Pamuk, Orhan (1952–)

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Pamuk, Orhan

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (full name Ferit Orhan Pamuk) is ranked among the outstanding novelists of his country. Often referred to as a postmodern and avant-garde writer, he is mostly praised for his talent in dramatizing local issues, themes, and problematics by masterfully using Western narrative forms and techniques. Although his political statements cause severe public controversies from time to time, he has an immense popularity in his home country, which is accompanied by his growing international reputation. His works have been translated into more than fifty languages and received several national and international literary awards. Orhan Pamuk received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006.


Pamuk was born in Istanbul on 7 June 1952, and grew up in a large and prosperous family in Nisantasi, one of the Westernized and wealthy neighborhoods of Istanbul. His grandfather, father, and uncle were engineers, and the family owed its wealth to his grandfather's railway constructions and other industrial enterprises. Nevertheless, from his childhood onward, Pamuk devoted himself to painting, hoping to become an artist. As he tells in his autobiographical work Istanbul, the family did not like the idea. They felt that people in Turkey did not value art, and that he would not earn his living by painting. With such convictions, after graduating from the American Robert College in Istanbul, he studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University. However, three years later Pamuk decided to become a novelist, not an architect or artist; and abandoned the architecture school. Afterward he graduated in journalism from Istanbul University in 1976. In 1982 Pamuk married Aylin Türegün. Their daughter Rüya was born in 1991. The couple divorced in 2001.

Becoming a Writer

In 1975 Pamuk began to write regularly. His first novel, Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari (Cevdet Bey and his sons), is structured around the story of three generations of a wealthy family living in Nisantasi from 1905 to 1970, and is an account of the history of the Turkish Republic, cultural codes of the period, the invention of the Turkish identity, and the lifestyle of upper-middle classes. This family saga was written in the spirit of realist novels of the nineteenth century of Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, and Stendhal. A panoramic historical novel, it was awarded two national prizes and is also significant for marking the beginning of Pamuk's career whose later works were defined as modernist, postmodernist, experimentalist, expressionist, symbolic, and eclectic.

Pamuk's second novel, Sessiz Ev (The silent house), was published in 1983. This novel was shorter, more symbolic, and more dramatized. It bore the influence of the narrative techniques of modernist writers such as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Just as in his first novel, Pamuk told a story that addresses the present-day cultural and political problems of Turkish society together with their historical roots. However, this time he employed the point of view technique: A narrator did not tell the story, but instead the characters spoke for themselves in each chapter. The author's role was to organize these voices in accordance with the flow of the story. Thus, the technique served to show the multifaceted nature of reality and its diverse perceptions by different characters. The novel received 1984 Madarali Novel Prize in Turkey and its French translation was awarded Prix de la Découverte Européenne in 1991.


Name: (Ferit) Orhan Pamuk

Nationality: Turkish

Birth: 1952, Istanbul, Turkey

Family: Married Aylin Türegün in 1982, divorced in 2001; one daughter, Rüya

Education: Studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University for three years; graduated from the Institute of Journalism at the University of Istanbul in 1976


  • 1979: Wins Milliyet Unpublished Novel Contest Award (Turkey) for his novel Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari
  • 1983: Presented with Orhan Kemal Novel Prize (Turkey) for his novel Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari
  • 1984: Awarded Madarali Novel Prize (Turkey) for his novel Sessiz Ev
  • 1990: Receives Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (United Kingdom) for his novel The White Castle
  • 1991: Wins Prix de la Découverte Européenne (France) for the French edition of Sessiz Ev
  • 2002: Awarded Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (France) for his novel My Name Is Red; presented with Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy) for his novel My Name Is Red
  • 2003: Receives International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (Ireland) for his novel My Name Is Red
  • 2005: Wins Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Germany); receives Prix Medicis Etranger (France) for his novel Snow
  • 2006: Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature (Sweden); presented with Washington University's Distinguished Humanist Award (United States)

A Pioneer in Turkish Literature

Beyaz Kale (The White Castle, 1991) was published in 1985. It constitutes an important turning point both for the author's career and for Turkish novel in general. In The White Castle he broke with the realist tradition and attempted something different from his first two novels: Set in the seventeenth century Istanbul, it is an allegorical story of the relationship of two protagonists with reference to the problematic of East and West and the question of identity. The relationship between the Venetian slave and his doppelgänger, that is, the Ottoman scholar who bought the other as a slave, echoes G. W. F. Hegel's master-slave dialectic. Being the first Turkish novel that launches postmodern narrative techniques such as metafiction and intertextuality, it was first approached with trepidation by reviewers, but later critics positively assessed its multilayered structure and themes regarding the relationships of East and West, tradition and modernity, and us and them.

The novel also marked his international breakthrough. The New York Times Book Review honored Pamuk as a new star having risen in the east. The success of The White Castle's English translation brought along success in other languages, winning its author the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (United Kingdom) in 1990.

