Orhan Pamuk: People willfully choose ignorance, the malady of our times
In times of trouble, we turn to art for comfort, turn to literature for wisdom. We talk to the world’s literature demiurge, master storyteller and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Orhan Pamuk, novelist, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. It's really great to have you with us, once again, 12 years later. Great pleasure. Hi.
Orhan Pamuk: I am also very happy to address my Russian readers.
SS: So I just got my copy, basically, two days ago, and I'm like, deep into this book. Most of the Russian readers are gonna get it this week. So it's like a huge thing. Let's dive right into this, ok?
SS: Your latest novel that came out in Russia ‘Nights of Plague’ is about a plague outbreak on a fictional Ottoman Island. And, you know, you've been saying in interviews that you pondered on this novel for 40 years, and it took you four years to write it. No pandemic was in sight back then. And yet you chose this topic for your book and you sort of hit the bullseye with it. Is it a coincidence? Or did you see it coming?
OP: It’s a coincidence, but my mind is busy with the subject of plague for the last 40 years. In my earlier books, in ‘Silent House’, there is a historian who's researching a historical Ottoman plague, or in my ‘White Castle’, a shorter book, another historical novel, there are scenes of plague in Istanbul. I've been thinking about plague for 40 years because at the beginning I thought this is such an opportunity to talk about death. Then I changed my mind, and for another 20 years it was an opportunity to think about, to write about, to explore that Western perception of my part of the world, Orient. The visitors to Istanbul in the 16th, 17th century would write about the Turks or Ottomans, or Muslims, as fatalists, people who would not care about quarantine and would only believe in God, and since our fate is written over our head, they don't do anything. They do not run away from plague. But later, in the last 10 years, I thought of the subject of the imposition of quarantine. People say, you know, ‘I don't want to do it, I don't want to do it, I don't want to go into quarantine now.’ And the political conclusions, political consequences of resistance to quarantine – this is the subject of ‘ Nights of Plague’ that is just published in Russia. I choose that subject. And it's, of course, a coincidence. I was writing this novel for the last five years. Suddenly, in the fourth year, there was this immense, another pandemic. There are differences, though, that plague kills one in three, one in three dies in 1655 London, Milano, Istanbul plagues, one in three die, while as we all know coronavirus kills one in 100 and even less now.
SS: But you're saying it was a coincidence, but what a coincidence! You know what they say, the smart people, that even the things we think we haven't planned, we've planned them somewhere in our past in our unconscious. So you wrote it for four years now you had time to observe it in full swing, and I'm sure you have your observation. Some people say, you know, people became kinder, and we became more empathic. Others say, ‘Oh, my God, no, we didn't learn anything, like this pandemic didn't change us a bit.’ It changed me a great bit. What about you? Do you think it can teach us anything or humanity is hopeless?
OP: Well, of course, we change. When we face an earthquake, a war or a pandemic, we definitely change. I don’t think human beings have one strong character. I think our characters continuously change. I am a writer. I also teach writing and the first thing I teach to students when they're writing fiction, ‘Hey, your character at the beginning of the novel, it has Character A and at the end of the novel, he or she should have Character B, and writing a novel, organise the events of the story in such a way that the character changes. The girl grows up, the boy goes to war and so sees how horrible life is; and when you're faced with plague, or lesser with coronavirus, you're scared, you learn solidarity, you learn to criticise the government but you also need the government's help so forth and so on. There is so much of learning, education when faced with an earthquake. I have also learned – You also see the fragility of human life, that we are like insects that we can die at any moment. You also learn about solidarity, making groups, respecting others rights or you also learn to be very egoistical, you just save your own life. There are many, many reactions. I can't say that we human beings have always the same responses. We also change but single human beings when faced with a catastrophe like coronavirus, or even deeper – a plague, of course, we change, we learn, first of all, how beautiful life is, how beautiful it is to be alive. That's why I wanted to write a novel about plague because death teaches us the beauties of life. I am not always a negative writer. I also care about like Tolstoy, like Nabokov, picking up beautiful details about life and making my novel beautiful, believable, convincing.
