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My Turkish Library

Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely

After bargaining with the shop assistant, I would cart them all away. In the beginning, I collected all the classics of world and Turkish literature—it would be more accurate to describe these as books that were “important” for Turkish literature. I thought I would certainly read other books too, just as I’d done with the classics. But when my mother, who was worried about me, because she thought I read too much, saw me bringing in more books than even I could read, she would say wearily, “For once don’t go buying more books until you’ve finished these!”

I wasn’t buying like a book collector but like a frantic person who was desperate to understand why Turkey was so poor and so troubled. When I was in my twenties and my friends came to visit the house where I lived with my parents, and they asked me why I was buying these books that were filling up the house so fast, I could never give them an answer that satisfied them. The house motif in the Gümüşhane Legends; Ethem the Circassian’s behind-the-scenes description of the rebellion against Atatürk; the inventory of political assassinations during the Second Constitutional Period (1908–1922) when the Young Turks were in charge; the story of the parrot that the ambassador in London sent to Sultan Abdülhamit; the collection of prototype love letters for the bashful; the political memoirs of the doctor who opened Turkey’s first sanatorium; the lecture notes of a commissar who taught students in the police school about minor street crimes committed by pickpockets, confidence men, swindlers, and suchlike.

Then there were the six-volume, document-laden memoirs by a former president; another book detailing the ways in which the moral code of Ottoman guilds had influenced modern business practices; the Paris memoirs of a forgotten 1930s artist; a book about the tricks played by merchants to increase the price of hazelnuts; a weighty five-hundred-page collection of critiques of Marxists aligned with China and Albania, written by Marxists aligned with the Soviet Union; the story of the transformation of the city of Ereğli following the opening of its iron and steel factories; a book for children entitled 100 Famous Turks ; the story of the Great Aksaray fire of 1911; a collection of columns written between the two world wars by a journalist who’d been utterly forgotten for thirty years; a two-hundred-page history covering two thousand years in a small city in central Anatolia whose location was hard to pinpoint with any confidence on a map; and the claims made by a retired teacher who, though he had no knowledge of English, had worked out who shot Kennedy just by reading the Turkish papers. Was I interested enough in the authors of such works to read them from cover to cover? In later years, whenever someone asked, “Mr. Pamuk, have you read all the books in your library?,” I would, without taking the question at all lightly, say, “Yes. But even if I hadn’t read them all, they still might prove useful.”

I meant what I said, and when I was young my connection to books was limited by the optimism of an incurable positivist who believed that he could have dominion over the entire world through learning. I believed I would use all this erudition one day in a novel. There is in me something of the autodidact hero in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, who reads every book in his public library, from A to Z, and of Peter Klein, the hero of Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fé,* who is as ferociously proud of his books as a soldier might be of his regiment. The Borgesian library is not for me a metaphysical fantasy of an infinite world—it is the library I have built up in my house in Istanbul, volume by volume. I’d snap up a book on the legal foundations of the Ottoman agricultural economy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was by reading in that book about the taxation of tiger skins that I discovered there were tigers roaming through Anatolia at that time. It was from the heavy volumes containing the collected letters written from exile by Namık Kemal, the Romantic, activist, patriotic, and didactic nineteenth-century poet (Turkey’s Victor Hugo!) that I first learned that our legendary poet, the ubiquitous hero of schoolbooks and schoolboy legends, had an extraordinarily foul mouth. An amusing political memoir by an imprisoned parliamentarian; an insurance broker’s account of the most interesting fire and car accident cases he’d encountered during his career; the memoirs of a flamboyant diplomat whose daughter had once been my classmate—if I happened onto such books I would buy them at once.

I was missing out on life by burying myself in books—but even when I’d realized this, I’d still keep buying books, as if to take revenge on the life I was fleeing. It is only now, so many years later, that I realize how happy those hours were that I spent making friends with the shop assistants in those cold bookshops, drinking the tea that they offered me, and inspecting those dusty towers of books from top to bottom.

After combing through the shelves of Istanbul’s antiquarian booksellers in the Sahaflar Market for upward of ten years, I concluded that every book published in the Latin alphabet from the founding of the republic to the 1970s had passed through my hands. I sometimes calculated that there had been at most fifty thousand books published during the fifty-year period following Atatürk’s decision to move the entire nation from the Arabic script to the Latin alphabet in 1928. By 2008, this figure had only just exceeded a hundred thousand. Perhaps I was driven by a secret plan to bring all these books together in my library….

