Simon Schama with Orhan Pamuk at his Museum of Innocence
Simon Schama with Orhan Pamuk at his Museum of Innocence. 'Pamuk has created what may be the single most powerfully beautiful and affecting work of contemporary art anywhere in the world' © Ivor Prickett

I am hunting huzun, that state of collective melancholy which in his lovely memoir, Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk says is the soul of his city. Huzun was “covered women who stand at remote bus stops clutching plastic shopping bags and speak to no one as they wait for the bus that never arrives … the patient pimps striding up and down the city’s greatest square on summer evenings in search of one last drunken tourist … the little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passer by”.

But from where I’m sitting, in a Tesvikiye tea house, a stone’s throw from the Pamuk Apartments where the writer lived as a child, huzun is in scant supply. Perhaps it’s the season, the time of day, the moment in history. It’s Ramadan; the July heat has abated into nothing more than a late afternoon cheek-warmer. The Bosphorus, which Pamuk often describes as turbid and dangerous, the graveyard of cars and burnt-out shoreside houses, glimmers blue and gold. Sidewalk cafés are packed with animated Istanbullus, sipping honey-coloured tea from tulip-shaped glasses. Istanbul’s famous packs of urban feral dogs are nowhere to be seen. Only the canine senior citizens, long since retired from snarling at taxi cabs, lie fat and floppy, snoozing beneath the café tables, a puff of contentment periodically escaping their slack upper lips as if exhausted by the work of doing absolutely nothing.

Evening draws on. The muezzin calls and a thin line of the faithful responds, walking unhurriedly through the doors of the Tesvikiye mosque. This was the first mosque to which Pamuk was taken by his nanny, comforted by the rugs which seemed to him just another kind of domestic furnishing. Though he never became the poet he aspired to be, his father’s gods were Sartre and de Beauvoir. “He used to go to small Left Bank hotels and write existentialist diaries, which he gave me before he died,” Pamuk recalls. In his Nobel Prize lecture in 2006, Pamuk paid lyrical tribute to that suitcase of writings.

Piety still has an uphill battle in fashionable Nisantasi. Not long after the mosque opens, a lone fiddler establishes himself a hundred feet away. After one number he is loudly upbraided by an indignant street cleaner, but whether for impiety or impeding the passage of his truck, it is impossible to say. This is about as raw as the battle of faith gets on this side of the city. Even politics conspires to relax the agitated. In the end, Taksim, the square that for many years was the hub of Pamuk’s own life, avoided the rolling disasters of Tahrir. After the tear gas and the outrage that brought more multitudes into the square in June, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Pamuk compares to a vainglorious sultan in his twilight years, has since beat a tactical retreat. “He was politically and economically successful, old, perhaps sick, so now like an Ottoman ruler he decided he’ll do monuments, and he’ll do it inside [Gezi] park, recreating the barracks – which was nothing, ugly – then some architects and Greens began to resist. Erdogan thought ‘nothing will come of it’– he mismanaged the whole thing, attacked them with tear gas, burnt their hands, and the ‘Tahrir’ effect took over; people tweeted to defend themselves against the disproportionate attacks.”

Orhan Pamuk in his Museum of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence evokes the lives and thoughts of characters from Pamuk’s novel of the same name © Ivor Prickett

Erdogan’s plans to rebuild the former barracks and open a mall are on hold. So for now, Islamists and café people are content to avoid lethal collision, tacitly agreeing to live in separate worlds, rubbing shoulders rather than throwing stones. An occasional headscarf goes by but the Nisantasi women make their own statement by wearing their hair shoulder or even waist-length. Wherever they are, they fondle it, threading the tresses through manicured fingers as they chat on their mobile phones. Their hair is black, blonde and every so often blazing red, exactly the hue of pul biber, the Aleppo pepper which, like much else here, is less hot than it looks.

Orhan Pamuk himself is a virtuoso of delight: good-looking in his early sixties; voluble, intellectually as well as personally hospitable. The assignment is to talk to him about Turkey after Taksim, caught between the pulls of tradition and modernity, nationalism and liberalism. Who better to do this than the Nobel Prize winner, sometimes in trouble with self-appointed guardians of National Honour, but also the writer who has featured these conflicts in a number of his books. When I try to get him to talk about his positions on such matters, he agrees that “Turkey’s record on free speech is not good and still is not good” but insists that it’s in his fiction that the most radical statements are to be found. “I don’t like to make strong statements. I want to write strong novels … I keep my deep radical things for my novels.”