SS: Absolutely. If I may add from my humble opinion, your novels in many senses are also about celebrating life.
SS: So if we look at the larger scale of things, not how it changed us individually, because of course it changed me, it changed you because, you know, 2-3 years is a big period of time for one person's life. But do you think coronavirus is going to really change the course of things on a larger scale? Because you have so many like parallels of past plagues in your book. But if we look at it now, 100 years later, we haven't really changed. I mean, humans are fighting the wars they were fighting before, we're fighting for a piece of bread, we're fighting for oil resources, blah, blah. Do you really think Corona is going to change things on a large scale?
OP: Well, look, yes, Corona is going to change human character a bit when you face it. Unfortunately, what I've seen from other books, other studies, I've read so much to write this novel, that things change to worse when there is such an epidemic. I'm talking about an epidemic, not an earthquake. Why? Because human beings in history also showed us, the first reactions are always the same. The government denies it, then there are rumours. Then people realise that they don't want to die, they want to run away, or they want to get organised, almost form a new government. And in fact, my novel is about making of a new state as a sort of reaction to the plague. The plague that I described in my novel is the plague of 1897 that started, some say, in Hong Kong and spread to all Asia. The most interesting thing, some 20 million people were killed in Asia, but very few people in the West. That was one of the reasons that attracted me to this subject. Why were Asians were dying like birds, and why nothing happened in the West? Of course, the answer is very simple: because they were respecting to the restrictions of the quarantine and the Western governments were more determined to impose the quarantine. In the end, the organised human reaction to epidemics, whether it's cholera, whether it's yellow fever, whether it's plague or coronavirus is always the same but in each country, the situation is different partly in this or that way.
SS: It's really interesting because this correlation of state and people and how they interact during a pandemic is also the most interesting thing during Coronavirus. We've seen that, you know, many governments were just at a loss not because they're bad governments, they just didn't know how to react. You know, it's the first time they saw this kind of thing and people, they have to pull themselves to sort of stand for themselves and it's the third year now and there's this fatigue and it's still not ending. What do you think as a big visionary that a person, not a state, needs in himself to pull through this pandemic to get to the end?
OP: Okay, I can give you advice. If your government is bad and is not imposing quite a quarantine strongly, if your government cares and has populistic policies so that business is not shot, then save your own life, be an egoist. But if you're organised and the government is taking the necessary quarantine restrictions, then follow them. There is not one single solution. But one thing I have learned from reading and thinking for many years, for 40 years, about this subject is humanity always wants the impossible. First they - А - say to the government, ‘Please stop it, you, government!’; B - they say simultaneously, ‘Oh, please don't touch my private life, don't touch my business, don't touch my freedom!’ And this is an impossible contradiction. And all the media, all the newspapers are generating interest because of this contradiction: either government is not doing enough, or the government is closing business. Well, you can’t do it simultaneously. You have to close the business, you have to restrict freedoms. But once you begin to restrict freedoms, then a sort of an authoritarian and undemocratic, totalitarian government begins to grow up. So these are my subjects in a way in ‘Nights of Plague’.
SS: And you know how during any plague – because plague is like pretty much is like a war, like coronavirus is like an invisible Third World War, right? – all aspects of human nature come to the surface, bad and good. In your observations, and we can parallel your book as well, what are the aspects of a human nature that this pandemic has brought on surface?
