“They have killed the Istanbul I loved” – a plaintive cry from Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk in an interview he gave recently to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Apparently the poor guy can’t live there any more because his memories have been destroyed.
Well, I can empathise with Mr Pamuk’s problem. It’s a function of getting old, I guess, and of spending a lot of time away from the place of your birth. I haven’t lived in my hometown Auckland for 16 years. When I go back for a visit now, I hardly recognise the place I once knew so well. But there’s no use crying about it. It’s the way of the world. Some Native Americans possibly wish they could turn back the clock to a time before those Palefaces arrived – but sad to say, they can’t. There is a Turkish saying, “İt havlar kervan yürür” – “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”
But Orhan Pamuk likes to bark, especially in the cause of selling more books – a shameless self-publicist who has no scruples about running down his own country and people to further his own “literary” career.
It’s an interesting exercise to follow interviews Pamuk has given to western journalists over the years, and to observe how his projected self-image has morphed according to his own self-seeking agenda. In the La Stampa interview he says he is “jealous of Western writers” as they are not constantly questioned about politics by interviewers. He claims he has been forced to answer politically charged questions and this has “turned him into a political writer.” This is the guy who, back in 2005, speaking to a Swiss journalist, said that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it”.
Well, those are politically charged issues in Turkey, as Pamuk knew full well – and many Turks were of the opinion that he was making such statements with a view to attracting the attention of the Nobel Awards committee. It’s a well-known fact that novelists from developing countries unpopular in the West who criticise their own governments give themselves a head start in the race for Nobel honours. When Pamuk achieved his goal of Nobel literary honours in 2006, Turkey’s President at the time, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, broke with his normal practice of congratulating high achieving Turks, and refused to acknowledge his countryman’s Nobel Prize. It should also be noted that Sezer was not aligned with the current AK Party government, but held the presidency by appointment of an earlier secular republican Kemalist administration.
But to return to the Italian report, Pamuk acknowledges that he spends much of his time in New York City, so we can understand that he will be somewhat out of touch with developments back home. “The old houses I love have been destroyed,” he laments. Well, the guy grew up in the old money quarter of Nişantaşı, with parents wealthy enough to send him to the elite American Robert College, to buy carloads of books to feed his passion for reading, and to support him while he dropped in and out of university without ever troubling himself to work for a living. If he had ventured, as a young man, to other parts of his beloved Istanbul during the 1970s and 80s, he would have seen vast swathes of old wooden Ottoman houses bulldozed and replaced by slum shanties for migrant workers from the east of Turkey. But he didn’t. And one thing is definitely true about Mr Pamuk – he was no youthful revolutionary idealist activist during Turkey’s most turbulent period of political upheaval in those decades. In a New York Times interview in 2014, he further admitted that, “while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers, he spent most days reading at home in Nişantaşı.”
In contrast, then, one of the images Pamuk likes to create for himself is that of a lone courageous voice calling his government to task for historical human rights abuses. He was charged, he loves to repeat, with treason for his outspoken support of Armenians and Kurds, and lived abroad in virtual exile for fear of incarceration or worse. What he omits to say is that the charges were brought by an ultra-nationalist private citizen, not the Turkish government, and were subsequently dropped.
But the Western media love him – and that’s probably another reason to be suspicious.