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We played in the fountain outside the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“Shall we?” “I will if you will.” “Okay, let’s do it.””

It’s not as if MKS and I were cavorting in pools. The fountains are arranged to form the walls of four square rooms. Every so often, one set of fountains will stop, and you can move through that “wall” into the next room. Theoretically, if you keep to the middle of the room, you keep dry. But there is a difference between theory and practice, and yesterday evening there was enough of a breeze that when we finally got into the QEH our jeans were soaking.

We were, I suppose, being irresponsible. But that turned out to be highly appropriate.

Inside the QEH, furthest away from the bar and, as we found, closest to the book stall, there is a small area of comfy armchairs and settees where we settled down to wait. MKS immediately dug out Peter Carey’s The Tax Inspector while I watched people. There was one guy in the corner who was already fast asleep, while his wife beside him was constantly stifling a yawn. Everyone else was reading. Most were deep into Orhan Pamuk’s books, though not all were. One man in bright blue blazer and crisp striped shirt that looked as if it should have a cravat bunched at the open neck, sauntered around ostentatiously not drawing attention to himself, but he seemed out of place. At events like this we keep expecting to run into people we know. It so rarely happens. Last night was no exception.

We had excellent seats in the hall: in the back row of the first block of seats, just off-centre. And because we were in place early, and the staff seemed both panic-stricken and incompetent, we had plenty of time to sit back and watch the drama. The man who kept leaping to his feet and waving vigorously to people in distant corners of the room who never seemed to return his greeting, or even notice him. The mumsy woman who overturned her bottle of water and went into agonies of contrition and embarrassment and panic. Orhan Pamuk was supposed to start at 7.30; he actually came on stage at 7.40; they were still letting people in at 7.55.

Pamuk is exactly the same age as me, though he looks younger (which may be something to do with the obviously expensive silver-grey jacket he was wearing over an otherwise all black outfit). He speaks well, with excellent idiomatic English, but with a distinct accent: “novel” acquired an “r”, “imagination” is spelled with an “e”. And he has a very fine sense of humour. He is also an interviewer’s dream: after a reading the interview part of the evening, conducted by Boyd Tonkin, lasted around an hour. In that time Tonkin and the audience managed to get in no more than about half a dozen questions in total. His briefest answer was about five minutes long. And it was fascinating, sharp, funny, expanding around the point in very revealing ways.

A number of themes kept resurfacing, through his readings and the Q&A. At one point he said: “It is my job to play, to be irresponsible”. The necessity of irresponsibility, the child-like quality of being a writer, was something he returned to again and again. During the legal and political storm he found himself caught up in a year or so back, the novel he was then writing stalled because he couldn’t recover the necessary innocence. From this basic idea two further thoughts developed. As a writer he revisits places he knows well, knows so well that they bore him, and remakes them so they are fresh for him once more. And as a development of this he more than once talked about the act of writing as a secondary world, one that he enters to discover joy.

Also related to this basic idea, he argued that it is through fiction – even fiction that we just pick up for relaxation, for escape – that we discover our nation, our culture. This is a perspective I suspect that springs from his own national background. He said that popular Turkish literature had, with few exceptions, not inspired him, his inspirations came from international literature (he mentioned Calvino, Borges, Dostoievsky, in fact he made reference to a huge number of other writers). His leftist friends used to see these international writers on his shelves and accuse him of betrayal, yet it was these writers who taught him to see his country. I have a feeling this is not quite so simple a step to take in an Anglophone country: where we can read with equal facility works from different English-speaking cultures, what identifies those cultures is more liable to become blurred rather than heightened. But it is clearly something that worked for Pamuk.

(And if you gather from this that Pamuk can talk about the nature and craft of writing in a philosophical manner, you’d be right. At last, someone who could answer the question “how do you write” interestingly.)

Another continuing theme was that Pamuk identified himself (using a term borrowed from Calvino) as a graphomane. He is, in other words, a compulsive writer, always jotting things down in his notebooks, in the margins of books. Sometimes these develop into full-grown novels or articles, more often they don’t. He described his new book, Other Colours, as made up of such fragments. The way he talked about it, I couldn’t help imagining the process as blogging without the need of a computer. (Actually, given how much he referred to his pen when he talked about his writing, I wonder if this isn’t close to reality – or as close to reality as you can get in the secondary world of Pamuk’s writing.)

And finally he talked about joy. Or rather, as Tonkin pointed out in the final question of the evening, pleasure seemed to be an abiding topic not only in what he wrote but in how he talked about his writing.“But,” warned Pamuk in the final words of the evening, “be careful how you search for happiness, for that is the surest route to unhappiness.”

First published at LiveJournal, 6 September 2007.

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