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Pamuk, Orhan

Orhan Pamuk

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk (born 1952) was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature and became the first writer from his country ever to win the world's most prestigious literary honor. Since the early 1990s Pamuk's books had been garnering critical acclaim on an international level, but in his own country the author is somewhat of a controversial figure for writing about Turkey's checkered history as a democracy. These dualities again greeted the publication of his seventh novel, Snow, which appeared in English translation in 2004.

Pamuk was born on June 7, 1952, in Istanbul, the ancient city that straddles the European and Asian continents and for centuries was known as Constantinople, capital of the mighty Byzantine Empire. His mother came from a wealthy textile manufacturing family, while Pamuk's civil engineer father was an executive in his own family's business, which had been founded by Pamuk's grandfather during Turkey's era of rapid modernization in the 1920s and 1930s. Pamuk's father spent time in Paris as a young man, and returned there often when Pamuk was growing up. “My grandfather was a rich person and my father's generation had much money, which they wasted. My childhood was full of my grandmother crying because my father or uncles were selling this or that,” he told the London Guardian's Nicholas Wroe.

Dropped Out of Architecture School

Pamuk and his older brother were sent to an American school in Istanbul, where they learned English, and though his family was technically a Muslim one, it was a thoroughly secular household. “In my childhood, religion was something that belonged to the poor and to servants,” he recalled in an interview with Publishers Weekly writer Judy Stone. “My grandmother—who was educated to be a teacher— used to mock them.” Pamuk's grandmother had benefited from sweeping reforms enacted when the man known as the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), assumed full powers as the president of the newly created Republic of Turkey in 1923. Atatürk banished many long-cherished vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, the powerful Islamic state that had ruled Turkey and much of the Middle East since the early 1300s. Secularism was enforced in all aspects of Turkish life, including equal educational opportunities for women; Atatürk also banned the fez, the brimless hat that was a deeply iconic symbol of male Muslim identity.

Pamuk dreamed of becoming a painter, but studied architecture for a time. In the early 1970s, when he was 22, he abandoned all pretense of college or a career, and instead began an intensive reading course that included the works of Western civilization's most acclaimed modern writers. “People thought, oh, he's a failure,” he told Fernanda Eberstadt in an interview that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1997. “Once every three years my mother opened my bedroom door and said, ‘Maybe you should apply to medical school.’ ”

Pamuk eventually returned to his studies and earned a journalism degree from the University of Istanbul. His first novel, Cevdet Bey ve ogullari (Cevdet Bey and His Sons), was published in Turkey in 1982 and became a bestseller. Its title character is a man not unlike Pamuk's own grandfather, whose business empire is mismanaged by sons corrupted by inherited wealth. His next work, Sessiz ev (The Silent House), appeared the following year and is set during Turkey's 1980 political crisis, which was yet another of the several military coups in Turkey in the post-Atatürk era.

Heralded as New Voice from East

Pamuk's third novel was the first to appear in English translation. This was The White Castle, issued by Carcanet in 1990 five years after its original publication in Turkish. It also reached Western reviewers, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic lavished critical acclaim on Pamuk's riveting tale, set in the 1600s when maritime trade between the Italian citystate of Venice and Constantinople enriched both regions. The story centers on a Venetian scholar who is kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave in Constantinople; a scientist buys him, and the scholar becomes the scientist's tutor. Over the years, master and slave become more like brothers, and in the end appear to have agreed to switch identities, though this remains unclear in Pamuk's prose. “At a moment when one despairs of there ever being a meeting of minds between the Muslim world and the West,” asserted Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, Pamuk's novel “comes as a promising antidote.”

Writing that review in 1991, Lehmann-Haupt was likely referring to the first Persian Gulf War and the fact that one of the English language's most esteemed writers, Salman Rushdie (born 1947), was forced into hiding after Iran's “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989), had issued a fatwa, or death sentence, against the British-Indian novelist for passages in his latest novel, The Satanic Verses, concerning the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632). Along with two other Turkish novelists, Pamuk became the first Muslim writer to denounce the Ayatollah's fatwa, and in response the president of Iran issued a formal response hinting that Iran's neighbors—the two countries share a border—“were siding with Rushdie,” Pamuk recalled in the interview with Wroe. “I was famous by then, but not that famous. No one knew my address, so I didn't worry too much.”

