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In an interview with Sunday's Zaman, Pamuk speaks about his new book and its central character.
So far you have narrated the stories of upper middle classes in İstanbul; this time, you are telling the stories of underprivileged people. Did you experience any difficulty in doing so?
As Orhan from Nişantaşı, I was distant to these people; but I was able to appreciate their life from the outside. I remember when I was five years old, street vendors selling their items at our doors; I used to see the boza seller, the yogurt seller. And then there were people who were living in the slums -- people who were being treated [by the society] as if they were Martians. But Turkey has changed, gotten wealthier and the world has become more democratic since then, so my point of view has also changed. Novel writing is not just the ability to express yourself, but also the ability of telling the stories of others as though it were your own story. This is a difficult task. Maybe that's why writing this novel has taken me this long.
As someone who has been living in this city for 62 years, are you scared of this rapid change in İstanbul?
It does, but I can also relate to a certain extent with Mevlut's fears. I mean at the end of the day you see there are buildings and then there are generations [of people]. When I was born, the entire Nişantaşı neighborhood was filled with wooden mansions, or rotting wooden mansions. Those houses vanished with those people [the older generations who used to own them]. If you live long enough in a city, certain buildings begin to represent certain generations and as those generations disappear, the buildings disappear too. Eventually Mevlut starts to feel like an outsider -- he cannot belong to those new high-rises, he's not one of those new people inhabiting those buildings.
The fear of not being able to feel part of a city -- do you miss the times you used to feel you belong to this city?
I may be feeling such a longing yet I may be holding myself back from feeling that way. I have been in İstanbul for the past 62 years and the change İstanbul has underwent in the last 15 years is much bigger than the one it has in the 47 years that preceded them. While during the first 47 years I was thinking, “I wish this city changed so it could become richer like Western [cities],” now I fancy the laid back [atmosphere of the] city during those 47 years, rather than feeling a longing for that old İstanbul. What's more, these days İstanbul is changing so rapidly that there are so many new neighborhoods, so many places I haven't been to before. Sometimes I even go: “Where on Earth is this place? Is it on the Asian side or the European?”
Did you visit places you haven't been to before for this novel? Like Sultanbeyli or Bağcılar?
I went to Sultanbeyli, but didn't include it in the novel. Then I went to the 1 Mayıs neighborhood, the Gazi neighborhood; on the outskirts of the Mecidiyeköy district there are a lot of tiny hilltops, which are some of the most frequently mentioned quarters in the novel. And then I went to Okmeydanı. I had several friends living in a neighborhood close by and there was a passage to the ghetto that linked the two neighborhoods through a stairway. I used to know about that passage before but I had never looked at it through the viewpoint of a novelist. Still I have visual [memory] of those places. Speaking of those places, I've just recalled a memory: in 1970, I joined with my elder schoolmates in a strike with the workers of a shoe factory in Kağıthane … to support them. Of course back then I didn't have any plans to invent such a character who lives in those neighborhoods and who sees those places as the heart of the city.
Mevlut comes to İstanbul from Konya at age 12 and he's struggled ever since for survival. Does Mevlut represent humility at a time of crazy plundering?
During his 40-year fight for survival, Mevlut cannot become rich like his cousins do, but he's not too poor either. Rather, he is more humane, he has a spiritual side. But that is not to say that I'm trying to tell [my readers] they should be like Mevlut. He's a likeable guy but he's not the ideal human being. I wouldn't have wanted to write [about] an ideal human being anyway. That's the easiest thing to do: [creating] the greatest hero, the most clever, the most to the point, etc. But the real [accomplishment] is to tell the story of the real person. I think Mevlut as a character is a person who can exist.
He gets rid of his fear of dogs by trying to be a nicer person -- which shows that you value this character.
True. I wouldn't mind if this book didn't sell or if people didn't read it, but I'd really like people to like Mevlut. Since I find middle class characters to be more like me, in [the previous characters I created for] my previous books I have also depicted my own traits that I don't like. Whereas Mevlut, despite always living in the material conditions of an average citizen, has never been an average person.
Also, there is this prejudice in Turkey and in the West: the individuality of characters from the middle class and the details of their lives are elegant and thus difficult to portray and as such, extremely rich or extremely poor characters can either be sweet or outright bad. But in this novel, Mevlut is in the lowest class in terms of economic parameters and is still an individual.
Mevlut attends a madrasa in Çarşamba; how did that make it to the novel?
