BORN: 1952, Istanbul, Turkey
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
The White Castle (1985)
The Black Book (1990)
The New Life (1994)
My Name Is Red (1998)
Novelist Orhan Pamuk is the first Nobel laureate in literature from Turkey. He is an author shadowed by controversy and censorship, yet he has earned more than fifteen esteemed literary awards for works that have been translated into more than fifty languages. About his career, Pamuk has asserted, “I think less than people think I do about politics. I care about writing.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Wealthy Beginnings and Western Influence Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1952. He grew up in a family that began wealthy but lost much of its fortune by the time Pamuk reached adulthood. Pamuk's father, a civil engineer by training, inherited his father's railroad company, but he and his brothers mismanaged the business, and their inheritance vanished in unwise real estate investments. Pamuk's mother came from a textile-manufacturing dynasty; as a result, her family was part of the new, middle-class elite.
Turkey emerged from World War II as an ally to the Western powers, and in the 1950s, a sweeping modernization, a booming economy, and a rising democracy party inspired a change in the country's identity as an Islamic, Arabic-world-allied state. As a child, the only time Pamuk ever visited a mosque was with a family servant, he told Fernanda Eberstadt in an interview that appeared in the New York Times: “It was a place where the servants met to gossip, and I was so Westernized I felt naked taking off my shoes.”
Architecture and Writing Pamuk dreamed of becoming an artist during much of his youth, but his family viewed this pursuit as impractical. Instead he studied architecture at Istanbul Technical College, but quit after three years. He spent much of that time writing and reading books from the Western world's most wellknown authors.
Pamuk earned a degree from the University of Istanbul's Institute of Journalism in 1976 and continued to work on his fiction. After several years, he found a publisher for his first work, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), which became the first of his books to top Turkey's bestseller list. The first of Pamuk's works to appear in English was The White Castle (1985), in 1990. A year later, the novel reached the New York Times year-end list of the most notable books of 1991.
Success and Rejected Accolades The White Castle was published in English the same year that Pamuk's fourth novel, The Black Book, appeared in Turkey. Pamuk wrote it in the mid-1980s while living in New York City with his wife, who was pursuing a doctorate in history at Columbia University. After Pamuk's next novel, The New Life, another best seller, the success of My Name Is Red (1998) in Turkey resulted in an unusual offer for Pamuk: his government wanted to give him the title of state artist, a prestigious honor. He refused, however, telling Time International journalist Andrew Finkel that “for years I have been criticizing the state for putting authors in jail, for only trying to solve the Kurdish problem by force, and for its narrow-minded nationalism. I don't know why they tried to give me the prize.” Pamuk referenced a longstanding conflict with Turkey's Kurdish minority, an ethnic group whose population spills over into Iran, Iraq, and Syria, all of which share borders with Turkey. The Kurds have long sought an independent state, but have repeatedly been the target of ethnic cleansing by various powers, including Turkey and Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in Iraq.
Nobel Prize Pamuk's next book, the political thriller Snow, appeared in 2002. Acclaimed author John Updike, reviewing Snow in the New Yorker, found some fault in the story and the conflict Pamuk's protagonist represents, but conceded, “We should not forget that in Turkey …to write with honest complexity about such matters as head scarves and religious belief takes courage.” Updike also predicted that Pamuk was Turkey's “most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize.” Updike's assertion proved true, when, a little more than two years after that New Yorker review, Pamuk became the first Turkish writer to win the world's most prestigious literary honor.
Speaking Out against Ethnic Cleansing In the intervening months, Pamuk successfully won a lawsuit that might have resulted in jail time. The charges were filed against him by a conservative Islamic group in Turkey for remarks he had made to a Swiss publication in February 2005 about the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and the organized slaughter of Armenians in 1915 during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The judicial proceedings attracted international attention and were considered a potential setback for Turkey's bid to join the European Union at a future date; some viewed the Nobel committee's choice of Pamuk as a clear political statement on the question of cultural freedom in the twenty-first century.
Works in Literary Context
Caught between Two Worlds Just as Pamuk's fiction deals with protagonists who are caught between two worlds, his style blurs the line between the realism of Western literature and fantasy elements common to Arabic literary tradition. As the New Yorker's David Remnick suggests, “The polarities of Pamuk's books echo the basic polarities of Istanbul: the tension between East and West, the pull of an Islamic past and the lure of modern European manners and materialism.” As scholar Walter Armbrust explains, the novelists of the republic wrote with “everyday speech” in a style of writing known as “inverted sentence.” In other words, theirs was the genre of realism and the key characteristic of their style was brevity. By contrast, Pamuk's novels are longer, the style more elaborate, the tone often cold and distancing. Such advanced techniques moved Pamuk into the newer genre: postmodernism.