In 1994 Pamuk's fourth novel was published in English translation. The Black Book, first published in Turkey as Kara Kitap four years earlier, had been written in New York City in the mid-1980s, when Pamuk accompanied his first wife while she studied for a doctoral degree at Columbia University. Its plot follows Galip, a lawyer in Istanbul, whose wife, Ruya, has vanished; her disappearance seems linked to that of her brother, a journalist who wrote articles critical of the military junta-led government. Pamuk's next work appeared in 1997 in English translation as The New Life. This story centers around a mysterious new religious cult with an odd religious text as its basis, and the novel “pushes even further the poignant, where-do-we-belong dialectic of isolationism and imitation that has plagued modern Turks,” asserted Eberstadt. “Pamuk feelingly evokes the paranoid weirdness of provincial Turkey—like America, a big, sparsely populated country where housewives, self-made millionaires and retired colonels meet in messianic conspiracies.”

Works Explored Deep Conundrums

My Name Is Red was Pamuk's sixth novel, and it set a new sales record in Turkey during its first week in print. Its hero is Enishte Effendi, one of several artists who arrives at the palace of the Ottoman Empire sultan in 1591. The miniaturist painters have been commissioned to illustrate the sultan's biography—though Islamic law expressly forbids all graven images, or representational art—and it seems a murder plot is underfoot within the luxurious but treachery-filled palace walls. Again, the work was hailed as a literary masterpiece in both the English and Turkish languages. Murrough O'Brien, writing in London's Independent on Sunday, asserted that “Pamuk depicts the murderee's experience of death so compellingly, and so unbearably, that you have to pinch yourself to remember that he can't have undergone it: the simple shock and annoyance at being struck, the embarrassment in the eyes of the murderer, the body fighting as the soul submits.”

Pamuk's next work appeared first in Turkey as Kar in 2002 and then in English translation as Snow in 2004. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood called the book “not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times, … an in-depth tour of the divided, hopeful, desolate, mystifying Turkish soul.” Pamuk uses snow as a metaphor, as Ka, a poet who has returned to Turkey after several years in Europe, is stranded by a major blizzard in a remote village in Anatolia, far from the cosmopolitan cities of Istanbul and Ankara. Ka is puzzled by an unusually high number of suicides of young women in the village, which seems tied to a controversy over the wearing of headscarves in Turkey's public school system. The village itself seems doomed to tragedy, for it was once a distinctly Armenian community. An ethnic group who were among the earliest peoples to officially adopt Christianity, Armenians had a long and troubled history with their neighbors, the Turks. In 1915, in the final days of Ottoman rule, large numbers of Armenians were forcibly removed from such villages by military force; they were deported to Syria on foot, but scores were massacred by Turkish soldiers or died in the desert along the way. An estimated 600,000 Armenians lost their lives between 1915 and 1916, though this number has been disputed for decades, as is the use of the term “genocide” to describe the event.

Prosecuted for Remarks

In February of 2005 Pamuk gave an interview to Das Magazin, a Sunday supplement that appears with several Swiss newspapers. In it, he spoke of the aforementioned Armenian catastrophe as well as Turkey's ongoing problems with its Kurdish minority, the world's largest ethnic group without their own homeland. According to Nouritza Matossiann, who discussed the ensuing controversy in the London Observer, Pamuk said that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and the [Turkish] nationalists hate me for that.” For those two sentences, Pamuk became the target of death threats and was forced to flee his home in Istanbul. He returned to face criminal prosecution under a new law passed in June of 2005.

Article 301 made it a crime for a Turkish person to insult the Republic of Turkey or its legislature; in Pamuk's case, he was charged retroactively, and human rights activists decried both the statute and its retroactive application as a blow to democracy for Turkey. Several prominent Turkish journalists and writers were charged under Article 301, but Pamuk's was the most high-profile case, for he was a writer of international stature whose works had been translated into three dozen languages. There were actually two separate charges, and both were eventually dropped, the second one in January of 2006, just as the justice officials of the European Union (EU) began meetings to review Turkey's judicial system. This is one of several steps necessary for Turkey's acceptance into the 27-member organization of nations, which prides itself on having one of the most impressive human rights charters ever put into force.

