people’s jealousies, other people’s love affairs, other people’s secret lives, other people’s angers, other people’s narcissism, ambitions, other people’s failures, how they feel when they fail, other people’s childhood. We want to know all about that. That’s how we measure ourselves.”

This is, he says, what makes literature so universal. “We see ourselves in these books while, on the other hand, these other people may not be like us by gender, by history.”

Pamuk is fascinated by how his various fiction and nonfiction works are received globally. “In every country I’m received differently,” he says. “I’m lucky sometimes. I’m not a writer where in all countries the same book is my most popular book. In Spain they like Istanbul; in America they all like, more than anything, Snow, because, perhaps, of their political problems; in Asia they like My Name is Red so much. Or in Turkey now, The Museum of Innocence has almost cult followers.”

This seems to solidify Pamuk’s desire to be flexible: not everything can be planned. “I am not essentially a political writer, while this is a political book,” he says. “I’m not scared of it. I don’t chicken out from politics, though I don’t want it too much.”

He is keenly aware that he cannot satisfy everyone. “But you also follow your own humours and in the end, the place that you put me or other people put me is not the place that I planned to be,” he says. “But I accept it. I wanted this life. I want what I achieved – that I am alone in a room writing all the time.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "The alchemy of writing".

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