Digging Up the Past Furthermore, in keeping with his most prevalent theme—preoccupation with the past—Pamuk's novels are “full of speakers who reminisce at excessive length,” notes Armbrust. In The Black Book (1990), for example, Pamuk offers the city of Istanbul as a representation of Turkey's “unseen and unwanted past,” says Armbrust. For the novelist, the city represents a buried Ottoman past and the present can only be “redeemed” by the digging up and uncovering of that past.
Works in Critical Context
Much controversy has surrounded Pamuk's work, in particular his recurring motif of once-powerful world players who become sandwiched between the ancient and modern, the Arabic world and Europe, and secular liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Yet, Pamuk's popularity soared with such works as My Name Is Red. Pamuk became his country's most famous writer, as well as a spokesperson on the international stage for human rights and the growing conflict between the Islamic world and democratic ideals, particularly in parts of the world where large Muslim immigrant communities arose. For this, he was often a target of censorship; more conservative elements objected to the fascination with the West evident in his fiction, while his liberal critics disapproved of the unfavorable light in which Turkey was often presented. When he was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, some viewed the Nobel committee's choice of Pamuk as a clear political statement on the question of cultural freedom in the twenty-first century. Pamuk responded by commenting that he cared far more for writing than for politics, conceding, “I am essentially a literary man who has fallen into a political situation.”
My Name Is Red (1998) The story is set in sixteenth-century Turkey over a nine-day period, when a group of artists have gathered at the Sultan's palace. The ruler has commissioned them to illustrate his laudatory biography, but their task presents an unusual challenge, because Islam prohibits direct representation of the visual world. The plot is driven by a pair of murders that occur during their seclusion and told through a series of shifting narrative voices, including a horse, a corpse, and even a coin.
In its original Turkish-language edition, My Name Is Red was not only another best seller, but the fastest-selling title in the history of Turkish literature. New York Times writer Richard Eder called it “by far the grandest and most astonishing contest in Pamuk's internal EastWest war…. Readers will have spells of feeling lost and miserable in a deliberate unreliability that so mirrors its subject: a world governed by fog.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Pamuk's famous contemporaries include:
Carol Ann Duffy (1955–): Scottish-born playwright and poet known for her social critiques and feminist perspective.
Arundhati Roy (1961–): An Indian novelist and activist, Roy has won such awards as the 1997 Booker Prize and the 2002 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize.
Jerry Seinfeld (1954–): Seinfeld is an award-winning American comedian, actor, and comic writer whose television show, Seinfeld, was named by TV Guide as “the greatest American television program of all time.”
Responses to Literature
- Authors and other professionals take serious consideration of the past: some regard it as a phenomenon to be used for learning important lessons; others see it as that which must be forgotten. Consider the following list of quotes about the past. Choose one that you find striking and interpret it in a brief, onepage essay: what is the speaker suggesting about the past? How does this compare with Pamuk's philosophies as shown in his work?
Wendell Berry: The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.
Jan Glidewell: You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.
Pliny the Elder: God has no power over the past except to cover it with oblivion.
Carl Sagan: You have to know the past to understand the present.
Oscar Wilde: The one charm of the past is that it is the past.
Virginia Woolf: Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart and his friends can only read the title.
- Most of Pamuk's works are set in his native Turkey. Choose one of Pamuk's works to focus on and write an essay that considers the following questions: How does Pamuk use Turkey in that particular text? That is, how does the setting contribute to the story line? Does his portrayal of the country help characterize the people? How does the use of Turkey contribute to the theme? How much more does a reader know about Turkey after reading a Pamuk work?
- It might be said that use of such a thorough and repeated setting is Pamuk's way of paying tribute to his native country. Write your own tribute to your country: in either a poem, essay, or short story, highlight the place's best features by describing it using sensory details. What are the familiar (or seasonal) smells? What sounds might your reader find striking? What colors, textures, and other sight details would help you pay homage to your country?