Won Nobel Prize

Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, which some political analysts viewed as the Nobel Committee's clear rebuke to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey and within the growing Muslim immigrant communities in Europe. In his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, Pamuk spoke at length of his father, who died in 2002 and had once dreamed of being a writer during his sojourns in Paris as a young man. Pamuk also noted that unlike many of his friends, he never feared his father, whom he described as an easygoing, blithe spirit who encouraged his son's literary ambitions and who, upon reading the manuscript of Cevdet Bey and His Sons, proclaimed that one day Pamuk would win the Nobel Prize.

But in addressing the question of why his own father never pursued his own dreams of becoming a novelist and poet, Pamuk tried to explain why he—a much more melancholy soul than his father, he also noted—chose it for himself. “When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end to hone his craft—to create a world—if he uses his secret wounds as his starting point, he is, whether he knows it or not, putting a great faith in humanity. My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine—that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other.”

Periodicals

Guardian (London, England), May 8, 2004.

Independent on Sunday (London, England), August 26, 2001.

New Yorker, November 18, 2002.

New York Times, April 29, 1991; August 15, 2004; October 13, 2006; October 5, 2007.

New York Times Magazine, May 4, 1997.

Observer (London, England), February 27, 2005.

Publishers Weekly, December 19, 1994.

Online

“My Father's Suitcase,” Nobelprize.org, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2006/pamuk-lecture_en.html (January 17, 2008).

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Pamuk, Orhan

Orhan Pamuk (ôr´hän pä´mōōk), 1952–, Turkey's most celebrated contemporary novelist, studied Robert College (now Univ. of the Bosporus) and İstanbul Univ. Pamuk uses a variety of formal techniques derived from Western fiction to portray themes and settings from the Ottoman past and the Turkish present. Written in Turkish and translated into dozens of languages, his novels frequently explore the conflicts between European and Islamic aspects of Turkish society and the crises of identity attendant upon that conflict. Pamuk's lyrical style and vivid imagery are often compared to those of Borges, García Márquez, and other innovative Western writers. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.

Pamuk's first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, appeared in 1982. He achieved best-seller status at home and fame abroad with The White Castle (1985, tr. 1990), a postmodern historical novel set in 17th-century Constantinople (İstanbul) during the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Pamuk subsequently wrote two intellectual mysteries, The New Life (1994, tr. 1997), at once a thriller and a textual exploration set in rural contemporary Turkey, and My Name Is Red (1998, tr. 2001), a taut and magical story concerning a murdered 16th-century miniaturist. In Snow (2002, tr. 2004), an elaborately plotted tale of love and politics, he treats the clash of values between theocratic Islamists and secular Westernizers in late 20th cent. Turkey. The Museum of Innocence (2008, tr. 2009) centers on the conflicts between obsessive love and the pressures of tradition, and between erotic desire and social approval; it also is a portrait of İstanbul in the 1970s. The Innocence of Objects (tr. 2012) catalogs the objects of Pamuk's actual Museum of Innocence in İstanbul and discusses themes related to them. His other novels include Silent House (1983, tr. 2012), The Black Book (1990, tr. 1994, 2006), and A Strangeness in My Mind (2014, tr. 2015). İstanbul: Memories and the City, a memoir of his youth, was published in 2005.

Pamuk is also an essayist, e.g., Other Colors: Essays and a Story (2007) and The Naive and Sentimental Novelist (2010), and a human-rights activist with a particular interest in the rights of Turkish women and Kurds. In 2005 he was charged with denigrating Turkey's national character by publicly stating that a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been killed in Turkey, a reference to the 1915 Armenian genocide and more recent Kurdish conflicts. In the face of severe criticism, much of it from the European Union, the charges were later dropped. Nonetheless, Pamuk found himself facing increasing ostracism and harassment in his beloved hometown, and he now lives mainly in New York.

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