Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk (1952; 2006 Nobel Prize for literature) took part in the International Writing Program (IWP) in the fall of 1985; he spent three months in Iowa City, from September 1 to December 15. Here is how Peter Nazareth, a chronicler of the IWP, remembers him:

"Orhan Pamuk was in the IWP in 1985. He was very focused on his writing. He used to sleep until noon and do his writing in the afternoon. At night, he used to go downtown with his best (and maybe only) friend from the IWP, Harry from Ireland; apparently this is how he got material for his writing (that is, from being downtown). He seemed to enjoy playing table tennis in the Mayflower, where all the writers lived. His wife joined him for a short period. He was friendly but reserved, though from another perspective, this indicates that he knew exactly what he wanted to do: write."

Pamuk’s IWP residency happened at the beginning of a three-year period, between 1985 and 1988, when he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, accompanying his wife, a historian, during her PhD studies there. At the Columbia’s Butler Library, Pamuk researched and wrote his fourth novel Kara Kitap(The Black Book), published in Turkish in 1990 and in English by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in 1994 (the book was re-published in a new translation by Maureen Freely in 2006).

Little, if anything, is left in the archives of both Columbia University and The University of Iowa about these visits. Pamuk himself has never mentioned them in his writings, fictional or non-fictional. In Other Colors: Essays and a Story(Knopf, 2007; Öteki Renkler: Seçme Yazilar ve Bir Hikaye; 1999), a book Pamuk describes as “made of ideas, images, and fragments of life that have still not found their way into one of my novels,” there is a short 20-page segment (out of 417 pages in the paperback edition by Vintage, 2008) entitled “Views From the Capital of the World.” This segment is made of several real-life stories that happened to Pamuk in New York in 1986; in none of them is there the slightest mention, not to say a lofty claim, of any intellectual or emotional interest in America, nor is there a hint of the reasons why the author was there. The most fascinating—and to this writer, the most dramatic and meaningful—of the stories is about an encounter with a Turkish immigrant in the New York subway whose life ends abruptly and tragically soon thereafter. That is, a story not about outsiders attracted to America but about outsiders lost in America.

To Dig a Well with a Needle

America’s absence from Pamuk’s texts can appear even more mysterious if one considers that he grew up in a rich Istanbul family, which followed the cultural trend of fascination with the West and America that secular Turkish bourgeoisie after Kemal Atatürk [fn]Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)is indisputably regarded as the father of modern Turkey. He was at the helm of the Turkish state from 1920 until his death in 1938, able to make constitutional changes that turned irreversibly this Muslim country, for centuries the vast Ottoman Empire, into a secular state aspiring to belong in Europe.[/fn]embraced almost by default.

The clues to a correct understanding of this seemingly paradoxical attitude are, of course, to be found at almost every page in Pamuk’s voluminous oeuvre (see Bibliography). Here is a quintessential writer of novels, obsessed with his own culture and the history of his own belonging. On the author’s own admission, he has never had any paid job in his life. At the age of 23, after having painted throughout his teenage years and having dreamt of becoming an artist, after having graduated from the Western-oriented Robert College in Istanbul, and studied architecture at Istanbul Technical University, Pamuk gave up everything else and retreated into his flat to write novels.

Writers are a peculiar species in the Turkish and—more broadly—Balkan culture: they write to raise national consciousness and/or to serve as a bridge to the Western culture, regarded by default as superior, that is, more advanced and bound to be followed if the nation wants to come out of its cultural isolation. Correspondingly, the public views them as prophets who elevate not simply literacy but cultural awareness and national pride, thus necessarily building the local version of high culture. Pamuk admits in great detail [fn]Pamuk, Orhan. My Turkish Library. The New York Review of Books,December 18, 2008, pp. 69-72.[/fn]that he had prepared himself for this role since he began reading. He read avidly and with great passion in the library of his father before collecting his own one. We may call this a systematic approach to literature, but it is striking above all with its ultimate seriousness.

Another typical characteristic of the Balkan writers is that they reach out to the greatest masters of the pen to find intellectual resonance and to learn the craft of writing. In an interview with Charlie Rose on September 18, 2007 (http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/8701) Pamuk said that the authors who shaped his views of the world were Proust, Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, citing also Borges, Nabokov, and Italo Calvino as writers who have had a strong influence over his way of writing. Thus, Pamuk doesn’t conceal his confidence that he—especially, after receiving the Nobel Prize—belongs to this distinguished company of the most influential novelists of the world. Again, it is noteworthy that, discounting Nabokov who was made a writer in Russia, there is not a single American among those listed.