- In works such as The Black Book (1994), Pamuk blurs the line between fantasy and the realism common to other novelists of his time and country. This particular style distinguished him from the other authors and also made him popular with readers. In a team effort with a group of your classmates, research both realism and fantasy to come up with a working definition of Pamuk's style. What are the characteristics of realism? What are the characteristics of fantasy? How do the two come together (overlap) to create the hybrid genre Pamuk writes? What might this combined style be called?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Scholar Walter Armbrust writes that “For Pamuk …, to look back at the past is not necessarily to repeat the past's mistakes—it is, in fact, the only way forward.” Here are a few works by writers who also wrote with concerns for the past:
Hunger of Memory (2004), an autobiography by Richard Rodriguez. In this nonfiction work, the author revisits his Mexican American background experiences, particularly in American Catholic schools.
Nisei Daughter (1979), an autobiography by Monica Itoi Sone. In this tender and often humorous account, Japanese American author Sone revisits her days before and during World War II as a resident of Seattle and as an internment camp evacuee.
Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927), a series of novels by Marcel Proust. In these seven autobiographical volumes, which the author spent his life writing, the past is a binding element.
A Sketch of the Past (1939), an essay by Virginia Woolf. In this piece, the author revisits several disturbing memories.
Howe, Marvine. Turkey Today: A Nation Divided over Islam's Revival. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000: 197.
Eberstadt, Fernanda. “The Best Seller of Byzantium.” New York Times, May 4, 1997.
Eder, Richard. Review of My Name Is Red. New York Times, September 2, 2001.
Finkel, Andrew. Time International, September 13, 1999: 38.
Remnick, David. New Yorker, November 18, 2002; August 30, 2004: 98.
Updike, John. “Anatolian Arabesque.” Review of Snow. New Yorker, August 30, 2004: 98.
Bozkurt, Okan. The Comprehensive Orhan Pamuk Site. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.orhanpamuk.net.
International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX). “Alert: International PEN Calls for Government Condemnation of Attacks on Author Orhan Pamuk.” Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/65805. Posted April 5, 2005.
The Nobel Foundation. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2006: Orhan Pamuk.” Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2006.
Born June 7, 1952, in Istanbul, Turkey; married Aylin Tofajjal Turegen, 1982 (divorced, 2001); children: Ruya (daughter). Education: Earned degree in journalism from Robert College; studied architecture at Istanbul Technical College; received degree from University of Istanbul, Institute of Journalism, 1976.
Addresses: Home—Istanbul, Turkey. Office—c/o Author Mail, Knopf, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Visiting scholar, Columbia University, 1985–88, visiting professor, 2006–; visiting fellow, University of Iowa Writers Workshop, 1985; first novel, Cevdet Bey ve ogullari, published in Turkey, 1982; first work to appear in English translation, The White Castle: A Novel, published by Carcanet, 1990.
Awards: Nobel Prize for Literature, Swedish Academy, 2006.
Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk became the first Nobel laureate in literature ever to emerge from his country. Known for his epic, multifaceted stories in which the protagonist is often caught between two worlds, Pamuk interweaves elements from the West's pantheon of postmodern prose into his fiction while also blurring the line between realism and fantasy that is a hallmark of the greatest works of Arabic literature. "The polarities of Pamuk's books," noted the New Yorker's David Remnick, "echo the basic polarities of Istanbul: the tension between East and West, the pull of an Islamic past and the lure of modern European manners and materialism."
Born in 1952, Pamuk grew up in a family that had once been quite wealthy, but lost much of its real assets by the time he reached adulthood. The Pamuk fortune was the work of his paternal grandfather, who built the first railroads in Turkey during its era of rapid modernization in the 1920s and '30s. Pamuk's father, a civil engineer by training, inherited the company with his brothers, but this second generation mismanaged the business, and their own inheritances vanished in unwise real estate investments.
Pamuk's mother also came from an affluent family, in this case a textile-manufacturing dynasty, and both sides were part of the new, middle-class elite that emerged in Turkey as a result of the sweeping modernization of the country. Other elements of that effort involved the outlawing of symbols of the country's identity as an Islamic, Arabic-world-allied state. The only time Pamuk ever visited a mosque as a child was with a family servant, he told Fernanda Eberstadt in an interview that appeared in the New York Times. "It was a place where the servants met to gossip," he recalled about the visit, "and I was so Westernized I felt naked taking off my shoes."
Pamuk dreamed of becoming an artist during much of his youth, but this was frowned upon by his family as impractical. Instead he studied architecture at Istanbul Technical College, but quit after three years. "When I was 22, I locked myself in my bedroom for eight years," he told Eberstadt in the New York Times. "People thought, oh, he's a failure. Once every three years my mother opened my bedroom door and said, 'Maybe you should apply to medical school.'" He spent much of that time writing, and reading books from the Western world's most well-known authors.
