Orhan Pamuk at home in Istanbul, The National
Despite having turned 60, Orhan Pamuk is showing no signs of slowing down. It is a beautiful autumn afternoon on the Princes’ Island of Büyükada, a short ferry ride from central Istanbul, and the Nobel laureate has been at his desk since mid-morning working with pen and paper on his new novel, A Strangeness in Mind.
It’s a tale about a yoghurt seller from Anatolia, a region in southern Turkey, who comes to Istanbul to find his fortune; not only does it chart the migration that affected the city in the 1960s but it chronicles the explosive rise of Turkey’s largest metropolis from one to 14 million inhabitants over the past two decades.
“Istanbul is changing so much,” says Pamuk, sitting on his apartment terrace overlooking the Bosphorus. “We judge a city not only for its touristic visions, landscapes and the preservation of its old buildings but also by the happiness of its population. Turkey is getting richer and I think it’s changing for the better. But this success causes some destruction to the old textures of Istanbul and, unfortunately, that means modernity. It’s so hard to preserve it, so I am critical of that.”
This is a story that the bestselling author, often criticised in his home country for his often controversial, outspoken views, wants to expand on next year when his novel is finished. But for now, he’s agreed to give a rare interview to talk about the culmination of his latest project, The Museum of Innocence, which consists of a book, a museum and a reference catalogue. The novel was released to critical acclaim in 2008, the museum opened in April and now he has finally completed the companion guide, The Innocence of Objects.
“I want to clarify this misconception that I wrote a popular successful novel and then decided to make a museum out of it,” says the bestselling author of My Name Is Red, The Black Book and Snow. “No. I thought of the museum and the novel together. And in fact, I wrote the novel buying objects of daily life from the flea markets of Istanbul – things like old mechanical taxi meters and ashtrays. I then wrote the novel, looking at these objects, so in that sense, they helped plot the story.”
The book and the museum follow the romance between Kemal, an upper class businessman, who becomes infatuated with Füsun, a twice-removed cousin who lives in the working class Istanbul suburb Çukurcuma. The catalogue, on the other hand, illustrates the painstaking back-story to the museum, which has seen Pamuk and a number of Istanbul’s best artists and architects spend the best part of the last four years curating the thousands of objects now on display. Indeed, Pamuk bought the building which the museum is housed in 12 years ago.
“The initial idea was to open on the same day as the novel was published,” says Pamuk. “But this was not realistic, as finishing the novel was a hard labour and I needed more time to do the museum. When the novel was finished my studio in Cihangir was overflowing with objects and the museum was still in development.”
Despite the realisation of one of his greatest dreams, the man who has sold more than 11 million copies of his books says that he is still not satisfied, which explains, in part, why he is so keen to complete his next one. “I don’t feel like I have achieved something, so in that sense I’m not proud,” he says. “If I had that kind of sentiment I wouldn’t be writing. I still believe that I have to prove something and there is something lacking in the world related to me and I have to prove that.”
Pamuk also admits to being melancholic because he is soon to jet off to the United States to resume his teaching post at Colombia University, where he lectures one day a week. He loves the time he spends on Büyükada because of the privacy he enjoys – his rented apartment is hidden down an overgrown, ramshackle path and even his neighbours don’t know they have a famous author living next door – but also because of the glorious Bosphorus views from his writing desk. “Every morning I get up and jump into the sea at 7 o’clock,” he says. “I don’t look at newspapers or read my emails until 12 then I write more than half of the day doing an assignment which I self-impose. So I work, work, work.”
The Nobel Prize winner doesn’t show any signs of letting up. As the interview closes he briefly inspects his garden before turning on his heels and hurrying back indoors, regardless of the beautiful evening ahead, to continue work on that unfinished novel. “All of my friends are telling me – ‘Orhan you are working 11-12 hours a day, you have achieved so much, why don’t you take a rest?’” he says. “But on the other hand, when I write I am a happier person. Really, there is no meaning in life if I don’t write and read.”