OP: Of course, again, when we are faced with a disaster, a fire, do you want to save your own life or do you want to save the life of your neighbours? In an earthquake, do you want to save yourself or your family? A plague comes, you have it, you have to run away from your family, but people don't do it. That is why for 40 years I wanted to write this novel because it shows the tragic situation of humanity between helping others and, say, enjoying a good life or saving your life. Sometimes egoists survive, sometimes good people survive. So there is not much meaning in this kind of generalisation in these kinds of situations. Of course, I believe in solidarity, in understanding. My ethical aim is to teach my readers, first, enjoy the novel, enjoy the suffering of the people in a way in a historical novel, enjoy the details of imposition of quarantine during the last years of the Ottoman Empire when, in fact, the Russian Tsar called Ottoman Empire ‘the sick person of Europe’. This is what they teach us even in Turkish high school books because Turkish Republic high school books look down upon the Ottoman Empire and quote the Russian Tsar saying that Ottomans were the sick people of the West, not by cholera, but politically sick, disintegrated. And this novel is in the end, also a political novel about the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Today’s Turks are very proud to have the Ottoman Empire. I just wanted to remind them of that look – the Empire you were so proud of disintegrated in such a sad way. It's a story of decline. And Ottomans ruled whole Balkans, Middle East, and what we today call Ukraine or whatever, and then they lost it all. How did it happen? How did these guys who were running the Empire, what did they think of all this? These are also the side subjects, the other subjects: the rise of nationalism at the end of an empire. When the Empire is collapsing everyone is saying, ‘Well actually I am not an Ottoman, I am this, I am Serbian, I am Bulgarian, I am Greek, I am a Syrian, I am an Arab’. And Ottoman lost all this. In a way, my sentiments are close to Ottomans here. You know, I live in Istanbul, my family lived in Istanbul, how did it feel? And I'm against putting the Ottoman system on a pedestal. I just wanted to see it clearly. And I'm critical of Ottomanism we’re getting from the government, from Erdogan. I believe Turkey should be secular and look for its future in Europe.
SS: It rings the bell and it hits home when you say about the Ottoman Empire because a lot of people in the post-Soviet territories feel the same about the collapse of the Soviet Union. I mean, they wanted it to collapse, they want it to disintegrate, and now that it's gone there's the sense of ‘Oh, we lost something huge’ –
OP: – Nostalgia.
SS: Yeah, maybe it wasn't that bad after all. You brought up saying that, you know, ‘my novel is about enjoying, but enjoying other people's pain.’ But what I found remarkable and also a lot of parallels with what's going on reading your novel, is how pain and suffering exist with regular life. It's crazy, right? I mean, there's a plague, it's raging in the city, people are dying, hospitals are full, and life just goes on if nothing is happening. And it’s the same here during coronavirus. I mean, people are dying…
OP: Thank you for noticing that, that your neighbour can be dying, will be suffering. But you think, ‘If I want to be a good person, why don't I only save my family, I like my children and my wife so much that I don't care.’ Or one thing, if we compare the previous pandemics, whether it's cholera, or plague, that at all times, even before the beginning of the 20th century, humanity was not educated as it is now. Let's say in Turkey, at that time, only 5%, only one in twenty knew how to read and write and would never understand what a microbe is, while today people understand. Also people looked at the map and didn't understand anything while we are educated. We watch TV every night, what's happening in the world, and that is, relatively speaking, why we are scared in a more exaggerated way.
SS: Why do you think people many times choose to stay ignorant? We fear what we don't understand, uncertainty is one of the most difficult tests for humans, human psyche. Yet, in ‘Night of Plague’, we see people who are ignorant of this disease, and they suffer of that. But on the other hand, they oppose knowledge in every possible way and prefer to stay ignorant. And that's a paradox because I see so much of that today as well…
OP: Yes, that's today's sickness, some call it, for example, Trump had abused this misinformation, that these are the problems of Twitter, Facebook, and all these popular media that there is a lot of fake information. If you ask me, for me, my ethical question is, I have to ask this question if I think that I know it right, I should ask this question at both as a novelist and as a person: why do they choose to believe in lies? What makes them? What forces them to believe in lies?
SS: What do you think?
OP: Wow, there are so many reasons. You know, I also teach at Columbia University, New York. Say, a conservative family sends their son to Columbia. And all the professors are liberals, leftists and they teach there, and then their son comes back and they hate their son. Then they want his education to change and think: ‘This is because of Democrats, all these idiots.’ So in the end, this guy is not very educated, wants to believe what we call false information, goes to vote for Trump. My professor friends at Columbia all hate Trump. Okay, but then, yes, I also don't like Trump. But why do people vote for him? That's never answered.
SS: Half of the country. What do you think, the fact that people are much more informed now, rather than 100 years ago, during that plague, – does it make us stronger? Or does it make us more vulnerable?
