Orhan Pamuk

Overwhelmed by Istanbul


On Facebook a segment of society continues to deride those Georgians who expressed excitement about meeting with Orhan Pamuk. Why was there any need to invite this "underbred" Turkish "infidel" to Georgia, whose novels do not paint Georgians in the best of light – wonder those who have not yet uttered a single word of discontent about the plans of Georgian singer Nino Katamadze and Georgian composer and conductor Nikoloz Rachveli to give a concert titled "15 Years Together" in Moscow on 28 and 29 March.

During Orhan Pamuk's visit to Tbilisi, Internet editions and social networks were keen to remind people of his "unfair attitude towards Georgians," and often cited passages from his novels Snow and My Name Is Red. Especially distinguished, in terms of the sharp comments it received on Facebook, was a quote from My Name Is Red – "... the Circassians, Abkhazians, Mingrelians, Bosnians, Georgians and Armenians who filled the streets [of Istanbul], were dragging us toward an absolute degradation from which it would be difficult to escape." Reading the comments on that passage convinced me that we still think that any negative opinions formed about Georgians or Georgia should largely be blamed on aliens, infidels or the underbred, rather than on us ourselves.

Regardless of everything said above, by inviting a Nobel Prize-winning author to Georgia, the Free University and Bakur Sulakauri Publishing certainly enlivened Georgian readers (or potential readers!). To get an invite-only ticket for a meeting held in the Rustaveli State Drama Theatre on 13 March, people stood in long queues at the publishing house. Among those standing in the queue must have been those who have never read any of Pamuk's novels, but did not want to miss a cultural event. However, this does not matter at all – any initiative which nudges people, especially the youth, towards reading is beneficial.

The Nobel Prize winner did not immediately step into the hall of the Rustaveli Theatre upon the announcement of his name. Indeed, before he managed to make his way through the throngs of journalists seeking an interview and his fans gathered in the lobby seeking his autograph, his name was announced several times, with the audience applauding each time – once even applauding a surprised latecomer who had entered the hall after one such announcement.

Orhan Pamuk visiting Château Mukhrani. Photo: Dimitri Chikvaidze
The meeting with Orhan Pamuk – an honorary member of US and Chinese academies, holder of honorary doctorates from more than ten universities worldwide, and the recipient of numerous other international literary awards – proved to be very interesting. The only disappointment among the audience was caused by the failure of the organizers of the meeting to deliver on their promises – the time allocated for questions from the audience was too short (only three questions were asked) and the audience was not given a chance to get the author's autograph.

What did Pamuk say during the meeting? He said that Istanbul is a city especially pleasant for him to write about, it is the city that nourishes him. He regrets that there is insufficient room, even in his most voluminous novels, to include all of his unforgettable recollections and experiences. "Between the ages from 17 to 23, I, just like all Turk boys, wrote poems. I did not include my 'poetic years' in my book, Istanbul, because, let's agree, I was a bad poet and, as was the case with my painting, poetry only captured me at a certain stage of my life. However, since the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has had a strong tradition of poetry – just like Georgia! You had to be a poet first. Only then would you be regarded as an educated person, only after that you would be able to secure your place in society, et cetera. During the Ottoman era, even sultans wrote poems. Being a poet was deemed prestigious, even in the early 1970s, but it was associated with some difficulties because you had to observe a certain form and follow the numerous rules of writing poetry, rhythm and so on. The nation perceived – and still perceives – a poet as someone blessed by god, whom some metaphysical force makes write, whereas a novelist is seen more as someone nearer to a clerk. I was not lucky enough to hear god murmuring into my ear and, therefore, I decided to write about what god might have told me. It is about such a metaphysical perception of poets that I have written about in one of my novels, the protagonist of which is a poet," Orhan Pamuk recalled.

In addition to poetry, the writer was also carried away with painting. In regards to his family's approach towards his choosing a profession, he noted: "My father, grandfather, uncle, even grandmother were civil engineers and all graduated from Istanbul Technical University. Thus, maths, analytical exercises, et cetera, were not strange for us. My uncle used to stop and ask me to quickly solve a problem and I had to provide the right answer. When I started painting, the entire family commended me, noting that I had talent. I was happy. Relatives used to bring me paints and pencils from Europe and I kept painting.

"Some time later, my family decided that I should enter the technical university, but the faculty of architecture, not civil engineering, because they believed architecture was closer to the arts and would be more suitable for me. Initially, I took my studies very seriously, but some time later I came to realize that I wanted neither painting nor architecture. Why can I not become a writer? – I wondered, and so I decided to become one. At Columbia University I deliver a lecture on the historical interaction of painting and literature. It is believed that these are two areas which have the same effect on a reader and a viewer.

"What did painting give me? It turned me into a visual writer. We reason by both words and visual image. The same is true in the case of reading. I want to divide writers into two categories: the first are visual writers, whilst the other are writers who influence our fantasy and imagination with words. One example of such a writer is Dostoevsky. When reading his work we create a general mental image of his characters, objects, but when reading Tolstoy we visualize everything, for example, the room in which the action takes place. Marcel Proust similarly affects the brain... I think that I am a 'visual' writer."

My name Is Red is one of Pamuk's most distinguished novels. The writer jokingly calls it a chronicle of his family between the years 1950 and 1990. "The biggest compliment I have received from my mother is related to My Name Is Red, because in every other case she told me: 'Ah, I know what prompted you to write this, it describes this or that episode of your life', but My Name Is Red was the only book about which she said: 'I have no idea how you wrote it'," the Nobel Prize winner said, before starting to recall the difficulties associated with being a writer. "The House of Silence is almost entirely dedicated to describing my two grandmothers.... These ladies outlived their husbands by 15 and 30 years and thus spent quite a long period of their lives alone. My grandmother from my father's side had a cook, and the relationship between the pair is described in the book. Upon reading the first three pages of the book, my aunt recognized all of the characters and said that she would not continue reading the book.

"At such a moment there always emerges a problem which tortures every novelist and concerns friends, acquaintances or family members. For example, once my uncle approached me complaining: 'You wrote about me, am I as bad as portrayed?! I am not an engineer, nor am I blond, I do not smoke, do not have blue eyes - why did you write all this?' When I answered that it was not him described in the book, he maintained that it was ... For example, when writing Snow, with the action taking place in the small city of Kars – which very much reminds me of Tbilisi – I already had an outline of the plot before I arrived in the city. One of the newspapers sent me there. I performed several interviews. I worked in the style of reportage. I was interested in describing the city before the elections. The people I met in Kars were quite well-disposed and open. They sincerely recounted the horrors that were happening in the city: a corrupt government and municipality, bribery, prostitution, et cetera. I also got acquainted with the intelligentsia of the city. I made friends with some representatives of the intelligentsia and, when seeing me off to a bus station to leave Kars, they asked me to write the truth about their city, but added that I should tell only about the good things... You are a good writer when you escape such a situation and break free from everything. Because of that, I have faced quite big problems in Turkey."

Orhan Pamuk intends to finalize a novel that he wrote in the period from 1978 to 1980, but which has not yet been published. The novel is of a political nature and is dedicated to his leftist anarchist friends who did not allow the writer to publish it back then. By autumn 2014, after a five-year pause, the Nobel Prize-winning writer will present a new novel that he is currently working on, through which he tries to answer the question as to what life in Istanbul looks like from the perspective of a low social class poor man. He also noted that his novel, The Black Book, is especially popular in Turkey. This piece of work has not yet been translated into Georgian and it will come as no surprise to anyone if Bakur Sulakauri Publishing soon announces such a publication.

"I write – not type – my works. I always carry a pen. To write, I need a room which is relatively quiet. During such time I do not touch the computer, I stay away from the Internet, do not check my emails and do not read the news. That's it, in principle. In contrast to my writer friends, I have the inbred qualities of an engineer. I always prepare for writing beforehand. I have chapters written up in advance. Therefore, when I hear discussions in the West about crises and stagnations, this is something I never experience because if I cannot continue writing one chapter, I move onto the next chapter and do not stop," the writer said at the end of the meeting.

To a question as to what was his perception of Georgia was before his arrival and how it has changed after it, the Nobel Prize winner responded: "I always imagined Tbilisi as a very poetic city. A character in one of my books sees in a dream how it is snowing in Tbilisi... I have not seen snow in Tbilisi, but I am glad to say that my perception of Tbilisi proved correct. I took a walk on the Tbilisi streets and Tbilisi is indeed a very poetic, melancholic city, especially its old part. Nothing can be better than when the opinion and perception you have formed in advance prove correct.

"You asked me earlier how disappointed I was when I was unable to publish my first book ... that happened 40 years ago and I was not distressed at all, because I knew that after 40 years I would be sitting in Georgia, in Tbilisi, and talking with enthusiastic and well-disposed readers.

"The life of a writer is the life of a solitary person. You are always alone in a room, writing and writing and dreaming about having such readers in future who will read you and listen to you attentively. Thank you very much for the attention and warmth you have shown towards me. I indeed feel as if I am in a fairytale."


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