A third factor that shaped Orhan Pamuk as a novelist is time. Time in the Balkans, and in Turkey in particular, moves with a slow pace, and thus, people’s productivity is not a concern at all. Slowness is a quintessential characteristic of the so-called Orient, and it is perceptible in all aspects of life. In line with this languorous culture, Pamuk gives the following definition of writer:[fn]Pamuk, Orhan. My Father’s Suitcase. Nobel Lecture, December 78, 2006: online at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2006/pamuk-lectu... or in Other Colors. Essays and a Story, translated by Maureen Freely, paperback, First Vintage International Edition: New York, Vintage 2008, pp. 403-418.[/fn]

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is; when I speak of writing, what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward. … To write is to turn this inward gaze into words, to study the world into which that person passes when he retires to himself, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy. As I sit at my table, for days, months, years, slowly adding new words to the empty page, I feel as if I am creating a new world, …

What has to be singled out from the above passage are the words ‘slow’, ‘patiently’, ‘patience’, ‘obstinacy’ , and ‘slowly’: all of them reflecting the perception that time is a large inexhaustible vessel, in which we move slowly and patiently. It would certainly be more fitting to Pamuk to have had written a novel titled Slowness, instead of Milan Kundera. Pamuk goes on:

The writer's secret is not inspiration—for it is never clear where it comes from—it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying—to dig a well with a needle—seems to me to have been said with writers in mind. … If a writer is to tell his own story—tell it slowly, and as if it were a story about other people … he is to sit down at a table and patiently give himself over to this art—this craft …

To this day, Pamuk writes in handwriting using a pen. Yet, there is a certain double meaning in his description of the writer: not only has he all the time of the world but he also has stubbornness, in other words, discipline and perseverance.

Another prism through which Pamuk stares at the world is Istanbul. The author was born and grew up in Istanbul and is obsessed with the city, which he uses as geographical and social location of most of his novels and essays. In his latest grand opus, The Museum of Innocence(Knopf, 2008), Istanbul is literally one of the novel's main characters. But Pamuk is not obsessed with the great Constantinople turned in the 14th century to the capital of the powerful Ottoman Empire, a city almost as stuffed with history as Rome. He openly and repeatedly indicates that Istanbul is the formative landscape of his childhood and, therefore, the love of his life. Besides, in the Balkan countries all things of importance happen in the capital, and all people of importance live in the capital. This is due to the small size of these countries and the traditionally non-existent social mobility. The national consciousness, and especially how it relates to the outer world, is being experienced, nurtured, and shaped in the capitals. It is here that the nagging sense that you do not live at the center of the world comes to haunt your existence.

And that isthe major obsession of Pamuk’s. In his Nobel lecture he admits that “ …, in life, as in literature, my basic feeling was that I was ‘not in the centre.’ In the center of the world there was a life richer and more exciting than our own, and with all of Istanbul, all of Turkey, I was outside of it. Today I think that I share this feeling with most people in the world. In the same way, there was a world literature, and its centre, too, was very far away from me. Actually, what I had in mind was Western, not world, literature, and we Turks were outside it. … To write, to read, was like leaving one world to find consolation in the other world’s otherness, the strange and the wondrous. … [I]t seemed to me that books in those days were things we picked up to escape our own culture, which we found so lacking.”

In another intimate memoir[fn]Pamuk, Orhan. My Turkish Library. The New York Review of Books,December 18, 2008, pp. 69-72.[/fn] written in 2008, however, Pamuk describes how, in his personal evolution, he had overcome the two essential feelings of his young years—“the sense of being marooned in the provinces, and the fear that I lacked authenticity.”

When I was in my thirties, and went to America for the first time, to see other libraries and come face to face with the richness of world culture, it grieved me to see how little was known about Turkish culture, Turkish letters. At the same time, this pain allowed me to see more clearly the difference between the transitory aspects of a culture and its essence, and I took this as a warning: I should look more deeply at life, and at my library.

In Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness, there is a Czech character who, while attending an international conference, takes every opportunity to talk about “how things are in my country”; as a consequence he is ridiculed. It’s right that they should look down on him for thinking about nothing but his own country and failing to see the connection between his own humanity and that of the rest of the world. But when I was reading Slowness, I did not identify with those who looked down on the man who couldn’t stop talking about “my country”—I identified with the ridiculous man. Not because I wanted to be like that laughable creature, but because I didn’t. It was in the 1980s that I understood that if I wanted to “become myself,” it would not be by deriding Naipaul’s “mimic man” for the things that he did to overcome his provincial ways, or his depression, but by identifying with him.”

