A book seller in Slaveykov Square, Sofia's equivalent of the Left Bank in Paris, checks out a grey-haired gentleman who is inspecting the books displayed on a makeshift stand. Here you can buy the latest self-improvement bestseller or a 1970s Bulgarian translation of the complete works of Dostoyevsky.
"Oh this," the seller says. "This is by Orhan Pamuk. A Nobel Prize laureate. He is in Bulgaria right now." He hardly looks at the man fondling his books.
This is repeated as the grey-haired gentleman makes his way through Slaveykov Square. The sellers are eager to sell him either a second-hand copy of a Stendhal or the brand new Bulgarian translation of Other Colours: Essays and a Story, Orhan Pamuk's just released book. They are so desperate to effect a transaction at a time of plummeting book sales and a deepening economic crisis that threatens to put many of them out of business that they hardly notice that they are talking to Orhan Pamuk himself. The previous day Pamuk had caused traffic jams around Sofia University where he was awarded an honorary doctorate, and left some fans weeping at various public appearances because they were denied entry for lack of space.
Notwithstanding the usual criticisms associated with the Nobel Prize for literature – notably that it is politicised and that the Nobel Committee has the habit of granting it to obscure writers writing in obscure languages, Orhan Pamuk is possibly the most influential living writer in the world today, a literary superstar comparable to Steinbeck and Greene. His visit to Sofia was initiated by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Among other things, he was awarded a Golden Century medal by Bulgaria's culture minister.
Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952. At the beginning of the 1970s he swapped his dream of becoming a painter for another dream, that of becoming a writer. His first novel, Karanlik ve Isik, or Darkness and Light won him a local prize in 1979, but real fame came in the 1990s and the 2000s with novels such as Beyaz Kale, or The White Castle, Kara Kitap, or The Black Book and Benim Adım Kırmızı, or My Name Is Red. In 2004 Orhan Pamuk published Kar, or Snow, a book that inimitably described the political controversies in his native Turkey. Two years later, he was awarded the Noble Prize for literature.
That was when Orhan Pamuk had gained notoriety for reasons outside his writing. A statement he made in a newspaper interview about the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during and after the First World War turned him into a freedom-of-speech champion for liberals, while nationalist extremists targeted him for verbal and even physical attacks. Pamuk was accused of, and tried for, "insulting Turkishness" – and even received death threats. The situation has evolved significantly since 2006. The charges against Pamuk were dropped and the Turkish Government now ensures round-the-clock protection for the writer in his native Istanbul.
While in 2011 Pamuk is obsessed with his privacy and refuses to talk about politics, it has played a major role in his life and work. At the time he was still a young man in Istanbul, being "leftwing" was almost compulsory for Turkish intellectuals. "I was accused of being too bourgeoise," says Pamuk. "In fact, I do think to a great extent I am."
Writing, according to Pamuk, is a lot more than putting up banners and propagating political views. "I see my novels as a sort of an arena, where various independent points of view, not necessarily political, but various cultural points of view, social points of view, intermingle – and all the voices are heard. I treat the novel as an arena where everyone speaks freely." Many members of the reading public in Bulgaria view Pamuk as an idol-come-true. He is Turkey's first Nobel Prize winner while Bulgaria has none. On the one hand, Turkey is seen as very close to Bulgaria historically and culturally, in matters great and small: from the omnipresent Turkish words in the Bulgarian language to the local cuisine, which is a branch of the Ottoman kitchen. On the other hand, however, many still look at Turkey with hostility, over 120 years after Bulgaria gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Orhan Pamuk's novels are sufficiently "Turkish" to retain the Balkan flavour so endearing to most Bulgarians and at the same time "cosmopolitan" enough to make them feel "understood" across the world from China to Sweden and from the United States to South Africa. Julian Popov, a Bulgarian intellectual in London, summed up this love-hate relationship succinctly: "In Bulgaria we do not have a Nobel Prize winner, so we decided to ask over a neighbour."
