Room with a view: Pamuk explores Istanbul's double soul

ISTANBUL Thu Sep 30, 2010 2:28pm IST

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - From his Istanbul window, the Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk sees a city in flux.

Gleaming steel towers that signify Istanbul's new economic power rise in the distance, rivalling more familiar views of old mosques and palaces, home to the former Ottoman dynasty. Teeming suburbs spread across hills.

Pamuk, Turkey's most celebrated artist, has explored his country's struggle with tradition and modernity and its identity as a land that straddles East and West in novels infused with "huzun", a Turkish word that refers to melancholy or spiritual loss.

"I'm lucky to be a writer whose subject matter is always before his eyes," Pamuk said in his airy studio, which has sweeping views of the Asian and European sides of the city.

Turkey, a vibrant, young country with a rapidly growing economy, is the subject of a vigorous and often loud debate that experts say goes to the heart of the future of this Muslim democracy.

A power shift led by a new class of observant Muslims from the heartland is redrawing the notions in place since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established Turkey as a secular republic in 1923 on the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Is Turkey's secularism on the retreat? Is Islam's influence and power growing? Is Turkey drifting away from the West?

Pamuk traces Turkey's existential dilemma and present day schism, evident in a divisive referendum on constitutional reform earlier this month, to the contradictions of modern Turkey's birth.

"For 200 years, Turks tried to change their civilisation by making Turkey more Westernised. This conflict continues today and has formed the modern Turkish soul."

The realignment in Turkey' political and economic landscape began in the 1980s, when rural Turks flocked to the cities to work in the export-fuelled manufacturing boom. A new devout middle class emerged, challenging the Westernised, secular elite.

In 2002, the religiously conservative AK Party, which evolved from banned Islamist movements but rejects the Islamist label, swept to power after defeating establishment parties.

Under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan 's fiscal prudence and social conservatism, Turkey has become one of the world's fastest growing economies while deepening its ties with fellow Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Once the underdogs of society, religious Turks are today assertive; secularists, who saw the military's meddling in politics as a lesser but necessary evil to protect the status quo, live increasingly in fear that their lifestyle is in danger by this "silent revolution" advancing under the banner of religion.

"MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE"

This is the backdrop to Pamuk's latest novel, "The Museum of Innocence." Published in 2008, it tells the story of Kemal, a rich Istanbul heir, who falls desperately in love with a poor, distant cousin, Fusun.

With trademark melancholy, it describes an inward-looking Istanbul of decaying Ottoman splendour where the Westernised and moneyed classes send their children to study in Europe and speak dismissively of fellow Turks who look too "Turkish".

As Kemal's obsession with Fusun consumes him, the city is changing around him. Migrants arrive to work at textile factories, including one owned by his family. The city's borders swell. The military stages a coup in 1980 to end chronic political infighting.

Pamuk, born into a well-off, Westernised Istanbul family who studied in the United States, said he felt no nostalgia for the Istanbul of his youth.

"Today's Istanbul is a happier, bigger, richer and more complex place," he said, the perpetually moving landscape of boats in front of his writing desk.

"The resentment about living on the edge of Europe and not enjoying the economic richness and its freedom has disappeared."

When he received his Nobel in 2006, he was praised for turning his city into a literary territory akin to Pessoa's Lisbon or Joyce's Dublin.

Since then, the line separating his fictional Istanbul from the real city has become even even more blurred.

His latest project is to build a museum housing both objects of the city's daily life, as well as artefacts that belonged to the fictional characters of the "Museum of Innocence."

In the book, Kemal, seeking consolation for his lost love, builds a museum out of objects that once belonged to Fusun.

Pamuk says the museum, opening in 2011 which shows objects like cups, postcards ands underwear, as "documentation of a bygone Istanbul and a poetic look at the city's past through the eyes of a lover".

(Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Samia

Nakhoul)

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