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.