Born June 7: Orhan Pamuk

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
Orhan Pamuk sitting in a big gold chair

On June 7, 1952, Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul. He is Turkey’s most celebrated author, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. Pamuk’s works include his postmodern novels The Black Book, The New Life and My Name Is Red, and the memoirs and essays collected in Other Colors. Many consider Snow and The Red-Haired Woman to be among the finest novels of recent decades. These retain the dislocation and uncanniness of his more experimental books, beguiling puzzle-boxes like those of Nabokov or Borges. But in their thematic seriousness and indelible summoning of lives in the balance, they rise to the pantheon of great writers of the psychological novel of which Pamuk has long been a devotee: Dostoevsky, Stendahl, Flaubert, Conrad, Thomas Mann.

Pamuk is a noted chronicler of his hometown, which he examines at length in Istanbul: Memories and the City:

"On misty smoky mornings, on rainy, windy nights, you can see it on the domes of mosques on which flocks of gulls make their homes; you can see it, too, in the clouds of exhaust, in the wreaths of soot rising from the stovepipes, in the rusting trash cans, the parks and gardens left empty and untended on winter days, and the crowds scurrying home through the mud and snow on winter evenings. These are the sad joys of black-and-white Istanbul: the crumbling fountains that haven't worked for centuries, the poor quarters with their forgotten mosques; the sudden crowds of schoolchildren in white-collared black smocks; the old and tired mud-covered trucks; the little grocery stores darkened by age, dust, and lack of custom…the drunks that roam in the middle of the night; the pale streetlamps; the ferries going up and down the Bosphorus and the smoke rising from their chimneys; the city blanketed in snow."

Pamuk's family came from wealth on both sides, but their fortune was in decline as he grew up. He remains close to his older brother Şevket, now a university professor in economics. Their father was cheerful but often absent and philandering and eventually left for good. Orhan developed a youthful love of painting that led him to pursue an architecture degree. After a few years, he dropped out and resolved to become a writer. He got a degree in journalism in 1976 and found a publisher for his early novels, realistic depictions of Istanbul's families and communities as their city rapidly transforms itself from a backwater Ottoman labyrinth into a booming westernized metropolis. As his style shifted, he found success with a series of metafictional books teeming with paradoxes, doubles, and multiple perspectives, reaching a high point in 1998 with My Name is Red. A murder mystery set among miniaturist painters in the court of Sultan Murat III in 1591, its chapters are narrated not only by the living characters but also by the murdered victim, a coin, a tree, a dog, and the color red.

Despite being his country's best-selling writer and a kind of unofficial literary ambassador for its efforts to join Europe, he has at times run afoul of hardliners in power. In a 2005 interview with a Swiss newspaper that included a discussion of freedom of expression in Turkey, he said, "Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do." This is considered a calumny by the Turkish government, whose official position is that what is generally known outside of Turkey as the Armenian Genocide was a more complicated conflict in which 'only' a few hundred thousand died. Pamuk was branded a traitor in the press, hounded by death threats, and charged by a public prosecutor with 'denigrating Turkishness,' a crime that could carry up to three years in prison. An international outcry followed, and a group of eminent writers rallied to Pamuk's defense. In Other Colors, Pamuk recalls some Istanbul friends congratulating him ironically on becoming a 'real writer' at last, referring to Turkey's history of persecuting its intellectuals and journalists. The charges were eventually dropped, but in 2011 Pamuk was still ordered to pay a 6,000 lira fine.

Although Pamuk is agnostic, he identifies as culturally Muslim and is intensely interested in Ottoman history and European literature. "For people like me, who live uncertainly on the edge of Europe with only our books to keep us company, Europe has figured always as a dream, a vision of what is to come; an apparition at time desired and at times feared; a goal to achieve or a danger. A future—but never a memory."

