Orhan Pamuk has had a special bond with the owner of Mavi, a restaurant on the Istanbul island of Heybeliada, ever since she got him out of a tight spot almost 20 years ago.
That was not long after the Turkish author had faced an angry backlash at home for comments about the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian minority. As he finished his dinner at this simple waterside venue, he realised that an ultranationalist group had descended on the island and was gathering just a few doors down from his family’s summer home.
The owner, Nigar Çelik, offered to jump into one of the island’s horse-drawn carriages with the author, who a few months later would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She escorted him back home so that they looked like an unremarkable couple. “She was so sweet to me,” Pamuk says. “She protected me.”
Pamuk chuckles as he recounts this story, which is one of several things he is so keen to share that he has noted them down on a small scrap of paper.
Despite his mirthful retelling, it doesn’t sound very funny at all, especially as we are meeting just a few weeks after Salman Rushdie was stabbed in New York state. But the Mavi incident was clearly the foundation for a good friendship because, more than a decade and a half later, he is still eating at the same restaurant.
Pamuk has invited me to join him for dinner at an outdoor table with views across the water to Heybeliada’s fellow Princes’ Islands and, in the distance, the sprawl of Istanbul. The writer, who is casually dressed in a navy polo shirt, seems in fine fettle despite being the bête noire (or more accurately, one of many bêtes noires) of Turkey’s powerful ultranationalists as well as of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although Pamuk turned 70 a few months ago, and his dark eyebrows are flecked with grey, there is something boyish about his big, slightly goofy grin that makes his eyes scrunch up.
We were supposed to be dining on a simple meal centred on kefal, a type of mullet that is a staple food for the characters of Nights of Plague, his sprawling new 700-page novel set on a plague-ridden Mediterranean island at the turn of the 20th century. But “Nigar Hanım” (Ms Nigar), as Pamuk refers to her, has dismissed this fish as too smelly. Funnily enough, she is not so keen on serving up a 1901 misery diet and wants to lay on a proper feast.
So instead we begin spooning out little servings from the selection of meze that she has prepared for us: olives with walnuts and thyme, courgette fritters, a yoghurt dish with dill, salted mackerel, beetroot with pomegranate syrup and mussels with rice.
Still, it was a nice idea — a reflection of the pleasure that Pamuk takes in blending fiction and reality, a feature of much of his previous work and a theme again in Nights of Plague.
That blend became a bit too real when, three-and-a-half years into writing the book, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Concepts that might previously have seemed antiquated and distant to his readers, such as quarantine, were suddenly highly relatable.
Pamuk didn’t mind the isolation but says he was very frightened of the disease. “I have so many books that I want to write,” he says, by way of explanation. He realised that this feeling was lacking in the characters in his draft manuscript. “I injected more fear into them. Coronavirus taught me fear of death.”
Conscious that Pamuk considers it discourteous for interviewers to dive straight into politics, I had planned to keep talking about his books for a while longer. But he himself plunges in, shortly after our waiter has poured out some crisp white wine, chosen by my guest, that offers welcome relief at the end of a muggy day.
Heybeliada Yalı Cd 23, 34975 Istanbul
Olives with walnuts 50TL (Turkish lira)
Yoghurt with courgette, walnut and dill 30TL
Salted mackerel 40TL
Mussels with rice 60TL
Courgette fritters 25TL
Beetroot with pomegranate 25TL
Shepherd’s salad 40TL
Bonito with tomato sauce 200TL
Bottle of DLC Sultaniye-Emir white wine 320TL
2 glasses of wine 150TL
Fig pudding 40TL
Total (inc cover charge) 1,010TL ($55)
He finally wrote the plague novel that he had been pondering for 40 years, he says, because it seemed fitting to explore how pandemics exacerbate rulers’ strongman tendencies at a time when Turkey’s own president was “getting increasingly authoritarian”.
Yet Erdoğan, whose roots lie in Islamist politics, surprised him by halting communal prayers in mosques in March 2020 as the modern-day pandemic spread. It tickles the author, who likes playing with ideas of orient and occident, that the Turkish president was quick to act while what he calls the “civilised west” was slow to follow suit.
