“In Turkey, there is no freedom of expression”: Orhan Pamuk

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk poses in front of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. Friday, September 15, 2006. EFE

When COVID-19 reached pandemic status, Orhan Pamuk felt a bit jealous. He was about to finish “Les Nuits de la Peste”, his latest novel. The truth is that he had started writing it in 2016 and right after his closest friends dared to tell him that these disease topics were no longer relevant, covid 19 became a cause for concern for all mankind.

It was the first novel to be written during a pandemic, and although some details began to be left out, such as explanations of what a quarantine is, the plot remained intact: the story of survival and of certain protagonists who face the difficulties of confinement and political instability, while the plague awaits and they have to live the most worrying months on an Ottoman island, marked by the fragile balance between Christians and Muslims.

Thus, through a historian’s account, a past nourished with references and sources, such as medicine, is recreated to result in a novel that participates in the revival of books around pandemics.

“I was so busy with my novel, when suddenly a virus arrives that affects the whole society. It struck me as very curious. Something similar happened to me when I was finishing”Snow”, in 2011. On September 11, the fall of the twin towers took place. Prior to the book’s release, I mentioned Osama Bin Laden twice, then deleted it. But then I thought no one would believe me. In this novel, when I discovered that the pandemic existed, I did not delete anything”, he has a touch of irony with which, although he does not intend to give the certainty of a premonition, he only points out the facts as a series of coincidences involved in his process of creating literature that ended up giving birth to a book that is cataloged by many as “his best work”.

Shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 2006, Pamuk says the recognition hasn’t had a deterrent effect on his writing. The Turkish writer stresses that having received such an award has only worked as a trigger that further motivates his work, the one he has been doing daily for years, in the midst of the notebooks he accumulates in his studio. from Istanbul.

“This shot… I think you could compare it to the case of TS Eliot. It was said that he had written no more important things and that he was imitating himself. He received the Nobel Prize and it was an excuse not to continue writing poetry like the one he was writing. I think this all responds to a cliché because I received the Nobel Prize at 54 and had many plans. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this novel for 40 years and now I’m going to write a novel that I thought about 35 years ago. For me, a Nobel is not a punishment, I felt very happy to receive this prize and it made me work even harder. When I won the prize they translated me into 40 languages, now I’m in over 60 languages. I just signed a contract with Nepal, so I’m very motivated by my readers. All this gives me energy and creativity and as I write slowly and plan, writing new books has not been a problem for me,” he says from his studio in Istanbul.

But although in practice the act of writing is something he has been doing for over thirty years, in a sort of self-imposed confinement, Orhan is clear that amidst the joy of writing there is also has detractors who, in a way, scrutinize his fiction to prevent him from continuing his exercise.

In a Turkey which, in February this year, according to data from Reporters Without Borders, had around 200 journalists and collaborators behind bars, a Turkish court recently opened an investigation against Pamuk for allegedly insulting the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the Turkish flag in “plague nights. However, the writer maintains that there is not a single page with insults of this nature and that he is not afraid of the consequences, since he is in a privileged position, compared to those who have really had to bear the consequences in the face of freedom of expression.

“No, I’m not the type of person who does something and then denies it. This book is an allegory of the growth of nations after the disintegration of empire, new nations that formed after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. However, there is no direct connection with Atatürk. The prosecutor’s office called me and told me that there were a lot of complaints and that’s how the law works in Turkey. So I said ‘Well, tell me on which page I am mocking or insulting Atatürk, can you illustrate me with a page?’ Obviously, there was not a single page. They couldn’t prove anything at all. My experience tells me that all of this is going to melt away in the maze of Ankara bureaucracy because none of this is based on reality but rather on Kafkaesque accusations which I try to take seriously,” says- he.

He reiterates that, although such an attack is unfounded and that in reality those who have problems are not precisely authors of fiction, the gravity of the situation in his country is not only due to censorship but also a blow to democracy and the economy. He argues that Turks suffer daily from the deficiencies of poverty to which they were subjected after the pandemic and inflation – which, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute, for the month of March reached 61.14%. And such a situation results in a drop in popularity of the Erdoğan government, because hunger often exceeds the needs of the people.

Once again, I want to emphasize that in Turkey there is no freedom of expression and if there is none, there is no democracy. We have a kind of fake democracy in the sense that people vote, and if they vote, they vote for Erdoğan, even if he puts people in jail. There are many people who are in prison for supposedly insulting him, when they were only criticizing him. But despite this, there is something good. Polls say his popularity, like money in Turkey, is down and the next election may not be clear and fair. But, if they are right, I think it falls, because it put a lot of people in prison and, moreover, because the economy in Turkey collapsed. People live in situations of poverty. Even his fans are angry,” he said.

Drone footage reveals the historic Galata Tower during a two-day curfew which was imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey, December 5, 2020. REUTERS /Mehmet Emin Caliskan
Drone footage reveals the historic Galata Tower during a two-day curfew which was imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Istanbul, Turkey, December 5, 2020. REUTERS /Mehmet Emin Caliskan

When Orhan Pamuk was just a teenager, he even thought about becoming a painter. He says that at that time he devoted himself to imitating the artists he admired. van Gogh and Picasso were among them. When he started in literature, things didn’t change. He had influences that still haunt him today and that he frequently uses, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, William Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Borges, Calvino and García Márquez. But from those beginnings to where he is today as a writer, there have been a few changes. One of the biggest concerns not only planning, but also the need to understand all kinds of people, even those whose personalities contradict you. Thus, in his need to understand the world from another angle, in The nights of the plague, one of the characters with whom he could assume such a position is that of Mîna Minguerl, the historian who tells the novel and who, faced with the academic and intellectual world, finds herself between the dilemma of political correctness and the need to avoid a nationalism that she cannot sometimes avoid with her remarks.

But ultimately, he notes, the investigation into Mîna Minguerl ends up being only one of the parts of her work, since everything ends up being the result of an arduous work of reading, where fragments, characters, tangential points are constructed from notes. “I’m lucky because God gave me a lot of imagination and for me finding a theme is never a problem. With the subject I start reading to take notes in notebooks and from there I define the story. After the chapters I develop a page and take other notes. I have a lot of notebooks, a lot of notebooks and then I go to the execution phase of the story and I put my creativity, my mentality and there you will invent more. There are people who believe that writers dream a book in five seconds and then write it, but no, a novel is like a tree with 10,000 leaves, and a tree at the beginning is a branch with 10 leaves. But looking at the first branch you develop the second and then the third and then you grow the trunk and the tree. Little by little everything is more precise, more detailed. Often my readers tell me that I worked a lot for a novel and yes indeed, that’s how I work, but I always have a good time, I don’t complain because I forget real life, I feels like a child playing with his toys. When you’re a kid, you’re playing and time flies, and all of a sudden your mom comes along and says “there you are” and you say “yes, I was in my fantasy world playing.” Well, writing a novel is like that. I get lost in my pages, in my imagination, in my notes and I must admit that there is also a side of competitive ambition. I want to be successful, to be read, I am a happy writer”, he says with the same expectation that now his work is about to be published in Spanish, to tell the irony and the beauty of the imaginary island deserves . that he decided to create in this work, a novel which, if it recounts the dramas and the struggle of a society confronted with a latent scourge, also recounts the reality of humanity – which, as Pamuk rightly says –, always takes over, it survives and behaves the same in all pandemics.

Cover of the book Les Nuits de la Peste by Orhan Pamuk.
Cover of the book Les Nuits de la Peste by Orhan Pamuk.


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