World Literature

Orhan Pamuk

 

BORN: 1952, Istanbul, Turkey

NATIONALITY: Turkish

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The White Castle (1985)

The Black Book (1990)

The New Life (1994)

My Name Is Red (1998)

Snow (2002)

 

 

Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk, Orhan, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

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 Timer. ‘‘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 well- known 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.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Pamuk's famous contemporaries include:

Tony Blair (1953—): The British prime minister from 1997 to 2007, Blair was also the leader of the Labour Party from 1994 to 2007, and a member of Parliament for Sedgefield from 1983 to 2007.

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.''

 

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 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.’’

 

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.

 

Responses to Literature

1. 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, one-page 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.

2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Armbrust, Walter. Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Howe, Marvine. Turkey Today: A Nation Divided over Islam’s Revival. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2000: 197.

Periodicals

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.

Web Sites

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, fromhttp://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.