Orhan Pamuk – Life and Literary Creed

“What literature needs most to tell and investigate today are humanity’s basic fears: the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of […]

“What literature needs most to tell and investigate today are humanity’s basic fears: the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflation that are their next of kin … Whenever I am confronted by such sentiments, and by the irrational, overstated language in which they are usually expressed, I know they touch on a darkness inside me. We have often witnessed peoples, societies and nations outside the Western world–and I can identify with them easily–succumbing to fears that sometimes lead them to commit stupidities, all because of their fears of humiliation and their sensitivities. I also know that in the West–a world with which I can identify with the same ease–nations and peoples taking an excessive pride in their wealth, and in their having brought us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, have, from time to time, succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid.[1]

Ferit Orhan Pamuk is not only the first Turkish writer, but also the first Turkish citizen to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. He was born in Istanbul, in 1952, where he grew up in an upper-class family, which gave him the opportunity to be educated at Robert College, an independent private American high school. After college, Pamuk studied architecture at the Istanbul Technical University, but he left the architecture school to become a writer, and graduated from the Institute of Journalism at the University of Istanbul in 1976. He began to contour his occupation as a full-time writer in 1974, when he described himself as ”a Cultural Muslim who associates the historical and cultural identification with the religion while not believing in a personal connection to God”[2].

Pamuk has been successful among critics since his early novels (”Cevdet Bey and His Sons” – 1982), receiving distinctions both in Turkey and abroad. His commercial success has arrived with ”The Black Book” – 1990, which has become one of the most popular and controversial novels of Turkish literature. Between Pamuk’s literary style and that of Haruki Murakami for example, another famous writer, there are many similarities – both of them write about the clash of Western civilisation with that of their native country. Pamuk explores the conflict between West and East, manifested in art and society, by dilution or loss of identity (pregnant in ”My Name is Red” – 1998) and ”Snow” – 2002, his only political novel). Pamuk won a number of critical prizes for his early work and after that, at the beginning of the 1990s, he started experimenting with postmodern techniques in his novels, a change from the strict naturalism of his early works. Pamuk’s books are characterised by a confusion or loss of identity brought on in part by the conflict between Western and Eastern values or between tradition and modernism/secularism. They are often disturbing or unsettling, but include complex plots and characters. His works are also redolent with discussion of and fascination with the creative arts, such as literature and painting, some of his youthful passions. On 1 March 1982, Pamuk married Aylin Türegün, a historian. From 1985 to 1988, while his wife was a graduate student at Columbia University, Pamuk assumed the position of visiting scholar there, using the time to conduct research and write his novel The Black Book .He and his wife had a daughter named Rüya (born 1991), whose name means “dream” in Turkish. In 2001, they were divorced. Since then, Pamuk had other two relationships with Booker prize winner of Indian origin, Kiran Desai (2010-2012), and with Aslı Akyavaş from 2013, who is still his current girlfriend. Orhan Pamuk’s name became also known in a different way than the literary one. In 2005, in an interview for a Swiss publication, the writer stated, in an attempt to promote the freedom of expression, that “thirty thousand Kurds were killed here and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”, referring to the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s. Because of this statement, he was sued by an ultra-nationalist lawyer, Kemal Kerinçsiz, for defaming the Turkish armed forces. The international reaction has been strong, from the European Union and Amnesty International, to writers like Saramago, Marquez and Updike, and the allegations have finally been withdrawn. On 12 October 2006, the Swedish Academy announced that he had been awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. In its citation, the Academy said: “In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, [Pamuk] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”[3] Before winning the Nobel Prize, in April 2015, Orhan Pamuk gave an interview to the reporter Ãngel Gurrã­a-Quintana for the magazine ”the Paris Review”, in which he explained how he managed to penetrate the international literary market with his novels. Two of his answers are also relevant in predicting the further success that he had:

Interviewer: You’ve generally received a positive response to your books in Europe and the United States. What is your critical reception in Turkey?
Pamuk: The good years are over now. When I was publishing my first books, the previous generation of authors was fading away, so I was welcomed because I was a new author.
Interviewer: When you say the previous generation, whom do you have in mind?
Pamuk: The authors who felt a social responsibility, authors who felt that literature serves morality and politics. They were flat realists, not experimental. Like authors in so many poor countries, they wasted their talent on trying to serve their nation. I did not want to be like them, because even in my youth I had enjoyed Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Proust—I had never aspired to the social-realist model of Steinbeck and Gorky. The literature produced in the sixties and seventies was becoming outmoded, so I was welcomed as an author of the new generation.

After the mid-nineties, when my books began to sell in amounts that no one in Turkey had ever dreamed of, my honeymoon years with the Turkish press and intellectuals were over. From then on, critical reception was mostly a reaction to the publicity and sales, rather than the content of my books. Now, unfortunately, I am notorious for my political comments—most of which are picked up from international interviews and shamelessly manipulated by some Turkish nationalist journalists to make me look more radical and politically foolish than I really am.[4]

For Orhan Pamuk, writing represents both passion and career. He always says that he is happy only in the presence of the paper and the writing tools, and considers that he is only halfway through his career as a writer.

[1] Orhan Pamuk’s ”My Father’s Suitcase” Nobel Lecture held on 7 December 2006 at the Swedish Academy, Stockholm and translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely.
[2] ”Orhan Pamuk and the Turkish Paradox”: http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/frankfurt-book-fair-special-orhan-pamuk-and-the-turkish-paradox-a-380858.html
[3] Nobel Prize in Literature 2006: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2006/
[4] The Paris Review, ”Orhan Pamuk, The Art of Fiction No. 187”: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5587/orhan-pamuk-the-art-of-fiction-no-187-orhan-pamuk

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