OP: It makes us stronger, not less vulnerable physically, but it makes us vulnerable spiritually because we see people die, we see photographs of a huge cemetery, burning bodies in India, trucks are passing in from Italy… When we see these things, we are scared, this is too much information perhaps or we are happy there is information. And then I think this is the main important sentiment that I write about.
SS: So if you were to create a museum of this pandemic, what would it look like? What would be inside?
OP: I am a strange guy in a way. I am keeping the old used masks in a box. I am sure this will pass and I will then show to people, ‘Hey, I preserved that, you know, this happened.’ Don't forget all the epidemics, deadly epidemics in human history, in the end, passed away. This will also pass, I'm sure about that. But it’s already stayed longer than we expected. The Istanbul plague of 1655 took two years, two summers, London – the same. So it always takes longer than we wish, ‘God, please stop it.’ It stops but after more time, more people die than we expect. But in the end, it passes away. Then when it vanishes no one wants to remember except those who kept their masks.
SS: Since we're talking about museums – in your ‘Museum of Innocence,’ you have this thought that, you know, we're really only capable of feeling how happy we were pondering about the past. But we were never happy in the moment. Two questions here, and answer them as you wish. Why is that? So does it mean that we're only capable to be happy in our memories are not in our present life? And do you think, once this pandemic passes, we could look back and, you know, maybe think that actually, it was a happy time somewhat, even though it was scary?
OP: I don’t think we will do that. I don't think humanity will go back to pandemics and say that was a beautiful time. Maybe that was a beautiful time for people who are indoors. And who said, ‘Wow, I always wanted to read my books, this book, that book. Now I'm at home and being paid by the government and doing nothing and reading books, that's great!’ Maybe there are people like that. But you're saying about humanity's capacity not to live in this moment. In fact, you are echoing what Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once said. To him, the unhappy person was the person who either lived in the past or in the future, cannot enjoy the present. We are making generalisations about humanity. I went and explored this subject a lot in ‘Nights of Plague’. Some of my characters cannot stand, they dream, they think, they want to escape. Some of them enjoy moments of being, even in the times of horrible, deadly pandemic. We cannot generalise. But yes, if you ask me, I am also a not very happy person. I either live in the past or write historical novels, or think about the future. But on the other hand, what saves me from intense unhappiness is I have the capacity to write, share my fantasies with readers, put them in a format of art of the novel and explain. This novel, especially this one, writing this whole thing, immersing myself spiritually with my characters, the Pasha, or the Sultan's daughter, or the doctors who were touching the dead, the people who are dying, the Imams who were burying or the Orthodox priests who were busy in monasteries – I wrote all about them. And for me, identifying with my characters and writing about and thinking about that gave me a sort of catharsis, I ran away from my fears because I wrote about it.
SS: I want to wrap up with the thought of universality because you speak a lot about that, you say that you're driven when you write in the hope to bring out humanity’s universality. What is a universal experience to you? Because every individual is so unique!
OP: Okay, I understand. Look, I wrote a novel called ‘A Strangeness in My Mind’, which is about poor people and shantytowns, poor people in Istanbul and the development of shanty houses, people immigrating from poor places of Anatolia, Turkey, to Istanbul. So it's about a poor street seller selling things. But in order to be able to write, in order to grab what I call, what you call ‘universal sight’ to it I went to favelas of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. And I also went to Dharavi, the shantytown of Bombay. And I looked, and I thought before writing or as I wrote a novel, ‘My story should address these people because they have common themes and they are also different in their own way.’ Turkish favelas are more comfortable or more upper class. Or in India, you see that they develop from a poor house to a business. In Brazil, it's crime and disorder. They are all different and similar. If you care about the universality, you do this kind of comparing in your mind and then write your novel after that. I wrote ‘Nights of Plague’ with that spirit thinking that we all fear in a different way. But there is something common to all of us.
SS: Mr. Pamuk. Thank you so much for this wonderful talk.
OP: I enjoyed talking to you. It was a great pleasure.
SS: I’m looking forward to finishing your book. Thank you. Stay safe.
OP: Thank you.