To Be One of You:
Orhan Pamuk’s Intellectual Resistance

Svetlana Bunina, July 22, 2022

“Pamuk is a famous novelist, but he is not one of us” – these words you can often hear in Turkey. And this is not the strongest insult that compatriots give to their most glorious writer. The medal has two sides: Many Turkish readers can’t accept the exquisite esthetic of Pamuk’s prose (its slowness, branching, its complicated language – some people even assure, that it’s better to read Pamuk in translation) – but from the other side, a big part of Turkish society can’t accept his public position, which leaves an imprint on the interpretation of his novels.

Famous for his uncompromising statements on the Armenian genocide and criticism of the totalitarian tendencies in Turkish policy, Pamuk met his 70’s with new accusations. His last novel Nights of Plague was investigated under the authority of law 5816 – “Law concerning crimes against Ataturk”. Also, he was suspected of mockery of the Turkish flag. To top it off Pamuk openly supports Ukraine as a victim of Russian aggression and criticizes Turkish power for its controversial position in this war. “I’ve never considered myself an explicitly political writer, but at a time like this, in a country like mine, it would seem dishonest, even immoral, not to talk about politics” – said Pamuk in the interview with Der Spiegel 11.03.2022.

Ironically, being the most consistent Turkish intellectual of the European variety, Pamuk is not perceived by compatriots as an Ataturk successor, which should be natural. They see him as an upstart, seeking to serve the West. And the idea of the hostile colonial West – accompanied by classifying intellectuals as enemies of the state – has been growing strongly in Turkey during this last decade. Moving more and more conservative, plunging people of the country into greater and greater poverty, Turkish nationalism is hypocritically hiding behind the image of Ataturk, using it in its own political games. Although Turkey becomes noticeably more religious in this conservative wave, “Islam doesn’t stay at the center of problems”, Pamuk said during the public discussion in Paris in October of 2021, “…the problem is authoritarianism. I am not saying that Islam does not exist in this discussion, but Erdoğan is using Islam…”

In the fascinating world of Pamuk’s prose, his historic and imaginary vision meet head-on. A native of Istanbul, immersed in a timeless sense of his place, Pamuk provides a focused optic in his famous book “Istanbul. Memory and the City” (as often in his works, the reflection of whole generations with their hopes and disappointments stays behind the image of the lyric hero). We observe the story of slow impoverishment and destruction of Orhan’s family – but it’s also a story of the devastation of the European-oriented Turkish elite. Gradually thinning, it gives way to ruder, unprincipled people, who inherited from Europe only banal desires for creature comforts. Emptiness, with the destruction of historical Istanbul and the poverty of its inhabitants, becomes one of the melancholic leitmotifs of this book. Young Orhan, the artistically gifted boy, tries to add more and more details to his first pictures, struggling against this emptiness – it becomes the first metaphor of his intellectual development. Behind the scenes, we seem to hear the voices of Proust, Nabokov… all the eternal sadness of culture, which loses the competition with history.

In 2012 Pamuk opened the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul – a unique place and project, connected with his novel of the same name. The exposition is focused on two conditional Istanbul families with their traditions, secrets, and fears. It also speaks about a wonderful young woman, which was suffocated by the cultural limitations of her time. But behind the fictional characters, it creates a story of the generation of Turkish people in the late 1970s – early 1980s, who were fighting for their private and personal freedom. It especially concerns women, whose rights have always been Pamuk’s focus as a Turkish writer. The philosophy of this museum stays at the crossroads of the key topics of our time – private history, alternative history, history of ideas. As a private, unofficial place, it tends to speak “from people to people”. And – a sign of our global times – when university professors from all over the world fly to visit this specific museum, most of Istanbul’s inhabitants don’t even know about it.

Where is the balance between political action, and creativity? Russian philosopher Anatoly Akhutin who moved to Ukraine in 2014, protesting against the first ‘stage of Russian aggression on this country, wrote in his blog a few days ago (it’s a long quote, but worth it! ): “The aversion of people of culture (in general “spiritual life”) from politics is connected with deep oblivion of the meaning of the political. The political, we used to think, is what politicians do. The abodes of culture – beauty, truth, goodness – are pure, and the dwellings of politics are intrigues in the struggle for power, lies, manipulations, demagogy … – in a word, dirt. Meanwhile, politics, as the word suggests, is the awareness of one’s life in the polis (πόλις), the civic consciousness of life, as it says, in complicity, in other words, responsibility. If the ethical is the consciousness of responsibility for one’s actions in a community of people – close, oncoming, distant, then the political is the dimension of our existence in which we are responsible for our polis being. Politics becomes dirty when we relieve ourselves of this responsibility”. The responsibility, which Akhutin writes about, is sometimes costly but leads to progress in our social life. It gives a chance to be figures (or actors) on history’s board – and not only its victims.

Speaking in these categories, what should “to be one of us” mean? To choose directly what Pamuk choose – be a voice of reason, honesty, and self-reflection.

Just to be a voice.

An Istanbul scene. Turkish photographer Ara Guler (1928-2018).