It is in them that, in obedience to the good writer’s rule that “you identify with people not like you”, he makes the utterances and actions of all of his characters equally credible. “I write a world where everyone is partly right,” even “the Islamist who shoots people. He’s not crazy, he has a point of view … the novel is a place where you make such people understandable.” In two of his novels, it is the conflict between past faith and new fashions on which the drama turns. In My Name is Red, set in the late 16th century, miniaturist painters are required to produce work in the new perspective-framed “Frankish” manner that would be likely to impress the Venetians. In Snow, a westernised poet encounters impassioned Islamists in a remote provincial town. In both stories, the question of the true Turkish way becomes a matter of life and death.

Pamuk’s beloved Istanbul © Corbis

So I have my agenda for discussion. But then, on a side street in Cukurcuma, once a rundown district of hilly alleyways, houses left behind by Greeks, victims of riots in the 1950s and expulsions in the ’60s, changed now by the arrival of boho buyers, I step into the house which Pamuk has turned into his Museum of Innocence and right away I forget all about Erdogan, Taksim, Gezi Park and Islamism. I am, instead, knocked over by something which seems altogether more important: the capture of love’s time.

A grandfather pendulum clock, uncased, hangs between two of the three storeys. The Pamuk Apartments had one but the grandparents did not “like so much the dong dong ding” violating the quiet of the night and fastened its pendulum, making it keep company with the other moribund objects: the piano that was never played; the glasses too crystalline to drink from. The museum’s walls are lined with 60-odd display cabinets, each designed by Pamuk, containing the objects and emblems that are the memory traces of each significant moment of the love affair that is the tragicomic heart of his novel, The Museum of Innocence. The progression begins with the love-object Fuzun’s shoes and a handbag from the shop where the narrator, Kemal, a rich relation, discovers her. On the ground floor is the pièce de résistance: some 4,000-odd cigarette ends smoked by Fuzun, most bearing her lipstick smudge, each inscribed below with the exact day, time and circumstance of their smoking. Smoke of course is one of the oldest emblems of the fugitive nature of worldly experience. But in The Museum of Innocence, Fuzun’s fag-ends live on, anything but spent, each one a little burst of recollection. “So who wrote all these inscriptions,” I ask Pamuk, who is showing me round. He looks incredulous. “Me!” “All of them?” I reply, astounded. “All of them!” He beams, proudly, boy scoutishly. “How … long?” I say. “Oh, just the summer of 2011.”

It seems crazy and would be, had not Pamuk created in this old house what may be the single most powerfully beautiful, humane and affecting work of contemporary art anywhere in the world, at once poetic and darkly comical; tender and, case by case, space by space, aesthetically ravishing. You can spend the rest of your life going round contemporary art fairs and never experience anything remotely like this: connecting chambers of memories and dreams, objects embalmed in loss, suspended in a medium of agonised longing, brought into mysterious, telling juxtapositions – an abandoned glass of tea immensely out of scale with the harbour scene into which it leans. On such visions, waking and dreaming, by night and by day, passion feeds. The whole place is inhabited by the recognition that the most intense moments of love are marked by the desperate craving to halt time.

From childhood until the age of 22, Pamuk was a painter, making streetscapes of the city, especially tumbledown half-ruined buildings, districts or glimpses of the Golden Horn seen from gaps between the houses of Cihangir where the family retreated after their fortunes faded. “The second child is always the bad, imaginative boy and I was that,” he recalls. Amused by his son’s sketchings his grandly feckless father praised him and there was no stopping Orhan. But in the ’60s there was no Istanbul art culture to speak of to nourish the gift except in the derivative ways Pamuk came to despise. “I realised if I wanted to be a painter I would have to leave Istanbul as the [art] culture there was very weak and the galleries very limited.” Hating the trap by which he seemed condemned to be “someone else” in order to be his own artist, and while studying architecture at university, it came to him that he should be a writer. “I told myself I had a screw loose and I stopped painting and switched to novels.”

young Orhan Pamuk
An adolescent Pamuk photographed in 1970, sketching the view from the balcony of his family home © courtesy of Orhan Pamuk/Faber and Faber

The museum, however, proves that the two vocations were not, after all, mutually exclusive, and perhaps that was the whole point of it for this most painterly writer. Within the displays the production of words is inseparable from the gathering of images. There are genuinely old news­papers and then some faked by Pamuk to be exactly as they were in the late ’50s and ’60s; real movie posters and imposters, advertisements, street signs; even a mock anatomical chart of the physiology of love-pain. Art stalks almost all his writing. My Name is Red had its genesis in his urge to write about the paintings of the 16th-century miniaturists in compelling, concrete detail. “Most of the book is ekphrasis,” he says – the thick description of the works. At some point Pamuk decided that this might not be enough to hold the reader, and a murder story (about which he feels wistful) was introduced.