But mostly my choices were spontaneous and impulsive. Buying books one by one is a bit like building a house stone by stone. In the 1980s I saw many others like me, not just in the antiquarian bookshops but in all of Istanbul’s mainstream bookstores. I am talking about the people who turn up at bookshops at five or six in the evening and ask, “Is there anything new in today?” and then go one by one through all the books that have arrived at the bookshop since the day before.

In 2008 there are about three times as many books being published as thirty years ago, but in the 1980s, there were on average three thousand books published in Turkey each year. I saw most of these, and almost half of them were translations. Because there were so very few books imported from abroad, I read these hasty and careless translations in an effort to understand what was going on in world literature.

In the 1970s, the stars of every bookstore were the large historical tomes that sought out the root causes of Turkey’s poverty and “backwardness” and its social and political upheavals. These ambitious modern histories had an angry tone; in sharp contrast to the old Ottoman histories that were by now being churned out in modern Turkish editions—and I bought all of these, too—the new histories never cast too much blame on us for the catastrophes we had suffered, preferring to attribute our poverty, our lack of education, and our “backwardness” to foreign powers or to a few evil and corrupted souls in our midst, and perhaps this is why they were so widely read and savored.

I was never able to resist any history, novel, or memoir that examined the military coups and political movements of our own times, or the series of military defeats during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, or our never-ending string of political assassinations, tracing each to a secret, a malign conspiracy, or a game between foreign powers. The histories of cities written by retired teachers, and published either by city councils or the authors themselves, the memories of idealist doctors, engineers, tax collectors, diplomats, and politicians, the life stories of film stars, the books about sheikhs and sects, the exposés of the Masons in which names were named—I bought them all because there was a bit of comedy inside them, a bit of life, and bit of reality, and if nothing else, a bit of Turkey.

When I was a child I loved reading books about Atatürk written by his friends and close associates. These were written by people who knew Atatürk well and truly loved him; due to the laws protecting the memory of Atatürk, it was very difficult for later generations to write about his human side, and so the image of Atatürk was refashioned to make him look like an authoritarian supremacist, and his esteemed name was abused to justify political oppression and draconian laws. In Turkey today, it remains an offense to insult the memory of Atatürk. One cannot portray him as a normal person in a novel, or write an authoritative biography about him, without ending up in prison. But even so, hundreds of books are written about him every year. Perhaps this is because—as with the books about Islam—the prohibitions simplify a difficult and complex problem, thereby comforting their authors.

In the mid-1970s, when I had given up my dreams of being a painter and an architect and decided to become a novelist, there were between forty and fifty novels published in Turkey each year. I would look through all of these and buy most of them, thinking they might be of some use to me one day; if I spent time skimming through them, it was not because they had literary merit, but because I could find in them descriptions of life in Turkey’s villages and small towns and slices of life from Istanbul. Our illustrious critic of the 1950s, Nurullah Ataç (who was vociferous in his defense of our right to borrow from Western civilization, and most especially French culture, but who could not resist making fun of the stupidities committed by badly educated writers when they imitated the French), once said that in a country like ours, it was sometimes necessary to buy at least some of the books that came onto the market, just to give support to the author and the publisher. I followed his advice.

While browsing through these books, I would feel myself part of a culture, a history; I would think about the books I myself would write one day, and feel happy. But sometimes I would sink into a dangerous gloom. Overwhelmed by the typographical errors in a book, or the carelessness displayed by the author and his publisher, my attention would wander; I’d be reading a book on a subject worthy of nuanced and astute analysis, and when I saw that this author had killed it, through haste, anger, or panic, I felt pain. And anyway, the subject itself seemed a bit silly, and trite, too…. It also made me sad if a silly, worthless book was greatly loved, or if another book that was so interesting and enchanting attracted no interest whatsoever….

Such encounters would set off a larger and more profound anxiety, and slowly I would feel the damning chill of the cloud that hangs over all literary-minded people outside the West, all their lives: How important could it be to know that tigers roamed in Anatolia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? What was the point of tracing the influence of Indian literature on Asaf Halet Çelebi—a poet hardly known even to the Turkish reader? Neither did it seem very important to me to know that the hordes that ran riot in Istanbul on September 6 and 7, 1955, smashing the shops and looting the homes of Istanbul’s Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minorities, were aided and abetted not just by Turkey’s secret services but by Britain, which was reluctant to see Cyprus become part of Greece, nor did it seem important to know what Atatürk discussed with the Shah of Iran during their trip up the Bosphorus. I felt as if those who had researched these subjects, and written novels and histories, had done it all for nothing.

