The Art of the Novel Is Anti-Political
Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. His most recent book of essays is entitled Other Colors. He has just finished a new novel, The Museum of Innocence. He spoke recently with Paul Holdengraber, director of public programs at the New York Public Library. Below are excerpts of that interview.
NPQ | You offered a unique interpretation of Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky in your introduction to a Turkish edition of that book, focusing not on individual alienation but on the relationship between the center and the margin. You say that "the true subject of that book is the jealousy, the anger and pride of a man who cannot make himself into a European." This obviously has resonance today in the Turkish situation vis-a-vis Europe.
Orhan Pamuk | Yes, Dostoevsky is an author with whom I tend to identify. I have learned a lot from him. In Notes From the Underground, he was waging a war against shallow Occidentalists, didactic writers who were always extolling the wonders of the West.
Dostoevsky himself, of course, was made of the stuff of the West. He went to military school, but studied engineering as taught in the West. In his youth, he was a radical Westernizer. But, later, in his middle life, he converted into a conservative pan-Slavist. It was at that age, when he was developing his ideas for this novel, that being Western, having the positivist outlook of Western science, was so admired among the Russian youth. Dostoevsky hated that.
Not only did he hate this admiration of the West. He wanted to contradict the core ideas of Western civilization at that time, among which were that all human beings are rational, and their rational self-interested actions would be good for them and their society.
He wrote, long before Freud, that human beings were not rational creatures but acted on instincts they didn't understand. He tried to understand this dark side of the human spirit.
Clearly, also, there was jealousy here. As a Russian, he was aware of the fact that Russian culture was considered by the West as barbarian and undeveloped. That upset him. He was angry at the West and the Westernizers for looking down on his people.
Of course, in my case, I am a Turk. I come from Istanbul. I'm heavily imbedded in my culture. But Turkish culture and Turkish language have never been the center of the world. So, like Dostoevsky, I too carry a certain anger and resentment toward the center.
NPQ | V.S. Naipaul always writes about this theme of the center and the margin. Do you identify with him?
Pamuk | Let me tell you a story about Naipaul I've never told anyone. In May, we were staying in the same hotel in Italy. We met in the lobby briefly, and he said, "Pleased to meet you," and left.
As I was leaving the hotel, the butler came up to me and said, "Mr. Naipaul admires you a lot, he said such nice things to me about you." But Naipaul didn't say these things to my face, but to the butler. What an irony! Two non-Western writers communicating through a European butler!
Now, when you raise the name of Naipaul, everyone immediately rises to condemn his politically incorrect remarks. But this is not the point. The point about writers is not where they fail, but what they have achieved. Few authors are geniuses all the time. Sometimes they write something extraordinary, and that is what ought to count. That is what we should pay attention to.
Their failures, their silly comments in some interview here or there are not so interesting.
The fact remains that Naipaul was the first writer to pay attention to what we call today non-Western "post-colonial societies" when, after the bad imperialists left -- and they were bad -- a new generation of national leaders took over. Because of the guilt in the West, the tendency was to praise these post-colonial societies without understanding what was happening there. Naipaul, for the first time, paid closer attention to the horrors going on in the places where he belonged, from which he came.
NPQ | In the frontispiece to your novel Snow, you quote Stendhal: "Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair, though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters."
Albert Camus said something similar, that the perfect political story portrays politics not as something we have eagerly sought, but as "an unhappy accident we are obliged to accept."
How do these views fit in with your idea of the novel and politics?
Pamuk | If you put the two together, you get my view: An unhappy accident may happen to all of us, and we will find ourselves facing ugly matters.
This is certainly what happened to me in Turkey. I didn't seek out politics, I didn't have an agenda but found myself in a political situation. [Editor's note: Pamuk was accused last year of "un-Turkish" behavior for discussing in a Swiss newspaper the massacre of Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire.]
My experience going back to my early 20s when everyone was politicized in Turkey is that serving a cause destroys the beauty of literature. Most of the time I saw that well-meaning authors had destroyed their talent through politics.
If you look at the whole corpus of novels, politics is not the most interesting subject. These subjects are love, happiness, bourgeois life, the meaning of life, goals in life that end in disillusionment.
There is so much cheap morality in writing political fiction. I wrote a political novel, Snow, but I did my best not to pass a moral judgment on any of my characters. The problem with the political novel is that there is a high expectation from the reader that you will pass judgment on a character.
But the very strength of the art of the novel is that the writer identifies with the character he creates with such great intensity that no moral judgment should be passed on a character.
The art of the novel is based on the unique capacity of human beings to identify with the Other with whom we have no common interests. In my mind's eye I try to understand what this person -- who is not like me but is of a different race, gender, culture or class, who may be perverse or strange -- is thinking and feeling. But at the same time he or she is a human being like me. It's called compassion.
Of course, I'm not saying human beings are like this all the time. We are capable of killing 200,000 Iraqis and don't care about it anymore, and just pay attention to what George Bush says. We are capable of doing this as well as being compassionate. But the art of the novel is based on this human capacity for compassion.
A novel works if the writer manages to identify with the characters. That means putting oneself in the shoes of others, not judging them.