Orhan Pamuk explores Istanbul's double soul

The Nobel-winning Turkish author talks about his latest novel The Museum of Innocence.
Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Orhan Pamuk
By Reuters
Fri 01 Oct 2010 03:27 PM

From his Istanbul
window, the Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk sees a city in flux.

Gleaming steel towers that signify Istanbul's
new economic power rise in the distance, rivaling more familiar views of old
mosques and palaces, home to the former Ottoman dynasty. Teeming suburbs spread
across hills.

Pamuk, Turkey's most celebrated artist, has explored his country's struggle
with tradition and modernity and its identity as a land that straddles East and
West in novels infused with "huzun," a Turkish word that refers to
melancholy or spiritual loss.

"I'm lucky to be a writer whose subject matter is always before his
eyes," Pamuk said in his airy studio, which has sweeping views of the
Asian and European sides of the city.

Turkey,
a vibrant, young country with a rapidly growing economy, is the subject of a
vigorous and often loud debate that experts say goes to the heart of the future
of this Muslim democracy.

A power shift led by a new class of observant Muslims from the heartland is
redrawing the notions in place since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established Turkey as a secular republic in 1923 on the
ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Is Turkey's
secularism on the retreat? Is Islam's influence and power growing? Is Turkey drifting
away from the West?

Pamuk traces Turkey's
existential dilemma and present day schism, evident in a divisive referendum on
constitutional reform earlier this month, to the contradictions of modern Turkey's birth.

"For 200 years, Turks tried to change their civilisation by making Turkey more
Westernised. This conflict continues today and has formed the modern Turkish
soul."

The realignment in Turkey'
political and economic landscape began in the 1980s, when rural Turks flocked
to the cities to work in the export-fuelled manufacturing boom. A new devout
middle class emerged, challenging the Westernised, secular elite.

In 2002, the religiously conservative AK Party, which evolved from banned
Islamist movements but rejects the Islamist label, swept to power after
defeating establishment parties.

Under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's fiscal prudence and social
conservatism, Turkey has
become one of the world's fastest growing economies while deepening its ties
with fellow Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Once the underdogs of society, religious Turks are today assertive;
secularists, who saw the military's meddling in politics as a lesser but
necessary evil to protect the status quo, live increasingly in fear that their
lifestyle is in danger by this "silent revolution" advancing under
the banner of religion.

This is the backdrop to Pamuk's latest novel, ‘The Museum of Innocence’.
Published in 2008, it tells the story of Kemal, a rich Istanbul heir, who falls desperately in love
with a poor, distant cousin, Fusun.

With trademark melancholy, it describes an inward-looking Istanbul
of decaying Ottoman splendor where the Westernised and moneyed classes send
their children to study in Europe and speak
dismissively of fellow Turks who look too "Turkish."

As Kemal's obsession with Fusun consumes him, the city is changing around
him. Migrants arrive to work at textile factories, including one owned by his
family. The city's borders swell. The military stages a coup in 1980 to end
chronic political infighting.

Pamuk, born into a well-off, Westernised Istanbul
family who studied in the United States,
said he felt no nostalgia for the Istanbul
of his youth.

"Today's Istanbul
is a happier, bigger, richer and more complex place," he said, the
perpetually moving landscape of boats in front of his writing desk.

"The resentment about living on the edge of Europe
and not enjoying the economic richness and its freedom has disappeared."

When he received his Nobel in 2006, he was praised for turning his city into
a literary territory akin to Pessoa's Lisbon or
Joyce's Dublin.

Since then, the line separating his fictional Istanbul from the real city has become even
more blurred.

His latest project is to build a museum housing both objects of the city's
daily life, as well as artifacts that belonged to the fictional characters of
the "Museum
of Innocence."

In the book, Kemal, seeking consolation for his lost love, builds a museum
out of objects that once belonged to Fusun.

Pamuk says the museum, opening in 2011 which shows objects like cups,
postcards ands underwear, as "documentation of a bygone Istanbul and a poetic look at the city's past
through the eyes of a lover." (Reuters)

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.