Introduction

Orhan Pamuk 1952-

Turkish novelist and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Pamuk's career through 2003.

Regarded as Turkey's leading postmodern writer, Pamuk is one of the few internationally recognized authors in the field of Turkish letters. The unique position of Turkey, located on the geographical and cultural border between Europe and Asia, provides the context for Pamuk's fictions, which draw from both Eastern and Western cultural and religious traditions. His novels are often viewed as lyrical allegories, portraying a modern Turkey caught between the push to become a secular, westernized state and the pull of fundamentalist Islamic movements striving to maintain traditional Turkish culture. Pamuk is also known for utilizing self-conscious, experimental narrative forms which have drawn comparisons to the works of such postmodern authors as Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Salman Rushdie. Pamuk's writing has sparked controversy in the Muslim world, where both fundamentalists and leftists have taken offense to its depiction of the Islamic religion. However, his novels continue to be best-sellers in Turkey and have garnered a growing international readership.

Biographical Information

Pamuk was born in Istanbul, Turkey, on June 7, 1952. His father was a university teacher and civil engineer, and Pamuk grew up in an affluent, secular household. He attended Robert College in Istanbul and later enrolled at the University of Istanbul, where he graduated with a B.A. in journalism. Until the age of thirty, Pamuk lived with his parents, who allowed him to concentrate on his writing by supporting him financially. His first novel, Cevdet Bey ve ogullari: roman (1982) was completed when Pamuk was twenty-six, but the work was not published until four years later. Pamuk has refused to release an English translation of Cevdet Bey ve ogullari—an unauthorized English translation has circulated through literary circles—and his second novel, Sessiz ev (1983), has only been translated into French. Beyaz kale (1985; The White Castle) was Pamuk's first work to receive an official English translation—all of his subsequent novels have been translated as well. In Turkey, Pamuk has developed a reputation for his secular religious and political beliefs and his marked opposition to fundamentalist religious movements. Pamuk was an outspoken defender of novelist Salman Rushdie during the 1980s, after Iran's Ayatollah Kohmeini called for a death sentence on Rushdie in response to the author's novel Satanic Verses. During the 1990s, Pamuk attracted criticism from Turkish politicians for his public denouncement of Turkey's role in the Kurdish war and the country's overall treatment of the Kurdish people. In 1991 Pamuk composed the screenplay for Gizli yüz: senaryo, a film directed by the critically acclaimed Turkish director Ömer Kavur, which follows a photographer searching for a lost love. Pamuk's works have received numerous awards and accolades, including a nomination for the Prix Medici for best foreign novel in 1988 for Sessiz ev, the Independent Award for foreign fiction in 1990, and the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Benim adým kýrmýzý (1998; My Name Is Red).

Major Works

The development of Pamuk's literary style has echoed the course of developments in Western literature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, moving from Realism to Modernism to Postmodernism. Cevdet Bey ve ogullari is written in the tradition of nineteenth-century Realist fiction and traces developments in modern Turkish history and culture through the story of three generations of a wealthy family. The narrative concerns a successful businessman in Istanbul whose descendents fail to live up to his expectations. Only his grandson, who becomes a well-known painter, achieves a level of success equal to his own. Cevdet Bey ve ogullari takes place in the early twentieth century, during a period in which the Ottoman Empire ended and the modern Turkish republic was established. Pamuk's second novel, Sessiz ev, is written in the style of literary Modernism and has been compared to the modernist novels of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. The events in Sessiz ev unfold during a period of violent social and political upheaval in Turkey between 1980 and 1981. Narrated alternately from the point-of-view of five different characters, Pamuk builds his story around a small Turkish village where three siblings spend a week visiting their ailing grandmother. With The White Castle, Pamuk made the transition from Modernism to experimental postmodern fiction, setting his tale in seventeenth-century Istanbul. The novel opens with a young, unnamed Italian scholar being captured by pirates and forced to become the slave of Hoja, a Turkish astrologist. The two main characters function as doppelgangers, mirroring traits in each other and serving as fictional representatives of traditional literary representations of their respective nationalities, Ottoman and Venetian. The Italian scholar—the Venetian—comes to symbolize the embodiment of Western culture and knowledge, while Hoja, the Ottoman, represents the dominant Eastern social and cultural traditions. As the story progresses, the divergent characteristics of the two protagonists merge together and, by the novel's conclusion, the two men have seemingly switched identities. Kara kitap (1990; The Black Book) is also written in an experimental, postmodern prose style with scholars describing the work as a metaphysical detective story. Set in Istanbul between 1979 and 1980, a young lawyer named Galip wanders the streets, searching for his missing wife Ruya—whose name means “dream.” Ruya's half-brother, Jalal, has also disappeared, though his daily newspaper column continues to be published. Pamuk alternates chapters narrated from Galip's perspective with chapters consisting of Jalal's newspaper articles. The protagonist's endless searches through the labyrinthine streets of Istanbul come to represent a philosophical and metaphysical quest for the self and the divine. As Galip's quest continues, the lines between his self-identity and Jalal's identity begin to blur, and the novel concludes with Galip finding himself writing Jalal's newspaper columns. In addition to the central narrative, The Black Book also includes an encyclopedic array of esoteric references to both Eastern and Western religious and literary doctrine.

