'When I speak of writing', Orhan Pamuk said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for literature he won last year, 'what first comes to my mind is not a novel or poem or literary tradition. It is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inwards... To become a writer, patience and toil are not enough: one must first feel compelled to escape crowds, company, the stuff of ordinary, everyday life and shut ourselves up in a room.'
Pamuk is Turkey's best known novelist, and the first to be awarded a Nobel Prize. He is very much a novelist of our times. His fluid, playful style brings to mind Borges and Calvino, while the themes at the heart of his work - Islam, secularism, the conflict between East and West, the clash of civilisations, the collision between tradition and modernity - are also the themes that obsess Western society today. Novels such as My Name is Red and Snow speak very much to contemporary anxieties.
Even before 9/11 the West had been searching for voices from within the Muslim world, authentic enough to understand the mysterious East, but not so authentic as to be unable to render those mysteries explicable to the West. Even though Pamuk declines to play that role, many in the West clearly see him as the perfect dragoman. The Nobel Academy praised him for having 'discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures'. After winning the German book industry's peace prize in October 2005, he was praised for novels that trace 'the imprints of the East on the West and those of the West on the East'.
I interviewed Pamuk recently in London for BBC radio's Nightwaves programme. His perception of himself as a lonely, solitary figure, devoted simply to the art of fiction sits oddly, I suggested, with both the themes of his work and the reality of his public status.
'I care about literature, I don't care about political agendas', Pamuk replied. 'When I was young I used to read Jean Paul Sartre and believe in the role of the writer. Today I am more Borgesian, I see political ideas as metaphors, or simple false beliefs that make us rigid. Ninety-eight per cent of my time goes to producing good-looking, nice prose. So I don't care much about politics.'
His reputation in both Turkey and the West rests, however, as much on his political views as on his literary work. Pamuk’s criticism of the Turkish government’s treatment of minorities has led to many clashes with the authorities. Last year he was charged with ‘public denigration of Turkish identity’ after he referred to the million Armenians killed by Turkish forces in 1915, an issue still taboo within Turkey. The charges were dropped at the last minute after international pressure.
Sometimes Pamuk revels in his outspokenness. 'I'm the only one who dares to talk about it', Pamuk told a Swiss magazine about the Armenian massacres. In fact, many others have been equally outspoken about the issue - the exiled historian Taner Akcam, for instance, who received a ten-year prison sentence for his activities, or the writer Elif Shafak, whose latest novel The Bastard of Istanbul, touches on this very subject, and who, like Pamuk, was charged last year with denigrating Turkishness.
At other times, Pamuk seems reluctant to see himself as being political in any sense. 'I find myself in political troubles a lot', he told me. 'But I'm not necessarily looking for these troubles. Defending freedom of speech, minorities, democracy, these are things that I sometimes do. But if I want to sum up my life I don't want to mention them. I care about the beauty of a page more than these things, honestly.' So does he see writing as a way of withdrawing from the world rather than of engaging with it? 'My first instinct when I write a novel', Pamuk says, 'is not to change the world. It's more to please people. Writing is a solitary job, you have to be alone in a room. Writing is an act of going inward, of losing yourself.'
It is not just politics about which Pamuk appears ambivalent. He also equivocates on how he views the relationship between East and West. There are times when Pamuk talks as if there is a sharp divide between the two; if not a clash of civilisations, at least a collision of different ways of understanding the world. He has talked, for instance, of Turkey's 'schizophrenia', caught between East and West, a schizophrenia in which Pamuk thinks Turkey should revel. At other times, though, Pamuk dismisses such talk as an Orientalist view of the world. Was he, I asked him, torn between these two ways of looking the relationship between East and West?
'I think too heavy an insistence of seeing everything as rooted in civilisations, and seeing the distinction as East and West is troubling. Fiction like mine uses traditional stories from the Qur'an, from the fifteenth century mystics, from the Arabian Nights and combines them with modern ways of narrating stories. People think that if you pick up things from different roots and combine them together, it's a sickness. My counter argument is that having two spirits, having two roots, is not a sickness, it makes you wiser.'
Most contemporary writers who speak of East and West have been shaped by migration or exile. Not Pamuk. He has lived virtually all his life in Istanbul - indeed, he now lives in the same apartment block in which he grew up. His memoirs, Istanbul, beautifully evokes the sense of ruin, both architectural and figurative, that comes from being an Istanbuller. The melancholic decay of a magnificent city and the sense of loss of a great Empire - these are emotions that run through much of Pamuk's work. What it speaks of is a loneliness, not just as a writer, but also as a Turk.
'Being a bit provincial', Pamuk says, 'sensing that the world has a centre, and that centre is Western civilisation, and that I am out of that centre, these are my sentiments that I have lived with all of my life. My whole work is a reaction to being out of the centre. But I am also solitary because of admiring, reading Western books, having a sort of semi-Western outlook, or believing in the art of the novel, which is a Western thing. This makes you different because you have different beliefs, strange aspirations, different ways of representing the world you are living in.'
We ended our conversation by returning to the question of politics. The Turkish political scientist Hasan Bulent Kahraman recently described Pamuk as the latest link in a long chain of Turkish intellectuals who have challenged the state and stood up for liberal values. Does Pamuk see himself in that tradition?
' I don't', he says. 'I have always been criticised by the previous generation for being bourgeois, egoistic, only caring about the beauty of fiction. That is partly true. There is this outspokenly political, socially committed tradition in Turkey. I may, if you look from the outside, belong to it. But I don't want to. I want to be more devoted to my fiction, be solitary in my room without caring much what the community demands.'
But what about Turkey? Pamuk has been a staunch defender of secularism and liberalisation in Turkey, and a passionate advocate of Turkish membership of the European Union. Doesn't he want to engage with the future of Turkish politics?
'I am not a banker investing money' he replied. 'I'm a writer writing books. My work is rooted in Turkey because I write in Turkish and within Turkish culture. But, on the other hand, I am not someone who is worried about the future of the country or has political projects or pay attention to this kind of thinking. My instincts are rather simple. I want to sit at my table every day, write a page or two or three that will be a harmonious part of a good novel.'
Pamuk is right that political polemics make for bad literature. But the best literature is surely one that engages with the world, rather than shutting itself off in the name of artistic purity. Indeed, it is its engagement with contemporary fears, anxieties and hopes that makes Pamuk's own fiction so vital. In part, of course, Pamuk's disavowal of politics is a means of protecting himself from the threats he faces in Turkey. Yet his blanket dismissal of political activism speaks to a deeper sense of disenchantment with the very idea of politics and of cynicism about deeply held beliefs. That, too, makes him a writer for our times.