At the heart of my library is my father’s library. When I was seventeen or eighteen and began to devote most of my time to reading, I devoured the volumes my father kept in our sitting room as well as the ones I found in Istanbul’s bookshops. These were the days when, if I read a book from my father’s library and liked it, I would take it into my room and place it among my own books. My father, who was pleased to see his son reading, was also glad to see some of his books migrating to my library, and whenever he saw one of his old books on my bookshelf, he would tease me by saying, “Aha, I see this volume has been promoted to the upper echelons!”
In 1970, when I was eighteen, I—like all Turkish children with an interest in books—took to writing poetry. I was painting and studying architecture but the pleasure I took from both was fading away; by night I would smoke cigarettes and write poetry, which I hid from everyone. It was at this point that I read the poetry collections that my father (who had wanted to be a poet when he was young) kept on his shelves.
I loved the slender, faded volumes by poets who are known in Turkish letters as belonging to the First Wave (1940s and 1950s) and the Second Wave (1960s and 1970s); having read them, I liked to write poems in the same manner. The poets of the First Wave—Orhan Veli, Melih Cevdet, and Oktay R fat—are remembered by the name of the first poetry collection they published together—Garip, or Strange. They brought to modern Turkish poetry the language of the streets, exulting in its wit and refusing the formal conventions of the official language and the oppressive, authoritarian world they echoed. My father would sometimes open a first edition by one of these poets and entertain us with one or two of their droll and capricious poems, reading them out in a loud voice and adopting an air that led us to understand that literature was one of the wondrous treasures of life.
I was also inspired by the poets of the Second Wave, who took this innovative spirit into the next generation, bringing a narrative, expressionistic voice to poetry, and also bringing to their compositions a mixture of Dadaist, Surrealist, and ornamental motifs from time to time; when I read these now deceased poets (Cemal Süreya, Turgut Uyar, lhan Berk) I would be convinced that I could write as they did, rather in the way that someone viewing an abstract painting might be innocent enough to think he could do such a painting himself. Or rather, I was like an artist who, upon looking at a painting he admires, thinks he has figured out how it was done. In much the same way as that artist might rush back to his studio to prove the point, I would go at once to my desk to write poetry.
With some rare exceptions, the work produced by all other Turkish poets was artificial and distant from the everyday world, so they did not interest me as poems; it was their intellectual underpinning that concerned me. As he struggled under the crushing influence of Westernization, modernization, and Europe, what could the local poet salvage from the damaged and fast-disappearing Ottoman-Turkish literary traditions, and how? What of Divan poetry, created by the Ottoman elite under the influence of Persian literature? What was its relevance to modern poetry now that its beauties and its literary conceits could only be understood by later generations with the help of dictionaries and guides?
The vexing questions associated with “drawing from tradition” greatly occupied the writers of the generation that came before me, and my own generation, too. Because Ottoman poetry had flourished for centuries, always remaining aloof to Western influence, there was a sense of continuity, and that made it easier and more comfortable to discuss literary and philosophical questions with reference to poetry. Because the novel was a European import, novelists and writers of prose wishing to connect with our own literary tradition turned their attention to poetry.
In the early 1970s, after my enthusiasm for poetry had flared up and quickly burned itself out and I had decided to become a novelist, poetry was still seen as true literature in Turkey, while the novel seemed a lesser, populist form. It would not be wrong to say that the novel has come to be taken more seriously over the past thirty-five years, while poetry has lost some of its importance. Over the same period, the publishing industry has grown with breathtaking speed, offering ever more diversity to ever more readers.
When I decided to become a writer, neither poems nor novels were valued as individual expressions of an artistic sensibility, a strange spirit, a soul: the dominant view was that serious writers worked collectively, and their work was valued for the way in which it contributed to a social utopia and reflected a shared vision (like modernism, socialism, Islamism, nationalism, or secular republicanism). There was little interest in literary circles in the problem of the individual creative writer who drew from history and tradition, or who tried to find the literary form that best accommodated his voice.
