Nobel Winner Pamuk Recounts Thirty Years of Writing

Kate C. Xie

“I think that most of fiction is autobiographical,” Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk reflected before a packed Memorial Church audience last Friday night, exactly one year to the date of his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. “The art of the novel is that in writing, you’re talking about yourself while making people believe you’re talking about herself, himself.”

During the Harvard Book Store event, Pamuk used excerpts from “Other Colors,” a new collection of “essays and a story” he has written over the last 30 years, as a jumping-off point for a freewheeling discussion of precocious melancholy, the calling to literature, and the political necessity of open communication. “This book is full of slices of life, things that I have experienced,” he said.

Pamuk read aloud a cluster of short lyrical essays originally written for the Turkish political humor magazine “Oküz” (“Ox”). “I’m Not Going to School,” a gently sardonic dramatic monologue, detailed a child’s dislike of school (“The teacher gives me a nasty look, and she doesn’t look too good to start with. I don’t want to go to school.”). “When Rüya is Sad” offered a novelist-father’s more self-reflective perspective.

“Does she have a stomachache? Or maybe she is discovering the taste of her melancholy. Let her be, let her be sad, let her lose herself in solitude and her own smell. The first aim of an intelligent person is to achieve unhappiness when everyone around her is happy,” he read.

A self-characterized graphomaniac and author of seven novels including “Snow” and “My Name is Red,” Pamuk reminisced about the burgeoning of his compulsion to write.

“I argue that just like some people need a pill every day, I need some time to be alone in a write every day. If I do that, I’m okay. If I don’t do that, I’m upset,” he said.

Pamuk was asked by an audience member for his thoughts on the proposed condemnation of the Armenian Genocide by the United States Congress.

“You know, I was expecting this question. Don’t worry, I will get out of it!” he quipped.

Charges against Pamuk of “insulting Turkish identity” for remarks he made to a Swiss newspaper about the mass killing of Armenians in Turkey during World War I were later dropped in January 2006 following an international outcry.

“Firstly, it is a moral issue. For me, it is a Turkish issue. And unfortunately, now it is getting to be more and more of an international issue. For me, it is an issue of free speech in Turkey, that the Turks should be able to talk about this, no matter what you say...I think it is upsetting that this issue can be an arm-wrestling issue internationally, rather than a moral issue of freedom of speech in Turkey,” he replied, to applause.

Pamuk, whose works have been translated into over fifty languages, spoke to the universal power of literature.

“A sentence is a sort of an episteme, a sort of a composition of meanings and melody. Translation, I believe, depends on the essential translatability of prose. And I also believe that poetry may sometimes be untranslatable, but I write in prose. [In prose] there are acknowledged universal meanings and they can be translated,” he said.

Reading an excerpt from his Nobel Lecture reprinted in “Other Colors,” Pamuk attempted to answer simply that question often posed to authors: “Why do you write?”

“I write because I have never managed to be happy,” he said. “I write to be happy.”

—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached