Self-portrait by Orhan Pamuk, winner, 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature
His Room With a View by Nina Bernstein, the New York Times
Published: November 26, 2006
IN his recent memoir, “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote of living in the same apartment house where he grew up, and of the solace he drew from his childhood notion that another Orhan, almost his twin, lived in another house beyond the streets that he could see.
Last year, 20 months before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mr. Pamuk’s ghostly other began to take on a certain trans-Atlantic reality. In February 2005, while nationalist attacks swirled in Turkey around Orhan Pamuk, public figure, Orhan Pamuk, a novelist in need of solitude, found a secret place to write in New York.
An almost childlike glee at his hideaway comes through the self-portrait he drew in black ink as a thank-you to the professor of German and comparative literature who had arranged that writing refuge.
“I am working alone in Deutsches Haus at Columbia University, New York City,” the writer in the picture has scrawled into the notebook lying on a library table while the ravens of inspiration swarm about his head. “I have my keys. My name is Orhan Pamuk. Please do not tell anybody.”
The secret was mine, too; the Columbia professor who provided the keys, Andreas Huyssen, is my husband.
It seemed oddly fitting that an upper floor of Deutsches Haus, the German department’s 95-year-old cultural center — closed down in World War I, reopened in 1929, shut again through World War II — should serve as a literary respite from global politics.
“To be alone in a room is like medicine to me,” Mr. Pamuk said later. The hope at the time was that if he disappeared from Turkey for a few weeks, so would the controversy over his remark to a Swiss journalist that “30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.” Instead, months after he returned to Istanbul, Turkish prosecutors charged him with “insulting Turkish identity,” a crime punishable by three years in prison.
Prosecution was eventually dropped, but not before it had caused an international outcry, fueling anti-Turkish sentiment in Europe and anti-European nationalism in Turkey.
Mr. Pamuk, whose many-layered novels often turn on the conflicts between “Westernization” and “Eastern” tradition, seemed like a character in his own fiction. In “Snow,” for example, a poet who returns to Turkey from unhappy political exile in the West wanders in confusion between brutal secularists and Islamic extremists, posing as a journalist, and finding love and poetry but no certainties. His story is narrated, only after his assassination, by an old friend named Orhan.
But in New York, a trans-Atlantic self began to beckon. By August, Columbia administrators had approved a rare arrangement: Mr. Pamuk would come to campus to teach one semester each year, but a Columbia apartment would be available to him year round, always waiting for his return from Istanbul.
So it happened that days before his Nobel was announced, Mr. Pamuk, 54, was at the Door Store on Amsterdam Avenue and 89th Street, shopping for furniture for his new home away from home — not least, for a writing table.
And this being New York, a city where writers are not the only ones who find alternate selves, the store’s 27-year-old manager turned out to be an exile from Azerbaijan, Turkey’s neighbor to the east, a man who lobbies on behalf of political prisoners when he is not selling furniture. Recognizing Mr. Pamuk, he rushed over to express his admiration, in an excited mix of English and Turkish.
“He was very sweet and ultra-enthusiastic,” Mr. Pamuk recalled. “He said, ‘I read your memories.’ ”
The manager, Yuksel Efendi, was still a teenager when his father, a deputy chairman of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party now imprisoned there, sent him to the United States. He identifies with Mr. Pamuk, he explained later, and for reasons that transcend his art.
“I respect him not just for his books, but what he stands for,” Mr. Efendi said. “I feel very close to him, because I know he was arrested himself.”
With a clerk hovering nearby, the furniture dealer and the writer discussed Mr. Pamuk’s novels, the checkered democracy movement in Azerbaijan, and the fact that that country’s second-largest city, Gyandzha, was named for a Persian poet who died 800 years ago.
“But I thought you were in jail,” Mr. Efendi said at last.
Mr. Pamuk replied with a variation of the mischievous response he makes in Istanbul, where people often are surprised that he is not behind bars. “I just escaped,” he said conspiratorially, “and I’m now buying furniture.”
A look of such alarm crossed the face of the listening clerk that a friend who had accompanied Mr. Pamuk on the shopping trip felt obliged to set the record straight: “No, no,” the friend said. “He’s an author, and he’s going to get the Nobel Prize!”
Mr. Pamuk says he was embarrassed, but he seized the moment like a true New Yorker. “Since I wanted to get to work immediately,” he confessed later, laughing, “I used my prestige for earlier delivery.”
Sure enough, by the time his literary agent woke him with the news from Stockholm two days later, Mr. Pamuk already had bed frame, chairs and a dark Malaysian oak writing table in place. A sleeper sofa from Macy’s was supposed to arrive in time for the visit of his 15-year-old daughter. After the salesman from Macy’s called to offer his congratulations, the sleeper was sent even earlier than scheduled.
“He’s a very simple-looking man, nothing flashy,” said the Macy’s salesman, Tariq Anver, who emigrated from Pakistan 35 years ago. “In New York, you don’t know who you’re going to meet.”
One could say that Mr. Pamuk, who departs for Istanbul on Thursday, meets himself coming and going.
Unlike writers whose imaginations are fed by exile and rootlessness, he wrote in “Istanbul,” his own imagination requires “that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view.”
“Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” he continued. “I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”
YET he wrote much of his novel “The Black Book” in a carrel in Butler Library while he lived in an apartment overlooking Morningside Park from 1985 to 1988, when the woman who was then his wife was a graduate student at Columbia. He traces “My Name Is Red” to the many hours he spent in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of Persian miniatures during that period, steeping himself in a genre that initially did not appeal to him. And last month, near Columbia in a neighborhood that seemed to him “a bit richer, glitzier, but essentially the same,” he found himself buying a book from the same eccentric street seller that he had known 20 years ago.
“As I waver back and forth,” he wrote in his memoir, “sometimes seeing the city from within and sometimes from without, I feel as I do when I am wandering the streets, caught in a stream of slippery contradictory thoughts, not quite belonging to this place and not quite a stranger.”
The passage is about Orhan Pamuk in the city on the Bosphorus. But it could also apply to the other Orhan, the one whose dark oak writing table has a view of the Hudson.