Pamuk wanted to be a painter when he was a boy, but turned his hand to writing in his early twenties. He produced a string of critically acclaimed titles (The Black Book, My Name Is Red, Snow and a memoir and paean to his city called Istanbul). He was hailed in The New Yorker and interviewed by The Paris Review. Margaret Atwood claimed, a little absurdly, in a 2004 New York Times review that he was “narrating his country into being”. Two years later, he won the Nobel Prize.
Pamuk is arguably as famous for his status as a dissident. He was put on trial in 2005 for “insulting Turkishness” after his comments about the Armenian genocide. An international outcry ensued and the case was eventually dropped. He is now in trouble again over Nights of Plague. A prosecutor has accused him of insulting Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in his depiction of a character called Major Kâmil who forges an independent nation after eschewing the authority of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Pamuk has denied intending to insult Atatürk — an offence that carries a prison sentence in Turkey — and gets quite angry when I say that I saw parallels with his character, accusing me of talking like a Turkish nationalist. He says he is not “a Grand Bazaar carpet dealer” trying to flog shoppers an overpriced rug, but an honest person who would openly criticise Atatürk if that is what he wanted to do. The book, he says, is meant to be a much broader exploration of nation-building and its associated mythmaking — what the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm termed “the invention of tradition”.
After this prickly exchange, I am nervous about my next topic. I tell him that I have come to feel, after living in Turkey for the past seven years, that it’s not particularly fashionable to like him here. The fact that he criticises not only President Erdoğan but also the opposition and its icons means he has managed to annoy most segments of society. As a result, there seems to be an imbalance between how seriously he is taken abroad and at home: my British mum and dad have read more of his books than most of my Turkish friends.
“What are your criteria for taking a writer seriously?” he asks. “Is [the] number of book sales a good criterion for that? Or talking about the writer all the time?” We agree that in Turkey he satisfies both. “But they are not nice to me. Yes. What can I do?”
Pamuk then reels off some numbers and says he has sold more copies per capita in Turkey than in any other country. “I am most appreciated in Turkey,” he says.
As if to prove him right, a group of four men sitting nearby repeatedly come by our table throughout our dinner to ask for various things from Pamuk — first a photograph, then a video call with one of their daughters, then a signing of a book that they must have somehow hastily procured on this small, car-free island with a population of just several thousand people. He responds graciously to each request.
In Turkey, the more negative responses to Pamuk stem largely from his political comments, often made to the international media — comments that have little to do with his actual work. As a member of a wealthy Istanbul family and a liberal, he is hardly a Turkish everyman. Yet he is often treated like a spokesman for his nation, a phenomenon that seems to particularly afflict authors from non-western countries.
Pamuk says, not unreasonably, that it is not his fault if he is asked about his political views. He says he should have the freedom to answer if he wishes.
He also clearly likes talking about politics and so, as our main course of bonito cooked in a delicious, rich tomato sauce arrives, we get stuck into the rough and tumble of the upcoming election — widely seen as the toughest one that Erdoğan will have faced during his almost two decades in power.
The Turkish president is in decline, says Pamuk. “He cannot curtail anyone’s voice any more. He is vuwaaaam” — the writer makes a big downward arc with his hand — “going down. Thank God.”
He says that the drop in prosperity that the country has witnessed as the lira has plunged in value and inflation has soared to an official rate of 80 per cent is “scandalous”, and “a perfect, textbook example of a person who is in power for 20 years getting increasingly authoritarian and making irrational decisions and destroying the wellbeing of the nation”.
He adds, however, that the talk of the town is about how the president will act in response to his dwindling popularity. “The polls tell us he is going to lose, but is he going to accept that?”
The waiter pours out the remainder of our bottle of wine, giving it all — to Pamuk’s distress — to me. We order him an extra glass, and start talking about Salman Rushdie. Are they friends? Pamuk responds cryptically that literary friends are “very problematical” — and then chastises me when I try to probe what he means. “Uhhh, you’re so pro-voca-tiiive,” he complains, in his American-tinged English. “You are not satisfied with my answers.”
