Orhan Pamuk: "Tradition and modernity, family are my subjects."

The Books Interview.

Orhan Pamuk in 2005
Orhan Pamuk in 2005. Photograph: Getty Images

Your novel Silent House, which has just been translated into English, was published in Turkey nearly 30 years ago. How did it feel to return to the book after so long?

There was some nostalgia in revisiting it. I remembered the struggles of the 1970s, the political fights and killings in the streets of Istanbul.

The little fishing village described in the book has developed into a fancy summer resort for the new rich. At that time, it was outside Istanbul. Now it’s part of the city.

The book is set in the late 1970s, immediately before the military coup of 1980, when the country was poor and the promise of change – political and social change –was not visible. Something I have learned from rereading it is that there was more frustration among people like my characters than we have in Turkey today but the political struggles – the reaction to modernity, whether it’s Islamist or nationalist, anti-western or anti-establishment – are still around.

Because of the belated appearance of the book here, will English-speaking readers have a distorted picture of the trajectory of your career?

No, “distortion” is too strong. Let me put it this way: all my novels represent the same dilemma, Turkey’s grappling with modernity. Tradition and modernity, family: these are my subjects.

Has Turkey settled the political anxieties that this novel deals with?

Authoritarianism, an unrealistic occidental imagination – these issues will never be settled. Turkey will continue to take Europe as a model; it will continue to pursue its search for democracy.

Will the tensions between east and west, modernity and tradition, always be your themes as a novelist?

These themes are not my starting points, really. I just want to portray daily life. Silent House is a portrait of a family. But the radically secular, pro-western ambitions of the first generation of that family are certainly modelled on [those of] the founders of the Turkish Republic.

Idealism, unrealistic idealism, is always contrasted with the reality of the people, of the man in the street. The details of daily life are always more convincing than the political fantasies of the earlier generations.

We’ve talked about themes. How would you say this novel compares formally or stylistically to others you’ve written?

This novel is Joycean or Faulknerian, in the sense that it’s narrated from various first-person points of view. I always enjoy impersonating my characters in the first-person singular. The joy I take in doing that should be evident in this book.

What advantages does writing in the first person give you?

First, ethically speaking, being a novelist consists of the act of being humble. You’re trying to see the world through the eyes of others.

Novels are political because in them we try to identify with people who are not like us. And, in that sense, I like the first-person singular because I have to imitate accurately the voice of someone who is not like me. The third-person singular gives me an authority over a character. The first-person singular helps me to get under the skin of that character but it’s harder.

You mentioned Faulkner. What is it about him that you admire?

John Updike once wrote that all Third World writers are influenced by Faulkner. The influence of Faulkner is based on the fact that he wrote about his little corner of the United States in Mississippi. He represented this different, strange country with deeply inventive, experimental prose. And it worked. What makes Faulkner so dear to non-western writers is that he showed that you can write about the strange place you’re from and be inventive, personal, daring – yet still be authentic and read all over the world.

Is the same true of Joyce, who is also a big influence on you?

Yes, of course. Faulkner follows Joyce, though Joyce was more concerned with language. Faulkner was more social.

Orhan Pamuk’s “Silent House” is published by Faber & Faber (£18.99)