Pamuk's first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, appeared in 1982. He achieved best-seller status at home and fame abroad with The White Castle (1985, tr. 1990), a postmodern historical novel set in 17th-century Constantinople (Istanbul) during the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Pamuk subsequently wrote two intellectual mysteries, The New Life (1994, tr. 1997), at once a thriller and a textual exploration set in rural contemporary Turkey, and My Name Is Red (1998, tr. 2001), a taut and magical story concerning a murdered 16th-century miniaturist. In Snow (2002, tr. 2004), an elaborately plotted tale of love and politics, he treats the clash of values between theocratic Islamists and secular Westernizers in late 20th cent. Turkey. The Museum of Innocence (2009) centers on the conflicts between obsessive love and the pressures of tradition and between erotic desire and social approval; it also is a portrait of Istanbul in the 1970s. His other novels include The Silent House (1983) and The Black Book (1990, tr. 1994, 2006). Istanbul: Memories and the City, a memoir of his youth, was published in 2005.
Pamuk is also an essayist, e.g., Other Colors: Essays and a Story (2007), and a human-rights activist with a particular interest in the rights of Turkish women and Kurds. In 2005 he was charged with denigrating Turkey's national character by publicly stating that a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been killed in Turkey, a reference to the 1915 Armenian genocide and more recent Kurdish conflicts. In the face of severe criticism, much of it from the European Union, the charges were later dropped. Nonetheless, Pamuk found himself facing increasing ostracism and harrassment in his beloved hometown, and he now lives mainly in New York.
Pamuk is one of Turkey's most prominent novelists and his work has sold over seven million books in more than fifty languages, making him the country's best-selling writer. He is also the recipient of numerous national and international literary awards. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on 12 October 2006, becoming the first Turkish person to receive a Nobel Prize.
Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 and grew up in a wealthy yet declining bourgeois family; an experience he describes in passing in his novels The Black Book and Cevdet Bey and His Sons, as well as more thoroughly in his personal memoir Istanbul. He was educated at Robert College prep school in Istanbul and went on to study architecture at the Istanbul Technical University since it was related to his real dream career, painting. He left the architecture school after three years, however, to become a full-time writer, and graduated from the Institute of Journalism at the University of Istanbul in 1976. From ages 22 to 30, Pamuk lived with his mother, writing his first novel and attempting to find a publisher.
On 1 March 1982, Pamuk married Aylin Turegen, 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 in the university's Butler Library. This period also included a visiting fellowship at the University of Iowa.
Pamuk returned to Istanbul; a city to which he is strongly attached. He and his wife had a daughter named Rüya born in 1991, whose name means "dream" in Turkish. In 2001, he and Aylin were divorced.
In 2006, after a period in which criminal charges had been pressed against him for his outspoken comments on the Armenian Genocide, Pamuk returned to the US to take up a position as a visiting professor at Columbia. Pamuk is currently a Fellow with Columbia's Committee on Global Thought and holds an appointment in Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department and at its School of the Arts.
In May 2007 Pamuk was among the jury members at the Cannes Film Festival headed by British director Stephen Frears. In the 2007-2008 academic year Pamuk returned to Columbia once again to jointly teach comparative literature classes with Andreas Huyssen and David Damrosch.
Pamuk is also currently a writer in residence at Bard College. He completed his latest novel, Masumiyet Müzesi (The Museum of Innocence) in the summer of 2008 and the book was released in Turkey at 29th of August. The German translation will appear shortly before the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair where Pamuk was planning to hold an actual Museum of Innocence consisting of everyday odds and ends the writer has amassed (the exhibition will instead occur in an Istanbul house purchased by Pamuk). Plans for an English translation have not been made public, but Erdağ Göknar received a 2004 NEA grant for the project. His elder brother Şevket Pamuk - who sometimes appears as a fictional character in Orhan Pamuk's work - is a professor of history, internationally recognized for his work in history of economics of the Ottoman Empire, working at Bogazici University in Istanbul.
Orhan Pamuk started writing regularly in 1974. His first novel, Karanlık ve Işık (Darkness and Light) was a co-winner of the 1979 Milliyet Press Novel Contest (Mehmet Eroğlu (Mehmet Eroğlu) was the other winner). This novel was published with the title Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (Mr. Cevdet and His Sons) in 1982, and won the Orhan Kemal Novel Prize in 1983. It tells the story of three generations of a wealthy Istanbul family living in Nişantaşı, the district of Istanbul where Pamuk grew up.