Pamuk's fame in Bulgaria happened relatively late. My Name Is Red was published in 2004 and its success unfolded in somewhat comical circumstances. Egged on by the publicity machine, people anticipated a novel that would at best be a Turkish replay of an Umberto Eco, or at worst an Oriental version of a Dan Brown. But the story about the assassination of a Turkish miniaturist in Constantinople of the 16th Century turned out to be something no Bulgarian had expected. The reading public fell in love with a novel where the action takes place very close geographically, in the Istanbul of the weekend breaks and package tours, but at a time about which no one knew anything. This was mainly owing to the Bulgarian history textbooks that describe the Ottoman Empire as a depressed and unenlightened serfdom toiling under the sultan's boot. In the following years most of Pamuk's important novels hit the Bulgarian market at the speed of lightning, almost causing overkill.
Logically, Orhan Pamuk's meetings in Sofia were conversations rather than monologues. The public was anxious to hear what one of the most famous modern writers had to say about his books, but also to make the writer listen to their own stories. During a meeting at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate Pamuk heard real-life human tales. One came from an elderly man from a small village in the Rhodope. The man described at length what he thought was a supranatural incident of synchronicity between his own father's deathbed words and a paragraph in My Name Is Red. Another was the story of a Kurdish woman born in Turkey, who studied in The Netherlands and now lives in Bulgaria. She asked, "How can I become a successful writer? I speak Kurdish, Turkish, Dutch, English and Bulgarian, but not sufficiently well to be able to write fiction in any of these languages." "Thank you very much for sharing this," Pamuk replied. "I don't know. I can't give you any advice because I lack your life experience."
With Indian writer Kiran Desai, winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize
Pamuk started his writing career as a journalist, and still uses the methods of journalism to gather information for his books: "I interview people and I also employ young people who work for me and interview other people. I interview and interview, and read and read these interviews, also about the subject matter, so I get a whole constellation of details about one subject. Most of the time I use only 3 to 5 percent of this kind of learned material, but I can’t write a novel before knowing the whole topography very well."
Topography is very important for Pamuk, who says he cannot write about places he doesn't know well. Istanbul, his hometown, is the standard backdrop for his novels because he lives there and knows it well. Before he wrote Snow he visited Kars, a town in northeastern Anatolia several times. "Now I am familiar with every street, teahouse and bar in Kars. I know exactly what a town in northeastern Turkey looks like," says Pamuk, but later adds: "In fact, there is not much to see."
Did the writer get a similar impression of Sofia, stranded as it is between its EU future and its Communist past; between the distant supremacy of the Ottoman Empire and the more recent thraldom to the USSR? Did the Bulgarian literati vying to see Pamuk face-to-face identify him as the epitome of their own struggle to make themselves known internationally, out of a little-known country with a little-known language?
Pamuk answered somewhat obliquely. In the 1970s and 1980s all writers in Turkey were moaning that no one was interested in Turkish literature. Look at how lucky the Latin Americans are, they said. Everyone is translating and reading Marquez, Castaneda and Borges – they are "boom" authors. Well, the situation has changed.
Now there is significant interest in literature written in Turkish, said Pamuk, omitting to add that perhaps he himself was largely responsible for it. A day earlier Orhan Pamuk remembered how he had learned about his Nobel Prize. "Someone called me in the middle of the night and said, 'You are the Nobel Prize winner.' My knee- jerk reaction was, 'No, this is not going to change my life.'"
"But of course I was wrong. Of course it did change my life. Now I have to be a lot more careful," says Pamuk.
However, if the blank stares of the book sellers in Slaveykov Square are anything to go by, that moment never occurred. Orhan Pamuk makes his way along the bookstands, all of which display his books prominently, possibly in an attempt to capitalise on the media buzz surrounding the writer's visit to Bulgaria.
But no one notices him. No one chases him for signed copies, no one even looks him in the eye. This is positive. Perhaps the best place for a Nobel Prize laureate to retain their anonymity is among the book stands featuring their own books. There, what matters are the book themselves, not so much the faces of the people who happened to write them.