There is a story behind it. I dropped out of technical university in 1973. My brother-in-law Şevket Rado had the biggest collection of calligraphy in Turkey. It is now being exhibited in the Sakıp Sabancı Museum. When he discovered that I was confused, that I had given up my education in architecture and that I was curious about traditional stuff, he told me, “Let's have you learn Ottoman Turkish, then.” So I started taking lessons from a famous calligrapher. Conservative students from İstanbul University also attended those classes; we all used to take off our shoes [to go in] and all. After a couple of sessions they got bored with me and I got bored with them. And actually I realized that I didn't want to become a calligrapher, but of course I practiced [all the rituals and the entire ethical code] during the training.
There is an excerpt from Risale-i Nurs in that part of the novel.
Well, I am Orhan the novelist now, so I should study my lessons, right? [Laughs.] This is novel-writing -- a little bit of this, a little bit of that and a little bit of reassembling all of those [to create a whole].
Education is a frequently discussed matter in Turkey. These days Ottoman language classes and religious education are on the table, but the actual matter is never really discussed. As a person who had problems with schools, what do you think about the education system in Turkey?
The most important and strongest characteristic of the education system is authoritarianism; the teacher cannot become friends with the students. There is a habit, an entire culture based on rote learning, which is rooted in authoritarianism.
There is also this: I attended a primary school like the one Mevlut did, in Ankara. There were 45 students in one classroom and three pupils used to share the same row. Just like I say in the book, a friend of ours used to bring the milk [distributed back then in Turkish schools] by UNICEF from the smelly kitchen downstairs, place it on the classroom heater, and then hand us out fish oil [supplements] one by one. Just like that, our education system -- and the overall system in this country -- is authoritarian, cruel and is based on rote learning.
I only realized this when I was 54 while teaching at Columbia University. I was constantly telling my students something was “not that way, but this way,” and one day one of my colleagues told me: “Look, a professor's job during a lecture is not to tell his students the truth, but to teach them how to think. What's important is that they can discuss with you.” So in a way I realized that I was an authoritarian Turk when I started teaching in the US.
Lately there has been a lot of tension in society. How do you think Turkey will overcome this?
First of all, do we really want to overcome it? Let me give you an example: I am a person who has leftist tendencies. Back in the 1970s, the most popular poets of the time were not always the most talented ones, but those who had the harshest words to say. Those who are the fiercest toward their enemy are often in the forefront. Those who try to understand [all sides] fall back a little. And this is not only true for Turkey alone. Here there's a clash going on between two fanatic segments [of society]. A few years back, I almost got crushed between these two [segments]; I hardly escaped it. Now I am glad I remained outside.
I don't know the exact answer to this question, but in the past I had this one as an answer: If the society becomes rich and people have more comforts in their lives, fanaticism declines. But I can say that these are not enough either. I am unable to understand. Is this much rudeness really needed? But I find relief in the fact that there's not that much rudeness in the average person.
‘Turkey has failed to do its homework on freedom of expression'
You have strongly supported Turkey's EU membership bid. But where does Turkey stand in that venture now? Is that chapter closed?
Well, that chapter is no longer on the table, if not totally shelved. Both sides are responsible for this. Turkey has been gradually improving the conditions of its minorities but it has failed to do its homework on freedom of thought and human rights. The EU would not admit a country that has failed to resolve the Cyprus issue, the Kurdish issue, or one that has a mediocre record on human rights and freedom of thought.
The best way was to keep Turkey on track by saying the EU would admit Turkey as a full member when they corrected their mistakes. We were on that track, and some reforms have been introduced. But both Turkey's and Europe's conservatives managed to prevent the country from even following that track. Now we pretend we are. But we should bear in mind that the EU is currently divided because of its own internal problems with the euro. Now there is a reaction to the EU from within the EU, and so [Turkey's membership bid] is on hold for now.
Mevlut votes for the current president to be mayor of İstanbul in the local elections of 1994. There is some naivety in Mevlut's religiosity, but how has the perception of religiosity you describe in the novel changed over the last two decades?
Above all, Turkey's conservatives have become more visible in the last 20 years. I have always felt, since the beginning, that we needed to understand that part of society, at least their political viewpoint. The conservative circles in Turkey have gained more power. And the rest of the country wanted to understand them. But I can also say that the Westernized middle class intellectuals in this country have also remained unacknowledged and unnoticed.
Once I wrote an [essay] about [late novelist] Oğuz Atay. The first thing Atay did in Turkey was to see the Westernized, smart intellectual as a human being. That had not been done before. Likewise, there was a narrow approach to conservatism, but now the different segments of society are gradually getting to know each other. And so the range of people represented in literature is becoming more diversified. It has to. We can only be successful novelists as much as we can portray those characters truthfully, without caricaturizing them, with all their good sides and bad sides.
Monday, January 4, 2016
on a long list of google alerts,