I am about to talk about this to him when, as if by some act of Pamukian magic, we glance through a window and there standing before an easel is a young woman, her hand and arm extended, swooping decisively down over the surface, in the unmistakable action of someone blocking out the early stages of a composition. It is too good to be true, echoing as it does, photographs of the young Orhan seated at his easel doing much the same thing. Painting he loves, still, as the dominion of instinct; a release from the cerebral calculation of writing. “I wrote My Name is Red just to remember painting, where the hand does it before the intellect. When I’m captive to it I’m a happier person. Kierkegaard tells us that a happy person is someone who lives in the present; the unhappy person someone who lives either in the past or the future. When I paint I definitely live in the present, like someone in a shower whistling or singing.”

Pamuk doesn’t whistle but he laughs at the serendipity of the artist at the window. Laughter comes easily, punctuating the flow of his eloquent English. If the shadows of huzun sometimes lie long and dark over his fiction, they coexist with artfully wrought black merriment. The run of his impassioned sentences darting back and forth between the highest of high culture – Nabokov, Tolstoy, the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky – and boyish glee in the trivia of daily life. A whole chapter in Istanbul is devoted to the inadvertent comedy of street signs and homespun oracular declarations in the press. “It has been suggested that, to beautify the city, all horse-drawn carriage drivers should wear the same outfit; how chic it would be if this idea were to become a reality.” But he loves to sweat the small stuff, to get it exactly right. To enshrine the soda pop, Meltem, favoured by Fuzun and Kemal, he went to the length of making a fake black-and-white television commercial, complete with a blonde emerging from convertible happily grasping her bottle of the gazoz. I notice that not only her hair-do but her mascara is perfect ’60s. “Of course!” he exclaims.

The exterior of The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul
The exterior of The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul

It was Shklovsky, he tells me, who declared that “a plot is something connecting things one happened to like”. And contrary to my naive assumption that it occurred to Pamuk to create the actual museum after he had written the fictional one, as a kind of literary vanity project, the process happened the other way about. The outlines of the inconvenient passion, kindled in Kemal just as he was getting engaged to someone else, had laid themselves out in Pamuk’s imagination but that was about it. It was enough, though, for Pamuk to go looking for a house in which the objects of the obsession would be preserved before there had been much work on the novel. His original idea was to write a catalogue of the objects with entries so long and digressive as to form the novel itself. While getting on with other work – Snow, Istanbul – he haunted local flea markets for clothes (Fuzun seems bodily present in a bright red printed rayon dress in the centre of one of the cabinet-shrines); for old maps, postcards; a bust which he turned into his image of Kemal’s father; anything that would construct the wraparound world of Kemal’s passion, even toothbrushes, which for Pamuk had to be of just the right period. “What kind of collectible-vendor (or junk shop) stocks very old toothbrushes?” I wonder out loud. “I know, I know,” he agrees, chuckling, but someone did. Another vitrine was born. Out of all these objects came characters. The rat-packing hoard became so overwhelming that a warehouse was needed to cope with the overflow.

In his “office” – a stunning, book-lined space on the summit of a Cihangir street, where the curtain window reveals an impossibly spectacular panorama over the Golden Horn, I ask him if he’s addicted to lists (as am I). “Oh,” he says, “that’s what novels are, drama plus a list … now we’re approaching the list part so you have to make the list dramatic, then you have to stuff the drama with another list.” It’s what children do, he says, faced with “so much complexity, so many black parts you can’t understand, but you can name them and once you name them it’s the first attempt to exhaust them. I like the epic artist, who has taken a brush, who wants to take the whole world and set it in an encyclopedic book.”

