Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk's 1983 novel Silent House is being released in English for the first time this week. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel talks with the Nobel Laureate about what took so long to get the book translated and how he's changed as a writer since it was first published in Turkish nearly 30 years ago.
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer and Nobel laureate, has a novel out that is both old and new. What's new about "The Silent House" is that it's been translated into English for the first time. Before that, it was published in Turkish almost 30 years ago.
It is set in July 1980, a month before Turkey experienced a military coup. An elderly widow in a seaside town, who was waited on by her late husband's illegitimate son, receives her three grandchildren for the summer: an overweight history professor with a broken marriage and a drinking problem and his two teenage siblings; his sister is a leftist; his brother, a budding hedonist. Orhan Pamuk joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program once again.
ORHAN PAMUK: So nice to be here.
SIEGEL: Not a very happy family you're writing about in this book.
PAMUK: All unhappy families are interesting. We should perhaps change Tolstoy's first line and what makes a family interesting is that their unhappiness, so they're lovable. Most of the characters are lovable and well-meaning.
SIEGEL: The elderly grandmother, Fatma, spends a lot of time unhappily remembering her late husband, who was a free-thinking doctor and encyclopedist who lived off selling her jewelry, I've read that their marriage or at least parts of it were inspired by what you learned about your grandparents' marriage.
PAMUK: Yes. Fatma, the grandmother in the story, is a sort of a combination of my maternal and paternal grandmothers and their relationship with their cook or servant or some old person serving in the house. Now, as I look years later, it is so old fashioned and so Chekhovian and poetic that I kept it in the book.
SIEGEL: And their marriages? Were they - did they regard free-thinking husbands as sinful people?
PAMUK: The aspirations of their grandfather is also based on my maternal grandfather who studied law in Berlin in turn of the previous century in, say, 1900s and who send her letters in which my aunt later read and gave to me, asking her to be a feminist or what do you think of women's rights. We have to be modern. And looking back to all these radical modernist democratic ideals of the first generation of people who made the Turkish republic and then also looking at the reality, seemed so interesting, so challenging to me 30 years ago that I kept all the clashes, nuances of their relationship in the book.
SIEGEL: I've seen a quotation about this book, "The Silent House," attributed to you that each of the young characters was you in some way.
PAMUK: Well, this is another novel of mine which is narrated from various first person, single points of view. I strongly believe that the art of the novel works best when the writer identifies with whoever he or she is writing about. Novels in the end are based on the human capacity, compassion, and I can show more compassion to my characters if I write in a first person singular.
SIEGEL: Well, was it hard to find that compassionate first-person singular voice for, say, the teenager who is not one of the grandchildren but who was a young nationalist - is turning into a very thuggish young nationalist?
PAMUK: Good point. It's more like the problem I face when I was writing "Snow." There, I wanted to almost identify with a right-wing Islamic fundamentalist. Here, I'm writing about, again, right-wing nationalists. They both share the anti-Western sentiment. They are both unhappy, radical, resentful of West and, in fact, upper classes in their ways. This kind of fiction works if you do your best to see the world through these characters' point of view. That does not necessarily mean that I agree with their political outlook.
SIEGEL: But you have to, in some way, reach a point of seeing the world their way in order to write persuasively.
PAMUK: Yes. And in order to do that, not only you have to read their newspapers, magazines, right-wing nationalist publications but also try to and see in your imagination little details of their life.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you a political question, not about the novel "Silent House" but about the world. As is often the case, anger and violence in Muslim countries against American institutions or even individuals is the stuff of news. You wrote something a few years ago that I'd like to hear you talk about. You wrote that the real challenge facing the West isn't just to find where the next terrorist is hiding or to bomb him, but you wrote to understand the spiritual lives of the poor, humiliated, discredited peoples who have been excluded from its fellowship.
PAMUK: Yes. When I said that or when I wrote that, I meant people like Hassan, the radical angry person in my novel who cannot see a bright future waiting for him. There's no job possibilities, and his sense of himself is low. The anger is the anger of a person who sees that history is being unfolded in some other place. But on the other hand, I also want to underline the fact that all these provocations, these little uprisings, flag-burnings, a small minority of manipulated protesters does not represent the wealth and variety of Islamic cultures and people.
We should not judge Islam by terrorists. All civilizations and cultures produce terrorists. Every time there is a flag-burning, killing or provocative films, I'm worried not because something radical will happen, and this time, some people are killed. We're very sorry for that. But I'm worried about, you know, for the last 35 years, I mean, stone by stone, word by word, I'm trying to build an effective word in which readers both from Turkey and from all over the world understand the nuances, shades, colors of where I belong. You may say Islamic civilization or Turkey between east and west, but once a major thing like bombing and killing happened, headlines only talk about Islam and terrorism, and I should refuse to connect that.
SIEGEL: The fictive - you're saying the fictive structure that you've been building all these years.
PAMUK: The fictive structure, my work, my imagination, my books are about the details, the huge construction about culture, Islamic culture or modern Turkey. They're all intertwined. But once there is a major terroristic onto Western sentiment expressed with killings, all these nuances vanish, and they ask me to connect Islam with terrorism, which I refuse. It's not - there's no real connection, really.
SIEGEL: And your fictive structure continues to build. You've mentioned...
PAMUK: I still write. Of course, I'm still writing my novels, paying a lot of attention to details. There's so many nuances.
SIEGEL: And the novel you're currently writing like "The Silent House" is written from different characters' points of view, different first-person accounts.
PAMUK: The title is "A Strangeness in My Mind." It chronicles the story of a street vendor who came to stumble in late '60s and who's still around, who builds his own house with his hands and how the shantytowns of Istanbul of 1960s and '70s are now grounds for high-rises, the story (unintelligible) million city going to 40 million is my - will be my next book.
SIEGEL: Well, we look forward to it when it's translated into English.
PAMUK: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: Thank you very much. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer and Nobel laureate. His 1982 novel "Silent House" has now been translated into English. Thanks so much for talking with us.
PAMUK: Thank you so much, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.