In my darkest days, I felt like Faruk, the hero of my second novel, The Silent House, who’d studied documents dating back many centuries in the Ottoman archives, and carried them around in his head, never forgetting the facts they contained, but failing to connect with a single one of them: I would wonder about the “importance” of having successfully preserved details of an entire history, an entire culture, an entire language. How important was it to know who set the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922? It seemed to me that there were only four or five people other than myself who wished to know the reasons behind the military coup of May 27, 1960, or the foundation of the Democracy Party after World War II. Was this because Turkish culture was too political? Or was it because the country expressed itself most through politics? Or was it our sense of being so far from the center—of living on the margin—that made a person see so little worth in his national library?

When I reflected on the facts I had learned from the books I had so happily brought into my house, when I considered how little they mattered to the rest of the world, I would feel empty and useless and all the pleasure would seep away. But though I was, in my twenties, plagued by the idea that I lived far from the center of things, this did not stop me from loving my library dearly. When I was in my thirties, and went to America for the first time, to see other libraries and come face to face with the richness of world culture, it grieved me to see how little was known about Turkish culture, Turkish letters. At the same time, this pain allowed the novelist in me to see more clearly the difference between the transitory aspects of a culture and its essence, and I took this as a warning: I should look more deeply at life, and at my library.

In Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness, there is a Czech character who, while attending an international conference, takes every opportunity to talk about “how things are in my country”; as a consequence he is ridiculed. It’s right that they should look down on him for thinking about nothing but his own country and failing to see the connection between his own humanity and that of the rest of the world. But when I was reading Slowness, I did not identify with those who looked down on the man who couldn’t stop talking about “my country”—I identified with the ridiculous man. Not because I wanted to be like that laughable creature, but because I didn’t. It was in the 1980s that I understood that if—to borrow two words from the hero of my novel The Black Book—I wanted to “become myself,” it would not be by deriding Naipaul’s “mimic man” for the things that he did to overcome his provincial ways, or his depression, but by identifying with him.

Turkey was never a Western colony, and so when Turks imitated the West as Atatürk decreed, it was never the damning, demeaning undertaking described by Kundera, Naipaul, and Edward Said—it became an important part of Turkish identity. As for the endearing absurdities of Efruz Bey, a character loved and hated in equal measure, created to portray the longing for all things Western as fanciful and snobbish—for Turkish readers he does not suggest the richness of Turkish literature—all it shows us is that Ömer Seyfettin (1884–1920), the nationalist, polemical storyteller, who in places flirts with ideas about racial purity, portrayed Westernization as an upper-class movement cut off from the people.

When I am confronted by such affectations, I am in sympathy with Dostoevsky, who was so infuriated by Russian intellectuals who knew Europe better than they did Russia. At the same time, I don’t see this anger, which impelled Dostoevsky to turn against Turgenev, as particularly justified. Extrapolating from my own experience, I know that behind Dostoevsky’s dutiful defenses of Russian culture and Orthodox mysticism—shall we call it the Russian library?—was a rage not just against the West, but against the Russian intellectuals who did not know their own culture.

During the thirty-five years I have spent writing my own novels, I have learned not to laugh at the books written by others, and not to cast them aside, no matter how silly, ill-timed, outmoded, outdated, stupid, wrongheaded, or strange they might be. The secret of loving these books was not, perhaps, to read them in the way their authors had intended…. The point was to read these books—strange, and indifferent, and interspersed with moments of astonishing beauty—so as to put myself in their authors’ shoes. You did not escape provinciality by running away from the provinces, but by making it your own. This was how I learned to immerse myself in my slowly expanding library, and also how I learned to put myself at a distance. It was after I turned forty that I learned that the most powerful reason for loving my library was that neither Turks nor Westerners knew about it.

But now, they say, “You’ve won the Nobel, and this year Turkey is the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. So could you describe your Turkish library for us?” I am ready to do this, and to make others love my Turkish library, but as I set out to do as I’ve been asked, I fear falling out of love with it myself….

  1. *

    Tower of Babel in the US.

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