The sheer baggy plenitude of life still entrances him and makes him sympathetic to the great list-makers of literature: Rabelais, Sterne, Melville, Eco. Minimalist he is not; de trop is never enough. Does that come from a kind of benign greed, I ask? He admits to this, in a Museum of Innocence kind of way: the possibility of somehow absorbing and embodying the whole abundance of the world through the singularity of its sensuous detail. “It’s a greed for power; once you have a list you have power. As Foucault said, you categorise it, it’s in your world, you own it like a collector. Kemal wants to be powerful and collect … a novel is a story that collects everything in the list.” But lists can weigh heavily too. One of the saddest cabinets of the museum is covered with photographs of all the places around Istanbul where Kemal imagines he’s glimpsed his missing Fuzun but had been mistaken: a map of proliferating illusions.

We’ve done the tour of the museum; now we take in the tour d’horizon of the Istanbul that lies before us. Pamuk points to the graceful little pavilion at the water’s edge beneath the greenery of the park surrounding Topkapi. “See that, that’s where the sultan would go and bid farewell to the fleet off to some battle or god knows what. Bye-bye fleet,” and the turbans and kaftans suddenly seem to materialise – in miniature naturally – down below. I am happily adrift in a Turkish memory mist, feeling oddly at home. A fish supper with Pamuk’s girlfriend Asli and his daughter Ruya impends. He offers me a glass of wine. And then he doesn’t.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a rally in June
Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a rally in June © AP

“You know, Simon, we haven’t really talked of Taksim, have we? Wouldn’t your editor think this a bit odd?” Gloomily I acknowledge she probably would. “Right then.” The bottle is recorked, I snap to attention as best I can, but Pamuk really saves me the bother by proceeding to interview himself on Subjects of Contemporary Importance. He was, in fact, away when the great demonstrations in the square took place but because so much of his life, child and adult, has revolved around Taksim Square – “half Times Square, half Hyde Park Corner” – he feels the drama keenly and personally. “Gezi Park, it’s not much but it belongs to everyone who’s been there; a neighbourhood place so they would resist with everything they could just cutting one tree down, never mind the whole place and for what – a mall, a barracks which everyone knows was nothing, nothing.” What then unfolded was for Pamuk something poetic, a spontaneous outpouring of feeling, shared by many who shared not much else. “There was no idea of overthrowing the government, it [Taksim] was just anti-authoritarian, it was amazing, great, wonderful,” he says. “I respect and like the poetry of that moment.”

There have been other ways in which Erdogan has been testing his power to impose norms on Turkey: not just the restriction of alcohol sales, but the banning of abortion and, most ominously for Pamuk, the application of a discreet kind of censorship in which writers who give offence are not, as was the case for him, put on trial but summarily fired by newspaper editors. “Arms are twisted to fire and fire and fire anyone critical,” he says.

Protesters march towards Taksim Square in June
Protesters march towards Taksim Square in June © Getty Images

To ask which side might ultimately prevail in Turkey is, he thinks, beside the point, not least because allegiances are so complicated. There are nationalist conservatives who are secular in the Ataturk mould and then there are those who are not. All of his instincts hanker after a Turkey that was not monocultural or monolingual, rather an imperial polyglot Istanbul of Greeks, Armenians and Jews. But whatever happens in formal politics or even in Taksim Square, the deeper conundrum remains and, as he says, is by no means unique to Turkey. “There’s always a clash, always the modern betrays history and culture, and always tradition betrays modernity. There’s no solution.” If you lean forward into modernity you betray the authenticity of your past; if you lean backward into tradition you betray the principles and philosophy of, say, freedom of speech and pluralism, to which any writer has to be committed.

The question hangs in the air, unanswerable for the moment. Asli and Ruya arrive and the sardines and anchovies await my greedy attention. At this minute it is hard to remember that across one border, in Syria, tens of thousands have been slaughtered in a relentless civil war; across another, in Iran, theocracy still reigns with unelected Guardians vetting political candidates for their moral orthodoxy. Suddenly, Turkey’s problems seem manageable, even enviable. But it’s not this placebo philosophy that stays with me that night and on the flight back to London, it’s the ultimately bigger thing, the tenderly human thing: a lipstick trace on a cork-filter cigarette; a glass of undrunk tea, a girl standing beside a lamppost who may or not be there except in the haunt of memory where she will always lodge.


Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor.

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Letters in response to this article:

Museum is a shrine – and a false one/ From Ms Marianne Pitts

A writer in full command of his work/ From Mr Geoff Levett

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