Pamuk won a number of critical prizes for his early work, including the 1984 Madarali Novel Prize for his second novel Sessiz Ev (The Silent House) and the 1991 Prix de la Découverte Européenne for the French translation of this novel. His historical novel Beyaz Kale (The White Castle), published in Turkish in 1985, won the 1990 Independent Award for Foreign Fiction and extended his reputation abroad. The New York Times Book Review stated, "A new star has risen in the east—Orhan Pamuk." He started experimenting with postmodern techniques in his novels, a change from the strict naturalism of his early works.
Popular success took a bit longer to come to Pamuk, but his 1990 novel Kara Kitap (The Black Book) became one of the most controversial and popular readings in Turkish literature, due to its complexity and richness. In 1992, he wrote the screenplay for the movie Gizli Yüz (Secret Face), based on Kara Kitap and directed by a prominent Turkish director, Ömer Kavur. Pamuk's fourth novel Yeni Hayat (New Life), caused a sensation in Turkey upon its 1995 publication and became the fastest-selling book in Turkish history. By this time, Pamuk had also become a high-profile figure in Turkey, due to his support for Kurdish political rights. In 1995, Pamuk was among a group of authors tried for writing essays that criticized Turkey's treatment of the Kurds. In 1999, Pamuk published his story book Öteki Renkler (Other Colors).
Pamuk's international reputation continued to increase when he published Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name is Red) in 2000. The novel blends mystery, romance, and philosophical puzzles in a setting of 16th century Istanbul. It opens a window into the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III in nine snowy winter days of 1591, inviting the reader to experience the tension between East and West from a breathlessly urgent perspective. My Name Is Red has been translated into 24 languages and won international literature's most lucrative prize (excluding the Nobel, which he later received), the IMPAC Dublin Award in 2003.
Asked the question "What impact did winning the IMPAC award (currently $127,000) have on your life and your work?," Pamuk replied:
Nothing changed in my life since I work all the time. I've spent 30 years writing fiction. For the first 10 years, I worried about money and no one asked how much money I made. The second decade I spent money and no one was asking about that. And I've spent the last 10 years with everyone expecting to hear how I spend the money, which I will not do.
Pamuk's next novel was Kar in 2002 (English translation, Snow, 2004), which explores the conflict between Islamism and Westernism in modern Turkey. The New York Times listed Snow as one of its Ten Best Books of 2004. He also published a memoir/travelogue İstanbul—Hatıralar ve Şehir in 2003 (English version, Istanbul—Memories and the City, 2005). Pamuk's Other Colours - a collection of non-fiction and a story - was published in the UK in September 2007. His next novel is titled The Museum of Innocence.
Asked how personal his book Istanbul: Memories and the City was, Pamuk replied:
I thought I would write Memories and the City in six months, but it took me one year to complete. And I was working twelve hours a day, just reading and working. My life, because of so many things, was in a crisis; I don’t want to go into those details: divorce, father dying, professional problems, problems with this, problems with that, everything was bad. I thought if I were to be weak I would have a depression. But every day I would wake up and have a cold shower and sit down and remember and write, always paying attention to the beauty of the book. Honestly, I may have hurt my mother, my family. My father was dead, but my mother is still alive. But I can’t care about that; I must care about the beauty of the book.
In 2005 Orhan Pamuk received the €25,000 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his literary work, in which "Europe and Islamic Turkey find a place for one another." The award presentation was held at Paul's Church, Frankfurt.
Pamuk's books are characterized by a confusion or loss of identity brought on in part by the conflict between European and Islamic, or more generally Western and Eastern values. They are often disturbing or unsettling, but include complex, intriguing plots and characters of great depth. His works are also redolent with discussion of and fascination with the creative arts, such as literature and painting. Pamuk's work often touches on the deep-rooted tensions between East and West and tradition and modernism/secularism.
On 12 October 2006, the Swedish Academy announced that Orhan Pamuk had been awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature for Istanbul, confounding pundits and oddsmakers who had made Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said, known as Adonis, a favorite. 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."Orhan Pamuk held his Nobel Lecture 7 December 2006, at the Swedish Academy, Stockholm. The lecture was entitled "Babamın Bavulu" (My Father's Suitcase) and was given in Turkish. In the lecture he viewed the relations between Eastern and Western Civilizations in an allegorical upper text which covers his relationship with his father.
In 2005, after Pamuk made a statement regarding the mass killings of Armenians and Kurds in the Ottoman Empire, a criminal case was opened against the author based on a complaint filed by ultra-nationalist lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz. The charges were dropped on 22 January 2006. Rallies were held to burn his books. Pamuk has subsequently stated his intent was to draw attention to freedom of expression issues.
