The Books of My Numberless Dreams

On being traditional

Posted on: March 14, 2007

INTERVIEWER

Critics often characterize your work novels as postmodern. It seems to me, however, that you draw your narrative tricks primarily from traditional sources. You quote, for instance, from The Thousand and One Nights and other classic texts in the Eastern tradition.

PAMUK

That began with The Black Book, though I had read Borges and Calvino earlier. I went with my wife to the United States in 1985, and there I first encountered the prominence and richness of American culture. As a Turk coming from the Middle East, trying to establish himself as an author, I felt intimidated. So I regressed, went back to my “roots”. I realized that my generation had to invent a modern national literature.

Borges and Calvino liberated me. The connotation of traditional Islamic literature was so reactionary, so political, and used by conservatives in such old-fashioned and foolish ways, that I never thought I could do anything with that material. But once I was in the United States, I realized I could go back to that material with a Calvinoesque or Borgesian mind frame. I had to begin by making a strong distinction between the religious and literary connotations of Islamic literature, so that I could easily appropriate its wealth of games, gimmicks and parables. Turkey had a sophisticated tradition of highly refined ornamental literature. But then the socially committed writers emptied our literature of its innovative content.

There are lots of allegories that repeat themselves in the various oral story telling traditions–of China, India, Persia. I decided to use them and set them in contemporary Istanbul. It’s an experiment–put everything together, like a Dadaist collage; The Black Book has this quality. Sometimes all these sources are fused together and something new emerges. So I set all these rewritten stories in Istanbul, added a detective plot, and out came The Black Book. But at its source was the full strength of American culture and my desire to be a serious experimental writer. I could not write a social commentary about Turkey’s problems–I was intimidated by them. So I had to try something else.

INTERVIEWER

Were you ever interested in doing social commentary through literature?

PAMUK

No. I was reacting to the older generation of novelists, especially in the eighties. I say this with all due respect, but their subject matter was very narrow and parochial.

From “The Art of Fiction” interview with Orhan Pamuk, The Paris Review, Fall/Winter 2005

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1 Response to "On being traditional"

“the socially committed writers emptied our literature”

I like this way of putting it.

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