Instead literature was allied to the future: its job was to work hand in hand with the state to build a happy and harmonious society, or even nation. Utopian modernism—be it secularist, republican, or socialist egalitarian—has had its eyes so firmly planted on the future that it has, I sometimes think, been blind to the heart and the soul of just about everything that has gone on in the streets and houses of Istanbul over the past century. It seems to me that the writers who engage so passionately with the question of how to bring Turkey to a brilliant future do not tell as honest a story about our lives as writers like Ahmet Hamdi Tanp nar and Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar, who mourned the loss of our traditional culture, or Sait Faik and Aziz Nesin, who were alert to the poetry of Istanbul’s streets and loved the city without prejudice.
In the age of Westernization and rapid modernization, the central question—not just for Turkish literature but for all literatures outside the West—is the difficulty of painting the dreams of tomorrow in the colors of today, of dreaming about a modern country with modern values while also embracing the pleasures of everyday tradition. Writers whose dreams of a radical future propel them into political conflicts have often ended up in prison, and their plight has given a hard and embittered edge to their voices and their outlook.
In my father’s library there were also the first books published by Nazım Hikmet—Turkey’s most important poet—in the 1930s, before he went to prison for his revolutionary ideas. As impressed as I was by these poems’ angry, hopeful tone, their utopian vision, and their formal innovations, inspired by Russian futurism, I was affected just as much by the suffering this poet endured, and his years behind bars, and by the accounts of prison life in the memoirs and letters of realist novelists like Orhan Kemal and Kemal Tahir, who spent time in the same prisons. You could build a library just from the memoirs, novels, and stories by Turkish intellectuals and journalists who have ended up in prison.
There was a time when I read so much prison literature that I knew as much about the daily routine in the wards, the bravado, and the tough talk (and prison slang, of which I was very fond) as if I myself had done time in prison. In those days, my image of a writer was someone who always had police stationed outside his door, was followed by plainclothes policemen in the street, had his phones tapped, couldn’t get a passport, and wrote poignant letters to his beloved from prison. This way of life, which I knew only from books, was not something I wanted for myself, but I found it romantic. When I had a few problems of a similar nature thirty years later, I consoled myself by remembering that my problems were so much lighter than those suffered by the writers I read about when I was young.
I regret that I have not been able to shake off the enlightenment utilitarian idea that books exist to prepare us for life. Perhaps this is because a writer’s life in Turkey is proof that they are. But it also has something to do with the fact that in those days Turkey lacked the sort of large library where you could easily locate any book you wanted. In Borges’s imaginary library, every book takes on a mystical aspect, and the library itself offers intimations of a poetic and metaphysical infinity, echoing the complexity of the world outside; behind this dream are real libraries with more books than can ever be counted or read. Borges was the director of one such library in Buenos Aires. But when I was young there was no comparable library in Istanbul or all of Turkey. As for books in foreign languages, not a single public library had these. If I wanted to learn everything that there was to be learned, and become a wise person and so escape the constraints of the national literature—imposed by the literary cliques and literary diplomacy, and enforced by stifling prohibitions—I was going to have to build my own great library.
Between 1970 and 1990, my main preoccupation after writing was buying books for my library; I wanted it to include all books that I viewed as important or useful. My father gave me a substantial allowance. From the age of eighteen I was in the habit of going once a week to Sahaflar, the old booksellers’ market in Beyazıt, the center of the Old City. I spent many hours and days in its little shops, which were heated by ineffective little electric heaters, and crowded with towers of unclassified books, and everyone looked poor—from the shop assistant to the owner, the casual visitor to the bona fide customer.
I would go into a shop selling secondhand books, comb all the shelves, leaf through the books, and one by one I would pick a history of the relations between Sweden and the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century; or the memoir of the head physician of the Bakirköy Hospital for the Insane; or a journalist’s eyewitness account of a failed coup; or a monograph on the Ottoman monuments of Macedonia; or a Turkish précis of the writings of a German traveler who came to Istanbul in the seventeenth century; or the reflections of a professor from the Çapa Medical Faculty on manic-depressive disorder and predisposition to schizophrenia; or a small collection of poems by a forgotten Ottoman poet in an annotated edition in the Turkish of our time; or an illustrated book of propaganda, published by the Office of the Governor of Istanbul in the 1940s, and showing all the buildings and parks in black and white.
Copyright © 2008 by Orhan Pamuk; English translation copyright © 2008 by Maureen Freely