The criminal charges against Pamuk resulted from remarks he made during an interview in February 2005 with the Swiss publication Das Magazin, a weekly supplement to a number of Swiss daily newspapers: the Tages-Anzeiger, the Basler Zeitung, the Berner Zeitung and the Solothurner Tagblatt. In the interview, Pamuk stated, "Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do. Turkish historians were divided over the remarks.
Pamuk stated that he was consequently subjected to a hate campaign that forced him to flee the country. He returned later in 2005, however, to face the charges against him. In an interview with BBC News, he said that he wanted to defend freedom of speech, which was Turkey's only hope for coming to terms with its history: "What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past."
In June 2005, Turkey introduced a new penal code including Article 301, which states: "A person who, being a Turk, explicitly insults the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months to three years." Pamuk was retroactively charged with violating this law in the interview he had given four months earlier. In October, after the prosecution had begun, Pamuk reiterated his views in a speech given during an award ceremony in Germany: "I repeat, I said loud and clear that one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey.
Because Pamuk was charged under an ex post facto law, Turkish law required that his prosecution be approved by the Ministry of Justice. A few minutes after Pamuk's trial started on 16 December, the judge found that this approval had not yet been received and suspended the proceedings. In an interview published in the Akşam newspaper the same day, Justice Minister Cemil Çiçek said he had not yet received Pamuk's file but would study it thoroughly once it came.
On 29 December 2005, Turkish state prosecutors dropped the charge that Pamuk insulted Turkey's armed forces, although the charge of "insulting Turkishness" remained.
The charges against Pamuk caused an international outcry and led to questions in some circles about Turkey's proposed entry into the European Union. On 30 November, the European Parliament announced that it would send a delegation of five MEPs, led by Camiel Eurlings, to observe the trial. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn subsequently stated that the Pamuk case would be a "litmus test" of Turkey's commitment to the EU's membership criteria.
On 1 December, Amnesty International released a statement calling for Article 301 to be repealed and for Pamuk and six other people awaiting trial under the act to be freed. PEN American Center also denounced the charges against Pamuk, stating: "PEN finds it extraordinary that a state that has ratified both the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which see freedom of expression as central, should have a Penal Code that includes a clause that is so clearly contrary to these very same principles.
On 13 December, eight world-renowned authors—José Saramago, Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, John Updike and Mario Vargas Llosa—issued a joint statement supporting Pamuk and decrying the charges against him as a violation of human rights.
On 22 January 2006, the Justice Ministry refused to issue an approval of the prosecution, saying that they had no authority to open a case against Pamuk under the new penal code. With the trial in the local court, it was ruled the next day that the case could not continue without Justice Ministry approval. Pamuk's lawyer, Haluk İnanıcı, subsequently confirmed that charges had been dropped.
The announcement occurred in a week when the EU was scheduled to begin a review of the Turkish justice system.
EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn welcomed the dropping of charges, saying "This is obviously good news for Mr. Pamuk, but it's also good news for freedom of expression in Turkey". However, some EU representatives expressed disappointment that the justice ministry had rejected the prosecution on a technicality rather than on principle. An Ankara-based EU diplomat reportedly said, "It is good the case has apparently been dropped, but the justice ministry never took a clear position or gave any sign of trying to defend Pamuk". Meanwhile, the lawyer who had led the effort to try Pamuk, Kemal Kerinçsiz, said he would appeal the decision, saying, "Orhan Pamuk must be punished for insulting Turkey and Turkishness, it is a grave crime and it should not be left unpunished."
In 2006, the magazine Time listed Orhan Pamuk in the cover article "TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World", in the category "Heroes & Pioneers", for speaking up.
In April 2006, on the BBC's Hardtalk program, Pamuk stated that his remarks regarding the Armenian massacres were meant to draw attention to freedom of expression issues in Turkey rather than to the massacres themselves.
On 19-20 December 2006 a symposium on Orhan Pamuk and His Work was held at Sabancı University, Istanbul. Pamuk himself gave the closing address.
In January 2008, 13 ultranationalists, including Kemal Kerinçsiz, were arrested by Turkish authorities for participating in a Turkish nationalist underground organisation, named Ergenekon, allegedly conspiring to assassinate political figures, including several Christian missionaries and Armenian intellectual Hrant Dink. Several reports suggest that Orhan Pamuk was among the figures this group plotted to kill.
In a review of Snow in The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens complained that "from reading Snow one might easily conclude that all the Armenians of Anatolia had decided for some reason to pick up and depart en masse, leaving their ancestral properties for tourists to gawk at.
However, John Updike, reviewing the same book in The New Yorker, wrote: "To produce a major work so frankly troubled and provocatively bemused and, against the grain of the author’s usual antiquarian bent, entirely contemporary in its setting and subjects, took the courage that art sometimes visits upon even its most detached practitioners.