It may not be what you think.
For Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, the very art of writing is political.
Speaking before a packed auditorium at the University of Wisconsin Monday evening, Pamuk used his novel "Snow" to talk about literature, journalism, art, and politics. Wearing a black jacket-white shirt combination that he seems to also favor for his publicity photos (and looking only slightly older), Pamuk gave a mesmerizing talk.
"Snow" is a 2002 book that deals with the travels of a poet named Ka in the Northeastern Turkish city of Kars against a backdrop of violence and a suicide spree among young women there. (The suicides actually took place in the city of Batman, and the residents of Kars were considerably annoyed that he shifted the location, Pamuk said.)
The Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin organized Pamuk's visit to Madison, in conjunction with high school students from across Wisconsin reading "Snow." Earlier in the day, Pamuk spoke to students and took questions from them. In his evening lecture, he used the book to touch on broader themes.
"The art of the novel by nature is political," Pamuk said. "You speak about humanity; you are talking about others."
Much of the reception for "Snow" was colored by politics, Pamuk said. It was published a few months after 9/11, Pamuk said, and was viewed "through the filters of this trauma." People wanted urgent, ready-made answers about political Islam, he said, and were frustrated that the novel didn't provide them.
Pamuk did a lot of research for Kars, extensively interviewing the residents in his role as a journalist for a Turkish newspaper that sent him there. A local anchorman asked the townspeople to be forthcoming with Pamuk, and, as a result, "they were filling my buckets," Pamuk said. The only inconveniences were the friendly policemen who followed him around everywhere, ostensibly to provide him protection, but also to ensure that the folks didn't tell him anything too politically controversial.
Pamuk knows the trouble politics can cause. He got into hot water some years ago for bringing up the Armenian Genocide and the official mistreatment of Kurds, taboo topics in his native land. He was put on trial, but the Turkish government withdrew its case after an international outcry. Pamuk had to go into self-exile for some time, returning to Turkey only after the furor had died down. (The authorities were so peeved at Pamuk that when he received the Nobel in 2006, the then-Turkish president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, refused to congratulate him.)
In "Snow," Pamuk deals with a swirl of complex themes: religion vs. secularism, traditionalism vs. modernism, authoritarianism vs. democracy. What makes the novel even more complicated is that the secularists are authoritarian, while the suppressed traditionalists don't care for democracy, either.
"F. Scott Fitzgerald said that two strong and contradictory ideas are a good point to start a novel," Pamuk said.
"For a novelist, there is no right or wrong," Pamuk added. "You let others speak."
"The novel is not dead," Pamuk averred, citing China and India as countries where large portions of the population hanker to get a book published.
In response to the inevitable question about his religion (Pamuk has expressed his irritation in the past about this line of questioning), Pamuk said he "worships at the altar of literature," naming Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Proust, among others, as his favorites.
Pamuk's portrayal of Istanbul, where he has spent most of his life, is what has made him the favorite of critics. Most of his novels are set there ("Snow" is a significant exception), as is his memoir, "Istanbul: Memories and the City," a riveting read right from the opening sentence.
"You have made your native city an indispensable literary territory, equal to Dostoyevsky's St. Petersburg, Joyce's Dublin or Proust's Paris -- a place where readers from all corners of the world can live another life, just as credible as their own, filled by an alien feeling that they immediately recognize as their own," Professor Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said in his Nobel presentation.
"I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone," Pamuk eloquently remarked in his Nobel speech. "I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey."
Pamuk captivated his audience here in Madison, Wisconsin, even if he ducked a question from me on what specifically makes him angry. Pamuk is completing another book, and its publication will give us one more chance to explore at length his life and work.