Between 1985 and 1988, Pamuk was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York where he wrote most of the parts of his fourth novel, Kara Kitap (The Black Book). In this novel, Pamuk combines the epic approach of his first two novels with mysterious, allegorical, and symbolic imagery and a complicated and interlaced syntax that he first developed in The White Castle. Pamuk is generally identified with Istanbul as Marcel Proust with Paris and James Joyce with Dublin. The Black Book is the novel in which he is most obviously so. Istanbul is not only the setting of the novel; it is also one of the characters, so to speak. Beyond the mysterious story of a lawyer seeking his missing wife, this encyclopedic novel is an epic of the history of Turkey and Istanbul as well as a narrative of the age-old frictions of Islamism and Westernism, and local and universal.

When it was published in 1990, The Black Book became a best seller, a surprising development given the density of Pamuk's style. Due to its complexity as well its unexpected popularity and the reactions toward it made The Black Book one of the most controversial novels in Turkish literature. Its translations reinforced Pamuk's international reputation, leading to comparisons with Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel Garcí?a Maírquez. The French translation won the Prix France Culture. In 1991 Pamuk adapted The Black Book into a screenplay titled Hidden Face, which in turn was made into a film by the famous Turkish director Omer Kavur.

Pamuk's next work, Yeni Hayat (The New Life), published in 1994, became the fastest-selling book in Turkish history. It is the story of a university student who is heavily influenced by a mysterious book that changes his life. After reading it, he leaves Istanbul and wanders around the countryside on endless bus trips. The story is interwoven with traffic accidents, political assassinations, and paranoid conspiracy theories. Similar to the structure of The Black Book but taking place outside Istanbul, The New Life is a symbolic and allegorical journey toward the reasons behind the essential impasses and dilemmas of Turkish culture, structured around a detective story.

Following the publication of The New Life, Pamuk took a critical stance in his articles against the violations of human rights and freedom of thought in Turkey. He received furious reactions when he articulated his support for Kurdish political rights.

A World-Famous Writer

In 1998, the Turkish state awarded Pamuk the title of state artist, but the author refused it. In the same year, Pamuk's sixth novel, Benim Adim Kirmiz (My Name Is Red), was published. Set in ten winter days in 1591, the novel is about Ottoman artists and their ways of seeing and portraying with references to the Western manners of painting. On another level, it is a love story and a detective story. Pamuk's usual themes, such as identity, the tension between the traditional and the modern, and being caught between the East and the West, are dramatized with the point of view technique, but this time not only living characters but also dead bodies, dogs, trees, horses, colors, and coins spoke for themselves. It is generally accepted to be one of Pamuk's most successful novels as well as the one most widely read and praised abroad. The novel was awarded the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, the Italian Grinzane Cavour (2002), and the International IMPAC Dublin literary award (2003).

Öteki Renkler (Other Colors), a selection of his articles on literature, politics and culture, together with interviews and extracts from his private notebooks, was published in 1999.

In many of his interviews, Pamuk stated his distain for politics and painstakingly kept his political views out of his novels. Nevertheless, in 2002 he published his first and last political novel, Kar (Snow). The story takes place in the city of Kars in northeastern Turkey, narrating the violence and tension between political Islamists, secularists, and Kurdish and Turkish nationalists. Pamuk was awarded Prix Medicis Etranger (France) in 2005 for this novel.

Finally, in 2003, the author published Istanbul: Hatir-alar ve Sehir (Istanbul: Memories and the City), which was his early memoirs embedded into an essay regarding his perception of Istanbul.

A Controversial Intellectual

Pamuk won in 2005 the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his literary work. However, Pamuk faced censure in Turkey, where criminal charges of insulting Turkishness had been levied against him for his statements to a Swiss newspaper. Having said that one million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds were killed in Turkey and nobody dares to talk about it, Pamuk became the target of Turkish nationalists' rage and hate campaign, as well as the center of the worldwide debates about the freedom of expression in Turkey. Although the charges were dropped, the case influenced the reception of his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, being the first Turkish citizen ever to be a Nobel laureate.


Pamuk rejects the role of inspiration in his writing. For him, he made himself an author by reading the masters and examining their ways of writing. Therefore he has an immense range of influences from both Turkish and non-Turkish sources. In Other Colors, he says "All my books are made up of the mixture of the methods, habits and histories of the East and the West and I owe the richness of my writing to this mixture."

In the same book, he emphasizes the basic characteristics of the Turkish authors to whom he feels indebted. These authors are, as himself, puzzled about the Republican modernity, the Ottoman legacy, Western lifestyle, and traditional values. That is why the poet Yahya Kemal, the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar "who experiences this confusion as a pleasing melancholy," the novelist Oguz Atay "who approaches it with humor," and the novelist Kemal Tahir "who tries to narrate the mystery of this society in Zolaesque manners" are, among many others, the men of letters who have had an influence on him. Besides, as he states in Istanbul, the popular historian Resat Ekrem Kocu and the novelist Abdulhak Sinasi Hisar taught him the ways to approach the Ottoman heritage and the soul of Istanbul.

His interviews also make clear that not only modern Turkish writers but also classical Islamic texts and Eastern storytelling tradition have influenced his writing. Especially significant and influential among them are Rumi's Masnawi and the Arabian Nights.