But he continues: “Well, I am Salman’s friend. I’ve been to his home, to his parties. He’s a brave writer. I respect [him] and always felt that I should defend him when he is in trouble.”
He talks about the oppressiveness of having bodyguards. He himself has had a security detail provided by the state ever since 2005, when he was first charged with “insulting Turkishness”. Their number has expanded and contracted over the years. Currently he has just one. He says, sadly, that it has at times felt like “a sort of failure in life” that he needs bodyguards to be safe here on these islands that he calls “the heart of the country for me”.
One of the island’s many street cats comes by to lighten the mood. This is one area where he and the animal-mad Turkish public can find common ground. He likes cats so much that he struggles to write if he has one at home. He shows me a photo of a white cat who “came with” an ex-girlfriend and was named Pamuk (which means cotton in Turkish). It is unclear whether or not this was a coincidence.
I am curious whether Pamuk (the author, not the cat) has engaged with the #MeToo movement. Much of his work feels very male. He is enthusiastic about doing better on this front. “I always want to reform myself,” he says, adding proudly that he is “the kind of guy that this French writer [Michel] Houellebecq will make fun of” for being politically correct.
He calls over Nigar Hanım, who is wearing a folksy apron, so that we can say a quick hello. He then launches into a rambling explanation about his request, made in advance, for a dessert of figs, “so that I can make a comment about [Fernand] Braudel”. The point he wants to make is that the French historian, in his two-volume magnum opus on the Mediterranean, defines the region as anywhere that can grow figs.
Pamuk reverts to his scrap of paper. He ticks off the figs, the ultranationalists and the horse-drawn carriage, plus a few items that we didn’t actually talk about, and then declares: “Everything is covered.” This episode compounds my feeling of having spent the evening with an eccentric, somewhat irascible, but ultimately loveable great-uncle.
The figs arrive — purple-black fruits filled with walnuts and what seems to be mastic-flavoured cream. We order two glasses of black Turkish tea and I ask which contemporary authors he likes. “Of course we all read . . . ” he searches for the name, exclaiming: “Come on!” Then he remembers: “Normal People”.
I am pleasantly surprised. I had wrongly assumed that this man who peppers our conversation with references to Heidegger and Marx and at one point declares, “I am being Nabakovian here,” might be snobbish about someone like the young Irish author Sally Rooney. But he says: “Her conversations are very good. She builds up atmosphere. She’s smart.”
Another wine. We fret a bit about not missing the ferry back to the next-door island of Büyükada, where Pamuk is spending his summer in a rented house and I have booked a hotel room.
We still have a little time, so he tells me about his upcoming tour of Europe and the US. He makes a deal with his publisher that he does publicity for half of each day so he can spend the other half exploring some of the world’s greatest museums.
After paying the bill, we set out for a quick stroll. With his baseball cap, brought to protect his hair from the rain that fell before we met, he looks a bit like an American on holiday. But he is no tourist. The waterfront is filled with memories. He points out the café where he was when he heard about 9/11 and recalls being mocked as a five-year-old by his family cook, older brother and some elderly onlookers for his inability to pronounce the name of nearby Yörükali (Yer-ook-uh-li — not one of Turkey’s easiest place names).
We head to the ferry stop. Pamuk buys us two tickets. We board the boat and take a seat on the open-air top deck so that we can enjoy the breeze.
I remember that I had meant to find out if he ever gets invited on Turkish television channels, which these days are mostly owned by Erdoğan cronies. I am interested because, for all the debate around him and his work, it seems tragic and unfair that he is not at least allowed to be a part of the discussion. Worse, the books of Turkey’s only Nobel laureate in literature are not even taught in public schools.
“Turkish TV is not welcoming to me,” he says, confirming my suspicions. But, as our boat sets off into the night, he quips that while his opponents don’t want to see him on television, “to be fair, they don’t kill me, OK?” He chuckles loudly. That boyish grin again. “I can survive here.”
Laura Pitel is the FT’s Turkey correspondent
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