Pamuk opens Yeni hayat (1994; The New Life) with the line: “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” Narrated in the first person, the plot centers around Osman, a university student who reads a book titled The New Life, which draws him into a quest for personal transformation. Osman begins searching for a beautiful woman named Janan—whose name means “soul mate” whom he discovers has also read the book. During the course of an extended bus trip, which has been compared to the convoluted, metaphysical tales of Jorge Louis Borges, Osman locates Janan only to quickly lose her again. Meanwhile, Osman learns that readers who have become devoted to The New Life are being killed off by a secret organization opposed to its teachings. Resembling the conclusion of The Black Book, Osman's identity eventually seems to merge with the author of The New Life, raising doubts about who originally wrote the book. Pamuk's sixth novel, My Name Is Red, follows a small group of court artists assigned to illustrate a text for the Sultan of Istanbul during the 1590s. Combining stylistic elements of a murder mystery, a romance novel, and a novel of ideas, Pamuk relates My Name Is Red from the first-person point-of-view of over a dozen different characters, including such improbable narrators as a dead man, a dog, a tree, and a coin. The main narrative is broken into two overlapping storylines—a mystery involving the murders of two artists and a love story detailing a man's pursuit of the childhood sweetheart whom he was forbidden to marry in his youth. However, the thematic center of My Name Is Red consists of the philosophical discussions among the artists regarding the significance of art to society and culture. Pamuk utilizes these discussions and confrontations to provide commentary on the conflict between artists trained in the Islamic tradition and the realism of Western representational art. In 2002 Pamuk released Kar (Snow), a novel focusing on current Middle Eastern politics and the continuing conflicts between the Kurds, Islamists, and Jacobin nationalists.

Critical Reception

In Turkey, Pamuk's novels have become best-sellers, appealing to mass audiences despite their denouncement by Islamic fundamentalists. Internationally, Pamuk has attracted an increasingly broad readership with critics hailing him as the first modern Turkish writer to break away from the form of the popular “village novel”—pastoral, sentimental novels set in rural Turkey. Such commentators have lauded Pamuk's embrace of atypical and postmodern literary techniques, arguing that his novels embody a unique narrative voice. Pamuk's acknowledgement of Turkey's mixed cultural heritage of Eastern and Western influences has also drawn praise, particularly due to the country's sensitive political atmosphere between secular and fundamentalist groups. However, some reviewers have criticized Pamuk's novels for their heavy-handed symbolism, repetitive plots, and contrived characterizations. British scholars have also faulted the English translations of Pamuk's works—primarily by translator Güneli Gün—for their overuse of colloquial American idioms. Several American critics have countered these claims, asserting that the British reviewers are only objecting to the use of American, rather than British, terminology. In her own assessment of Pamuk's contribution to Turkish literature, Gün has commented that, “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.”