Pamuk has many influences from Western writers, too. Among them are Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, and Thomas Mann. In fact, Pamuk's enduring questions regarding East versus West and his awareness that he lives and writes in a country far away from the center of world literature affects his preferences. He states in Other Colors that authors in the center who write as if they were in the periphery like William Faulkner and those in the periphery who write as if they were in the center like Fyodor Dostoyevsky can save us from stifling national demands and cliché international roles.

Pamuk also found certain Western sources methodologically inspiring for him. As he stresses in his Nobel Prize interview, Borges and Calvino taught him to disregard the heavy religious weight of classical Islamic texts and see them as geometrical shapes, as narratives with a certain structure. So he uses them out of their context, in the service of his literary purposes, that is, he uses Masnawi not for its religious side, but for its rhetoric and literary games and strategies.

Pamuk is still a prolific writer, therefore one cannot judge his ultimate contribution. Nevertheless, his contributions so far are still noteworthy. The most important contribution would be the fact that he changed the image of a novelist as a militant intellectual. Leaving aside a number of exceptions, the general tendency of Turkish writers had been to use literature as a means of their political goals, be it convincing the masses to modernize, or to adopt the new Republican lifestyle, or to achieve revolution. By structuring his novels by purely literary devices, Pamuk gave literature its autonomy, providing it with new narrative forms and techniques used in world literatures.

Outside Turkey, Pamuk's greatest contribution is to shake any biased judgments against Turkey or Islam or the East. His work has proved a means for his Western audience to achieve an alternative vision of a culture they had previously viewed only through prejudiced clichés.


Yașar Kemal (1923–), also known as Yașar Kemal Göνçceli, is a leading Turkish novelist. He derives his themes and motifs from Anatolian oral literature legends, folktales, and epics, and combines them with modern-day concerns and problems of villagers. His skillful use of modern narrative techniques from social realism to magical realism, his poetic language, and his creative imagination earned him his national and international prizes and reputation.

Many of his works, some of which are Iron Earth; Copper Sky; The Undying Grass; The Drumming-Out; and Memed, My Hawk, are translated into several languages. His most famous novel, Ince Memed, has appeared in forty languages.


Worldwide perceptions of Pamuk have generally been positive since his books began to be translated into foreign languages, especially English. Many important critics praise his exceptional talent and vision. In Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's words that appeared in the Guardian, "Pamuk gives us what all novelists give us at their best: the truth. Not the truth of statistics, but the truth of human experience at a particular place, in a particular time. And as with all great literature, you feel at moments not that you are examining him, but that he is examining you."

Apart from his talent, the international political or sociological developments in the recent decades must have played a role in the growing popularity of Pamuk. When awarding Pamuk the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy cited him as an author "who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures." According to the Nobel Prize Web site, Horace Eng-dahl, the permanent secretary of the academy, said Pamuk was selected because he has "enlarged the roots of the contemporary novel" through his links to both Western and Eastern culture. He also stated, "This means that he has stolen the novel, one can say, from us Westerners and transformed it to something different from what we have ever seen before…. His roots in two cultures … allow him to take our own image and reflect it in a partially unknown and partially recognizable image, and it is incredibly fascinating."


Orhan Pamuk is one of the youngest authors to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Therefore, his future works and contributions, as well as their perceptions and their contexts, will determine Pamuk's ultimate legacy. However, given such themes as the clash of civilizations, the increasing tension originating from the Western interventions in the Middle Eastern countries, and the rising doubts in the West toward the relationship between Islam and terrorism fill the agenda in international affairs, Pamuk's work will witness that such clashes are not essential but constructed. As he states in his Nobel Lecture, his

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. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre.



Cevdet Bey ve Ogullari (Cevdet Bey and his sons). Istanbul: Karacan, 1982.

Sessiz Ev (The silent house). Istanbul: Karacan, 1983.

Beyaz Kale (The White Castle). New York: Braziller, 1991.

Gizli Yuz (Secret face). Istanbul: Karacan, 1992.

Benim Adim Kirmizi (My Name Is Red). New York: Vintage, 2002

Yeni Hayat (The New Life). New York: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Istanbul: Hatiralar ve Sehir (Istanbul: Memories and the City). New York: Knopf, 2005.

Kar (Snow). New York: Vintage, 2005.

Kara Kitap (The Black Book). New York: Vintage, 2006.

Öteki Renkler (Other Colors). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

                                                           Engin Kiliç


I sometimes think myself unlucky to have been born in an ageing and impoverished city buried under the ashes of a ruined empire. But a voice inside me always insists this was really a piece of luck. If it were a matter of wealth, then I could certainly count myself fortunate to have been born into an affluent family at a time when the city was at its lowest ebb (though some have ably argued the contrary). Mostly I am disinclined to complain: I've accepted the city into which I was born in the same way I've accepted my body (much as I would have preferred to be more handsome and better built) and my gender (even though I still ask myself, naively, whether I might have been better off had I been born a woman). This is my fate, and there's sense arguing with it. This book is about fate.