Writers & Company

Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk on A Strangeness in My Mind

Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk sits down with Eleanor Wachtel to talk about his new book, A Strangeness in My Mind.
The New York Times has labelled Orhan Pamuk "the Best Seller of Byzantium." (Murat Türemiş)

Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's latest book, A Strangeness in My Mind, chronicles the lives of migrants from rural Anatolia to Istanbul, resulting in Istanbul's exponential growth over more than 40 years.

Pamuk was raised in Istanbul, and the city plays an important role in his writing. His attachment is so profound that he has lived in the same neighbourhood, and in fact in the same building, virtually since childhood. In 2006, he became Turkey's first Nobel Prize winner — in any category.

Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Pamuk from New York, where he teaches at Columbia University.

Until 1991 when my daughter was born, I used to work until 4 a.m. and take long walks home at night. These solitary long walks at night, when the whole of Istanbul was sleeping, left their mark on my imagination. I liked the mystery of the streets; the way shadows moved; the way the leaves of the trees shivered, even if there was no wind; things that were written on the walls, political slogans or advertisements; the chemistry and texture of old buildings, old walls. So I lend my imagination to my character in order to make him a distinct individual.

Now the city is a much different place. It's more dangerous, more crowded and it's growing so fast. Its chemistry is changing in so many ways that it's hard to catch up with the difference. When I was born in Istanbul 63 years ago it was a city of one million people. Nowadays, the population is 16 or 17 million. The change in the last 13 years is bigger than the change in the first 50 years of my life. Yes, I'm still walking the streets, but now because of my political problems I have a bodyguard. But that also helps because I can go to any private place, any courtyard, any dead end, any mysterious street that I may find a bit dangerous. Now that I have a bodyguard, I walk, I look. I love being a city writer.

Traditionally Istanbul was left to dogs at night. Western observers wrote that packs of dogs were dominant at night and they were so strong that during the day, you would also feel their domination — lying in the middle of the street, barking to anyone that passes, begging for food from the shopkeepers, etc. Gérard de Nerval, the French writer — an immense poetic and melancholic imagination — came to Istanbul in the 1850s and wrote about it in his Journey to East. He observed that packs of dogs are surviving in Istanbul because they function as municipality: they eat the trash. That's why the people of Istanbul like their dogs. Dogs in Istanbul also have symbolic value, especially beginning in the 18th century. All the Ottoman rulers, or Ottoman sultans and elite, wanted to exterminate dogs because they thought, 'The streets of Europe don't have dogs.' Modernization for them meant getting rid of dog packs. Then there were many attempts of killing the dogs or sending them to a remote island so that they would eat each other — very brutal facts about modernist attempts to get rid of dogs. Conservative, old-fashioned residents of Istanbul wrote petitions to the bureaucracy, to the sultans, saying, "Please give us our dogs back. We'll keep our dogs."

Orhan Pamuk's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close this interview: "Buselik Pesrev" performed by Derya Turkan, from the album Minstrel's Era.