TWO SMALL ANTIQUE Chinese toys sit in Orhan Pamuk's room at the Marco Polo Hotel. Bought in Hollywood Road, Central, they're the muse for a piece - 'a little poetic thing, not a descriptive thing' - he hopes to write about Hong Kong. 'Inland China was until 20 years ago a silent, immense place. Now it's opening up and Hong Kong wants to be the gateway,' the Turkish novelist says in the hotel's cafe. 'If a place is closed up for decades, objects get to be a chronicle and interesting for the rich. I understand that these [antique] dealers go into China and some of the antiques are perhaps fake. The logic behind going to inland China and bringing things back to sell to the west - it can be a metaphor for what's happening here [in Hong Kong].' The piece will not seek to define Hong Kong or its culture, and it will have nothing to do with 'the clash of east and west'. That cliche has been rubbed on Pamuk so often that even his exasperation has been worn away. He replies with a cleanly pronounced 'no' when asked if he sees any parallels between the melding of east and west in Hong Kong and Istanbul, his home. Since September 11, Pamuk's novels on the mix of Islam and secular western lifestyles in Turkey have made him one of the world's most topical writers. In Turkey, he sets sales records and sparks national debate. The rest of the planet turns to his work to understand the tension between east and west amid the war on terror, putting him at short odds for a Nobel Prize. My Name is Red - which last year won the most lucrative literary award, the Euro100,000 ($1,034,000) IMPAC Prize - is a murder-mystery set in the 16th century, when the Venetian style of painting challenged Islam's rules on representation. Pamuk was splashed across the cover of the New York Times Review of Books this year with the release of the English translation of Snow, a contemporary tale set in the eastern Turkish town of Kars, a crossroads for socialism, secularism and the plights of Kurds and Islamic fundamentalists. Pamuk acknowledges his books reveal the friction between two civilisations. But he denies they're about cultures in conflict or the search for Turkish identity. 'It's not a clash,' he says. 'The change is interesting to me - that's my life, that's Turkey ... My joke is that the guy who worries about the Turkish national identity is a Turk. The only continuity in the last 200 years is that question. 'At one point, I realised that my worries are the worries of the whole non-western world. So, this east-west hate relationship, in Europe they don't understand it. But the west is a minority. The rest of the globe is worried their future will not be related to their past. In Europe and the US, the past and present is a continuation. They don't have that anxiety.' He later tells a packed lecture theatre at City University, which invited him as part of its 20th anniversary: 'I don't say that there is no east and west. I say that they can combine ... My point about my country, my part of the world, is that they can come together ... My political observation is that they have in fact for thousands of years been harmoniously living together.' The product of a secular, wealthy family - his grandfather made a fortune, now dwindled, building railroads - Pamuk is a Turk who embraces neither of his country's cultures. Contrariness seems about the only concept to which he is devoted. Defining a culture leads to nationalism, he says, while admitting that My Name is Red 'is an almost nostalgic book that can almost be considered nationalistic'. The novel revels in postmodern experimentation, yet Pamuk says he dislikes western art's 'cult of originality'. As a boy he dreamed of painting like Maurice Utrillo or Camille Pissaro. Yet he found the only way to write My Name is Red was to force himself to love Ottoman art. 'These miniatures, which are so lovingly described in the book, in the beginning were hard to like. I love those paintings now. But I used to look at them and think, 'I have to love these paintings because I am going to write about them'. 'I used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and look at them and read about them. But then I would go to another floor and there would be an immense Monet,' he says, throwing his arms in the air, 'full of impressionist glory. And they were, of course, better - they addressed the painting I tried to imitate when I was a kid. But, then, once you give so much energy and determination to love something, you begin to like it. Then you perhaps start to narcissistically like your labour along with the painting. You learn the logic behind it.' Snow is his first and last political novel, though he chose to cut out a reference to Osama bin Laden, who'd become too 'fashionable'. Pamuk felt compelled to touch on the issues circling the war on terror but will now follow the lessons of Argentinian author Julio Cortazar, who separated his experimental novels and outspoken politics. Pamuk says he sees no point in writing directly about affairs of state when politics and religion saturate his country. A Turk cannot write about a coffee house without revealing the politics involved - whether it serves traditional coffee, western coffee or alcohol. 'The topical attention may damage you,' Pamuk says of political fiction. 'The ethical duty to serve your country or whatever cause ... can damage the art of the best talents in Turkey and all over the world. I don't want to do that. I was in politics outside of my books.' The only notion he is prepared to write about is Istanbul, his home for all but the two years - ending in 1988 - he spent in New York as visiting scholar at Columbia University. The English translation of Istanbul - his memoir of the city and his life until the age of 22, when he chose to become a writer - is released in April. As a child, his ambition to paint was discouraged until he agreed to study architecture, a more artistic form of the family trade, engineering. Pamuk quit to graduate in journalism from Istanbul University, and turned to literature without working in the media. 'The only continuity between a painter and writer is the desire to be alone in a room. I realised very early in life that I cannot take orders and give orders and live an office life or corporate life or academic life. I just have to be alone in a world and doing something there.' While in Hong Kong for the City University lecture, Pamuk was also the guest of honour of the City Cultural Salon, a monthly discussion involving about 50 academics, intellectuals and art lovers at the home of professor H.K. Chang. He has come from the Tokyo launch of My Name is Red's Japanese edition and is bound for Taiwan to release the Chinese version. Pamuk's rising profile is interfering with the writing of a Proustian novel about the life of Istanbul's bourgeoisie in the 1970s. He compensates by writing opinion pieces for newspapers such as the Guardian on planes and hotels rooms. Fiction, he says, can only be written in his office, with its view of the Golden Horn, in Istanbul's Taksim district. It may be a year before he has the chance to finish the novel he started 18 months ago. 'Now that I'm 53 years old, I'm unashamedly writing about how my family, my parents, uncles, aunts and their friends go to a wedding at the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul and flirt and chase girls and the sexual politics of virginity - preserving yourself. How a girl needs some sex to be dignified but also needs to preserve herself. She needs to be sure that the man she is sleeping with will marry her. It's a very little minority trying to be western.' The key to capturing his city and his milieu in any era is the balance of 'Chekhovian things - daily life things, humane stories' with metaphysics and history. 'A city gives an opportunity for that - layers and layers of history ... I can talk about the little human dramas, the national drama of building up things and 'present as past, past as present' metaphysical arabesques or labyrinths.'