Orhan Pamuk (Istanbul, 1952) is a kind of Bosphorus Bridge of literature: it unites two continents, two cultures, two philosophical and religious visions that have historically turned tenaciously. In your country, while the authoritarian drift of the president has increased Recep Tayyip Erdoğan he became an increasingly uneasy intellectual. However, his run-ins with the Islamo-nationalist regime did not shake his cheerful and optimistic personality. Pamuk hides his hüzüna feeling he describes extensively in his autobiographical book Istanbul and that would be the Turkish equivalent of in good health Portuguese mixed with typical local doses of fatalism and bad milk. Translated into more than 80 languages and deeply in love with the craft of writing, Pamuk loves his life, does not hesitate to describe himself as “a lucky man” and glimpses what no one else, in a world marked by war, the pandemic and the rise of the far right, we can still see: A better future.
In his latest novel, plague nights (translated into Spanish by Xavier Gallart and Miguel Ángel Romero and edited by Random House Literature), mixes real and fictional characters to tell a political, police and health fable. The action takes place in 1901, on Minguer, an imaginary island in the Mediterranean – “inspired by Crete”, she reveals – in which an epidemic of bubonic plague breaks out. The Ottoman Empire tries to contain the disease so that it does not spread throughout the continent, forcing it to impose strict sanitary measures which upset part of the population and cause a government crisis. Sounds familiar, right? Pamuk started writing it in 2016, and when the coronavirus pandemic hit he was forced to edit some passages so as not to sound opportunistic. “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. In this novel, I had to shorten the passages in which I describe the quarantine because everyone already knows the details. I have to admit I was a bit jealous of reality. All my research fell apart,” the author explained at a press conference. in line with Spanish and Latin American journalists.
In Snow, Pamuk was trying to get inside the head of a terrorist to find out his motives. who thinks it is the main mission of literature, to put oneself in the place of the other to understand him“Obviously, I don’t understand a fundamentalist assassin, but I might understand him. 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, educated doctors who understood the importance of containment and vaccination, but who voted for donald trump and that, considering themselves the defenders of freedom, they were against sanitary 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!”
In his eagerness to launch literary challenges, Pamuk confesses to wanting to capture the female gaze: “I would like to write a 600-page novel narrated in the first person of the singular feminine and that no one realizes that I, a man, the ‘have written”. And why? “Well, it’s an ethical decision that I impose on myself. I’m getting old and I want to see the world through the eyes of women. Each time more. I am an Eastern man and I know all the stupidity of this world. I had enough. I want to hear that female voice in my novels. And that goes beyond political correctness, with which, on the other hand, I completely agree.
In fact, he has already exercised this claim in novels such as my name is red or this one, The nights of the plague, which 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. But, according to him, Pamuk has not reached the level of perfect transmutation to which he aspires. “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. [Risas] And I would add: any Middle Eastern writer who struggles with his female critics is wrong“.
enemies of the country
Pamuk has always been a strong supporter of Turkey’s entry into the European Union. That dream cosmopolitan and secular, which was about to materialize in the first decade of the 21st century, is today a chimera. Over all these years, the Erdogan government has indulged more and more vigorously in nostalgia for the greatness of the former 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 big taboo, he 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 go 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 Ataturk in 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. We are 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 becoming a sort of Kafkaesque process. Let’s not forget that this judicial drift is an important element of the political fight 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. They 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 turns to one of Erdogan’s cabinet men: “We have a Minister of Justice [Bekir Bozdag] proudly announcing that they are building new prisons. With pride! As if they were hospitals!
“The Erdogan government has put an end to freedom of expression. And without freedom of expression, there is no democracy. This has been happening for the past six or seven years, before the eyes of all humanity,” he laments. 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 clean, Erdogan will fall. Believe me”.