One of his great themes is the anxiety of being trapped between East and West, unable to eradicate the remnants of the past but blocked from fully embracing European modernity, as the Republic of Turkey's founders strove to do in 1923. He finds this same theme in other writers trapped between two worlds, such as Camus, who was born in Algeria, another "marginalized, part-modern, part-Muslim, part-Mediterranean" place, and never felt truly accepted by the French literary establishment. Dostoevsky, educated to think of Europe as the true home of culture and literature, was ashamed of his own embodiment of Russia's rural past and backward traditions. But when his characters attempt to wrench themselves away from their roots, they wind up in tangles of violence and humiliation that veer from comic to desperate. "It is from Dostoevsky's gloomy, damning ambivalence—his familiarity with European thought and his anger against it, his equal and opposite desires to belong to Europe and to shun it—that the modern novel derives its originality…as we struggle with the novel, we do not just sense the terror and uncertainty of this world still in progress, we begin to feel almost responsible for it…"

In Snow, a hapless poet called Ka, who has not written anything during a decade of exile in Germany, takes a bus to Kars, an old town in the mountainous Anatolian countryside, nominally as a journalist investigating a rash of suicides of girls who have been forced to remove their headscarves by the secular public school system, and gets stranded there in a snowstorm. In fact, he is there hoping to see a woman from his younger days, Ipek, recently divorced from a local Islamist politician. Conspicuous in his fancy overcoat, Ka blunders around the town's shabby streets from meetings with radical Islamists to interviews with students, followed by police spies, powerless in the grip of a farcical but dangerous whirlpool that perhaps carries a whiff of some of Pamuk's book tours abroad. Tension builds for a performance at the theater of a propagandistic play called My Fatherland Or My Head Scarf, which all the rival factions of Kars will attend.

At the newspaper offices, Ka finds that a review of the not-yet-performed show has already been written up in advance, proclaiming it a triumph, adding that the event was crowned by the visiting poet Ka reading his brand new poem, 'Snow'. Ka protests that no such poem exists and that he is not even planning to attend the event. "Don't be so sure," the newspaper editor tells him. "There are those who despise us for writing the news before it happens…quite a few things do happen only because we've written them up first. This is what modern journalism is all about." Caught up in his reckless infatuation for Ipek, Ka writes the poem in a burst of inspiration; the factions convene at the theater, and the performance unfolds. Like the newspaper review, Pamuk's book, which he began writing before the events of 9/11, now seems eerily prescient about contemporary polarization and political violence.

In Istanbul: Memories and the City, Pamuk attempts an explication of the distinctively Turkish mood of hüzün, a kind of national melancholy comprised of "worldly failure, listlessness and spiritual suffering" that pervades much of its music and poetry:

"I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early, of the fathers under the streetlamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags. Of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter…of everything being broken, worn out, past its prime…Hüzün teaches endurance in times of poverty and deprivation; it also encourages us to read life and the history of the city in reverse. It allows the people of Istanbul to think of defeat and poverty not as a historical endpoint but as an honorable beginning, fixed long before they were born…the hüzün of Istanbul is something the entire city feels together and affirms as one."

As Pamuk notes, hüzün "is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating." Beneath the layers of satire and melancholy his novels have a core of optimism. In a recent interview, he points out that "in the end, [complaint] doesn't make good fiction. Good fiction is about asserting the beauties of the world, inventing a new, positive thing. Where am I going to get that? And it should be original; it should not be clichéd. So the way I looked at history was not to accuse it of failure."

I have every confidence that Pamuk will carry his optimistic project forward even with his brand new novel published in March, Nights of Plague, an epic of imagined history taking place on a Mediterranean island under quarantine in the year 1900—which he began writing, with his usual foresight, before the Covid pandemic.

Recommended Reading

Book cover for The Black Book
The Black Book
Pamuk, Orhan

Book cover for The New Life
The New Life
Pamuk, Orhan

Book cover for My Name is Red
My Name is Red
Pamuk, Orhan

Book cover for The Red-Haired Woman
The Red-Haired Woman
Pamuk, Orhan

Book cover for Other Colors: Essays and a Story
Other Colors: Essays and a Story
Pamuk, Orhan

Book cover for Istanbul: Memories and the City
Istanbul: Memories and the City
Pamuk, Orhan