Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1952 to a prosperous, secular, middle-class family who expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer. He wanted to be a painter. After graduating from the prestigious Robert College, he settled on architecture as his field of study at Istanbul Technical University. Pamuk later studied journalism at Istanbul University, until one day he dropped out of school, locked himself in his bedroom, and began to write.
In that room in his mother’s house, where he lived until he was 30, Pamuk taped pictures of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to the wall, and the work he produced bears their influence. His stories spin big tales, drawing from both Eastern and Western cultural and religious traditions, blending classical storytelling with cultural critique. And, while he sees himself as a fiction writer with no political agenda, Pamuk’s novels have struck a chord in Turkey and abroad. One of his translators, Güneli Gun, has noted, “Pamuk is the champion of educated New Turks who yearn for a legitimate place in the world of ideas. His work meets the West on its own terms, resonating with philosophic and aesthetic concerns that go beyond national boundaries.” Nonetheless, as an American reviewer in The New York Times puts it, “Older Turkish intellectuals bred on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularist dogma accuse him of playing with religion; Islamists accuse him of blasphemy; old-time leftists accuse him of cashing in.”
In 2005 criminal charges were brought against Pamuk for talking to a Swiss newspaper reporter about the killing of 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians in Anatolia in 1915—a time in Turkish history that he said “nobody dares to talk about.” Pamuk was charged by the Turkish government with “insulting Turkishness” and insulting Turkey’s armed forces. José Saramago, Gabriel García Marquez, Günter Grass, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, John Updike, and Mario Vargas Llosa, along with Amnesty International, PEN America, and others, responded by issuing statements decrying a violation of human rights. The charges came at a time when the European Union was considering Turkey’s membership, and the EU Parliament sent a delegation to observe the trial. The charges were dropped.
A bestselling novelist from the beginning in his native Turkey, it was not until his third book, The White Castle (translated in 1992), that Pamuk made his international breakthrough. His entire oeuvre spans six novels, a screenplay, a collection of essays, and a city portrait, Istanbul: Memories and the City (2006), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other Colors: Essays and a Story (2007) is his latest work. Pamuk has garnered numerous other accolades and awards, including the Prix Médicis Etranger in 2005 for Snowand the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003 for My Name is Red. In 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Pamuk divides his time between Istanbul and New York where he teaches at Columbia University. Currently a Fellow with Columbia’s Committee on Global Thought, he also holds appointments in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department and at the School of the Arts. This academic year he will jointly teach a comparative literature class with the noted professor of German and comparative literature, Andreas Huyssen.
Excerpt from Snow (2004)
“I’m going to ask a favor now,” said Muhtar. “In a moment these men are going to come upstairs and take us off to the station. They won’t arrest you, they’ll just take your statement and let you go. You can go back to your hotel, and in the evening Turgut Bey will invite you to dinner and you’ll join him at his table. Of course his devoted daughters will be there too. So what I’d like is for you to say the following to ?pek. Are you listening to me? Tell ?pek that I want to marry her again! It was a mistake for me to ask her to cover herself in accordance with Islamic law. Tell her I’m through acting like a jealous provincial husband and that I’m shamed and sorry for the pressures I put on her during our marriage!”
“Haven’t you already said these things to her?”
“I have, but I got nowhere. It’s possible that she didn’t believe me, seeing as I’m the district head of the Prosperity Party. But you’re a different sort of man; you’ve come all the way from Istanbul, all the way from Germany even. If you tell her, she’ll believe it.”
“Seeing as you’re the district head of the Prosperity Party, isn’t it going to cause you political difficulties if your wife isn’t covering herself?”
“With God’s permission I’m going to win the election in four days’ time and become the mayor,” said Muhtar. “But it’s far more important to me that you tell ?pek how sorry I am; I’ll probably still be behind bars. Brother, could you do this for me?”
Ka had a moment of indecision. Then he said, “Yes, I will.”
The White Castle (1991)
The Black Book (1994)
The New Life (1997)My Name is Red (2001)
Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005)
Other Colors: Essays and a Story (2007)