             Thus, Pamuk realized once and for all that “for me the center of the world is Istanbul.” His final verdict on his own human condition was this: “you [do] not escape provinciality by running away from the provinces, but by my making it your own.”4

            The metaphoric expression of this essential philosophy of a writer grown out of cultural isolation to the heights of the Nobel Prize is The Museum of Innocence. It took Pamuk seven years to write it, from 2001 to 2008; he finished the novel two years after being awarded the most prestigious literary prize of the world. The 500+-page novel treats the concept of time in a Proustian way, as existing in our memory. The innovative approach to the time, in which the love story between the main characters, Füsun and Kemal, unfolds is that it is narrated as the story of a museum creation. Kemal builds—slowly, patiently, stubbornly, tediously even—his museum of love; a love that is requited yet impossible, happy yet tragic. At the end, Kemal, in his complete loneliness, travels the world as a collector:

“One evening while drinking alone in the bar of the Hotel du Nord, gazing at the strangers around me, I caught myself asking the questions that occur to every Turk who goes abroad (if he has some education and a bit of money): What did these Europeans think of me? What did they think about us all?

Eventually I thought about how I might describe what Füsun meant to me to someone who knew nothing about Istanbul, Nisantasi, or çukurcuma. I was coming to see myself as someone who had traveled to distant countries and remained there for many years; say, an anthropologist who had fallen in love with a native girl while living among the indigenous folk of New Zealand, to study and catalog their habits and rituals, how they worked and relaxed, and had fun (an chatted away even while watching television, I must hasten to add). My observations and the love I had lived had become intertwined.”

And after a long and patient journey through museums around the world, Kemal finally reaches the most important conclusion of his life:

I so ached for my lost Füsun that I very nearly aborted my journey and returned to Istanbul. Fortunately, after two days of studying the collection of soda and beer cans at the recently opened and soon to close Museum of the Beverage Containers and Advertising in Nashville, while still longing to go home, I found the will to carry on. It was five weeks later, in Saint Augustine, Florida, at the (soon to close) Tragedy in U.S. History Museum, where, upon seeing the chrome-plated gauges and the rusting, crumpled wreck of the 1966 Buick in which Jayne Mansfield had been crushed to death, I at last decided to return to Istanbul. As it happens, I had by then concluded that the true collector’s only home is his own museum.”

            Kemal’s Museum is what is left for eternity from this classical, truly romantic love story between a rich man and a poor girl, which happens in modern times but is driven by medieval-like passion. Pamuk’s mastery of the narrative makes the reader believe that such a story could have happened nowhere else but in Turkey. Shortly before the end, the two lovers begin their long planned car trip to Europe, and the tragedy happens just before they are about to cross the border. In other words, this “Turkish” love is not exportable. It starts and ends “in the provinces.” But Kemal, almost an alter ego of Pamuk’s, builds a Museum of this love, which is an apotheosis of the provinces and thus, is so far the best evidence that the author has made Turkey, a province to the world, his own.


1982:   Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları(Cevdet Bey and His Sons), a novel, Istanbul: Karacan Yayınları

1983:   Sessiz Ev(The Silent House), a novel, Istanbul: Can Yayınları

1985:   Beyaz Kale(The White Castle), a novel, Istanbul: Can Yayınları

1990:   Kara Kitap(The Black Book), novel, Istanbul: Can Yayınları

The White Castle, translated by Victoria Holbrook, Manchester (UK): Carcanet Press Limited  

1991:   The White Castle, New York: George Braziller

1992:   Gizli Yüz(Secret Face), screenplay, Istanbul: Can Yayınları

1994:   The Black Book, translated by Güneli Gün, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

1995    Yeni Hayat(The New Life), novel, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları

1997:   The New Life, translated by Güneli Gün, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

1998:   Benim Adım Kırmızı(My Name is Red), novel, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları

1999:   Öteki Renkler: Seçme Yazilar ve Bir Hikaye(Other Colors: Essays and a Story), Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları

2001:   My Name is Red, translated by Erdağ M. Göknar, New York: Alfred A. Knopf

2002:   Kar(Snow), novel, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları

2003:   İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Şehir(Istanbul: Memories and the City), memoirs, Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları

2005:   Snow, translated by Maureen Freely, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

2005:   Istanbul: Memories of a City‎, translated by Maureen Freely, New York: Alfred A. Knopf

2006:   The Black Book, a new translation by Maureen Freely, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

2007:   Other Colors: Essays and a Story, translated by Maureen Freely, New York: Alfred A. Knopf

2008:   Masumiyet Müzesi(The Museum of Innocence), novel, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları

2009:   The Museum of Innocence, translated by Maureen Freely, New York: Alfred A. Knopf


Text: Zlatko Anguelov


Browse Authors

Reset | View All

Search by Name