Pamuk eventually earned a degree from the University of Istanbul's Institute of Journalism in 1976, and continued to work on his fiction. It took several years to find a publisher for his first work, Cevdet Bey ve ogullari (Cevdet Bey and His Sons), which became the first of his books to top Turkey's bestseller list. Its structure was borrowed from some of the great family-saga novels that Pamuk had loved, such as Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Its title character is a prosperous Istanbul business owner, whose descendants squander their inheritance.
In 1983, Pamuk's second novel, Sessiz ev (The Silent House), was published. The story is set in 1980 in a village outside of Istanbul, where three siblings are visiting their grandmother. It also takes place during one of Turkey's occasional periods of political instability, which were usually corrected by military force. This was the first of Pamuk's books to appear in foreign translation in the West, in this case France, where it was shortlisted for the Prix Médicis as the year's best foreign novel published in translation.
The first of Pamuk's works to appear in English was The White Castle, a 1990 British edition of his 1985 title Beyaz kale. A year later, it was issued by Braziller and made it to the New York Times year-end list of the most notable books of 1991. Set in the 1690s, the plot follows the fantastical journey of a Venetian scholar who is taken prisoner by Turkish pirates and arrives in Constantinople—the former name of Istanbul—where he is sold into slavery and becomes the property of a scientist. The new master wishes to absorb all of the Italian scholar's knowledge, but as the story progresses the two men become more like one another and appear to trade identities, with the Venetian remaining in the Ottoman capital and his former master taking the other's position in Venice. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Savkar Altinel found it "a highly entertaining, and indeed moving, book," and its author "a first-rate storyteller."
The White Castle was published in English the same year that Pamuk's fourth novel, Kara Kitap, appeared in Turkey. This work was translated into English as The Black Book and published in 1994. Pamuk wrote it during a period in the mid-1980s when he was living in New York City with his wife, who was pursuing a doctorate in history at Columbia University. The story centers around a young lawyer in Istanbul named Galip, whose wife, Ruya, has disappeared. He sets out on a mission to find her, and the mystery is further deepened by the fact that Ruya's half-brother—a controversial journalist—has also vanished. The city of Istanbul, with its layers of history and myth, plays a central part in the story.
Pamuk's next novel, Yeni hayat, was another bestseller when it was published in Turkey in 1994. Translated into English three years later as The New Life, its story is anchored by a mysterious, magical text which changes the life of the student, Osman, who finds it. He falls in with a group that is also devoted to the religious tract, and when some of his new friends go missing, he embarks on a bus trip into the eastern part of Turkey to search for them. Katy Emck, writing in New Statesman, compared Pamuk's literary gifts to those of writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, and Thomas Pynchon. She concluded her critique by measuring his latest work against the short stories of the acclaimed Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. "Pellucid, elusive, infinitely suggestive and poignant, it is as though Borges had sustained one of his crystalline fictions for the length of an entire novel," Emck asserted. "I have never read anything less clumsy. Everyone should read Orhan Pamuk."
My Name Is Red, the translation of Pamuk's 1998 title Benim adim kirmizi, was published by Knopf in 2001. In its original Turkish-language edition, the work was not only another bestseller, but the fastest-selling title in the history of Turkish literature. The story is set in sixteenth-century Turkey over a nine-day period, when a group of artists have gathered at the Sultan's palace. The ruler has commissioned them to illustrate his laudatory biography, but their task presents an unusual challenge, because Islam prohibits direct representation of the visual world. The plot is driven by a pair of murders that occur during their seclusion, and told through a series of shifting narrative voices, including a horse, a corpse, and even a coin. Writing in the New York Times, Richard Eder called it "by far the grandest and most astonishing contest in Pamuk's internal East-West war…. Readers will have spells of feeling lost and miserable in a deliberate unreliability that so mirrors its subject: a world governed by fog."
The success of My Name Is Red in Turkey resulted in an unusual offer for Pamuk: His government proposed to bestow the title of state artist, a prestigious honor, on him. He refused it, however, telling Time International journalist Andrew Finkel that "for years I have been criticizing the state for putting authors in jail, for only trying to solve the Kurdish problem by force, and for its narrow-minded nationalism. I don't know why they tried to give me the prize." Pamuk was referring to a longstanding conflict with Turkey's Kurdish minority, an ethnic group whose population spills over into Iran, Iraq, and Syria, all of which share borders with Turkey. The Kurds have long sought an independent state, but have repeatedly been the target of ethnic cleansing by various powers, including Turkey and Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in Iraq.
Pamuk had become his country's most famous writer, but was also becoming a spokesperson on the international stage for human rights and the growing conflict between the Islamic world and the democratic ideals, in both the Middle East as well as parts of the world where large Muslim immigrant communities had arisen. He was, technically, the first Muslim author to criticize Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini when the Islamic fundamentalist ruler issued a fatwa, or death sentence, against British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie for his 1989 book The Satanic Verses. The fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding for several years, and was viewed as a sign of Islam's intolerance for cultural freedoms that the West held sacred.
Pamuk would become a target of that censorship himself in due time. In Turkey, he was both feted and attacked for his works; more conservative elements objected to the fascination with the West evident in his fiction, while his liberal critics disapproved of the unfavorable light in which Turkey was often presented. The controversy surrounding Pamuk's work—and his recurring motif of a once-powerful world player now sandwiched between the ancient and modern, the Arabic world and Europe, and secular liberalism versus Islamic fundamentalism—renewed once again upon publication of his next book, Kar, published in English translation as Snow in 2004.
Snow, a political thriller, is set in a small village in Turkey, to which a poet, Ka, has ventured into in the guise of a journalist. Ka has recently returned to his homeland after spending a dozen years in political exile in Europe. The village has been the site of a number of suicides of young women, and Ka learns that the deaths were the result of the Turkish government's longstanding ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves for women; Islamic extremists appeared to have played a role in stirring up religious fanaticism in the region. John Updike, reviewing Snow in the New Yorker, found some fault in the story and the conflict Pamuk's protagonist represents, but conceded, "we should not forget that in Turkey … to write with honest complexity about such matters as head scarves and religious belief takes courage." Updike also predicted that Pamuk was Turkey's "most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize."
Updike's assertion proved true, when, a little more than two years after that New Yorker review, Pamuk became the first Turkish writer ever to win the world's most prestigious literary honor. In the intervening months, Pamuk had successfully beaten a lawsuit that might have resulted in jail time. The charges had been filed against him by a conservative Islamic group in Turkey for remarks he had made to a Swiss publication in February of 2005 about the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and the organized slaughter of Armenians in 1915 in the final days of the Ottoman empire. The judicial proceedings attracted international attention, and were considered a potential setback for Turkey's bid to join the European Union at a future date; some viewed the Nobel committee's choice of Pamuk as a clear political statement on the question of cultural freedom in the twenty-first century.
Pamuk writes from a small Istanbul apartment he uses as an office, with a view of the Straits of Bosphorus, the waterway that divides Turkey's European half from its Asian one, and is considered both the geographic and symbolic meeting point of the two continents. Of the controversy that has perennially shadowed his fiction, Pamuk has asserted that "I think less than people think I do about politics. I care about writing," the New York Times quoted him as saying. "I am essentially a literary man who has fallen into a political situation."
Cevdet Bey ve ogullari, Karacan Yayinlari (Istanbul, Turkey), 1982.
Sessiz ev: roman, Can Yayinlari (Istanbul, Turkey), 1983.
Beyaz kale: roman, Can Yayinlari, 1985; translation by Victoria Holbrook published as The White Castle: A Novel, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1990, Braziller (New York City), 1991.
Kara Kitap, Can Yayinlari, 1990; translation by Guneli Gun published as The Black Book, Farrar, Straus (New York City NY), 1994.
Yeni hayat, Ileti sim (Istanbul, Turkey), 1994; translation by Guneli Gun published as The New Life, Farrar, Straus, 1997.
Benim adim kirmizi, Ileti sim, 1998; translation by Erdag Goknar published as My Name Is Red, Knopf (New York City), 2001.
Kar, Ileti sim, 2002; translation by Maureen Freely published as Snow, Knopf, 2004.
Istanbul: Memories and the City, Knopf, 2005.
Economist, December 24, 2005, p. 72.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 25, 1994, p. 3.
New Statesman, October 31, 1997, pp. 44-45.
New Yorker, November 18, 2002; August 30, 2004, p. 98.
New York Times, May 4, 1997; September 2, 2001; October 13, 2006.
Publishers Weekly, December 19, 1994, p. 36.
Time International, September 13, 1999, p. 38.
Times (London, England), April 2, 2005, p. 8.
Times Literary Supplement, October 12, 1990, p. 1087.
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.”
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.
“My Father's Suitcase,” Nobelprize.org, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2006/pamuk-lecture_en.html (January 17, 2008).