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Orhan Pamuk: A Voice Amid a Changing Turkey

Turkey- Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk. photo LEEMAGE

To many readers around the world, Turkey is captured in one name: Orhan Pamuk. With a life spanning the tumultuous decades that have shaped modern Turkish life, Pamuk writes novels that delve into the paradoxes and confluences of his homeland’s culture and politics, laying bare the tensions of perspective that shadow the Turkish society.

Born in 1952 into a family of professionals in an upper-class neighborhood of Istanbul, Pamuk, who is divorced and a father of a daughter, has spent nearly his entire life in the city, which remains a key influence in his writing. Indeed, he has been dubbed the “Voice of Istanbul.”

Pamuk’s books are sown with elements of both the author’s life and Turkey’s evolution. His first novel, Cevdet Bey and his Sons, tells the story of three generations of a wealthy Istanbul family living in Nisantaşı, Pamuk’s own home district. His family bore many of the changes that swept through Turkey in the early years of the twentieth century. Once wealthy and no stranger to the riches of Ottoman life, Pamuk’s family with the advent of the Turkish Republic sought the trappings of Western life. The family occupied its own apartment block, in a house with views of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks that Pamuk still inhabits.

Yet despite Pamuk’s stature as his country’s best known and most internationally-acclaimed living author, not all of his countrymen regard him as the voice of modern Turkey. A graduate of Turkey’s most elite school, Pamuk’s secular, Western-leaning urbanite views are ever more distant from the conservative, distinctly pro-Erdoğan heart of Turkish public opinion.

Pamuk’s work has marked him as a novelist who is comfortable weaving the threads of modern Turkish life and politics through a variety of settings. Although some of his most famous novels have been set in Turkey’s distant and more recent histories, Pamuk is renowned for his evocative writing and fierce intensity in exploring both the past and the present. In such works as his novel “Snow“, Pamuk brings to life the mountainous Kurdish town of Kars and other stories that are unfamiliar to foreigners and urbane Turks alike.

The Black Book“, published in 1990, brought Pamuk international acclaim and cemented his reputation as a writer both popular and experimental. A year later, Pamuk penned the script to the film “Hidden Face”, based on a three-page story in “The Black Book”.

In 2008, Pamuk published “The Museum of Innocence“, a novel centered on one man’s lifelong pursuit of a young woman and his quest to open a museum housing the talismans of his love. Four years later Pamuk opened the museum itself in the Istanbul neighborhood of Çukurcuma, carving his literature into the landscape of his beloved city. The museum’s artifacts track the love affair of the eponymous novel, reflecting in many ways Pamuk’s own love affair with the city of his birth.

But as Pamuk’s fame grew, his politics, as much as his writing, thrust him into the headlines. In 1994, he helped a Kurdish newspaper after its offices were firebombed, in what was thought to be a government-sanctioned attack. Pamuk’s efforts landed him on the front page of a Turkish nationalist paper, branded as a “renegade.”

Pumuk ardently advocate for Turkey’s accession to the European Union, spurred by the belief that membership of the EU will bring about much needed reforms to Turkey’s legal and political spheres.

Although his novels have not addressed contemporary political issues head on, he has used his public profile to bring repeated spotlight on aspects of Turkish society and history that he believes are being intentionally forgotten or whitewashed.

In 2005, Pamuk drew the wrath of Turkish authorities after discussing in a Swiss newspaper his homeland’s troubled past with its Kurdish and Armenian minorities. “30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares talk about it,” Pamuk said in the interview.

That article led to his prosecution for “insulting Turkishness,” a charge carrying a possible three-year prison sentence. Amid what he called a hate campaign, Pamuk was forced to temporarily seek refuge abroad. Such is the depths of feeling around Turkey’s historical controversies.

The charges against Pamuk were eventually dropped following lobbying by EU member states, open letters cosigned by Nobel laureates and widespread public outcry. The Turkish authorities, however, abandoned the case on a technicality, not in recognition of Pamuk’s right to free speech. Some Turkish intellectuals still are irked by that.

Today, Pamuk’s political views remain a potent force. A recent interview Pamuk gave to a Turkish daily about his support for the ‘No’ campaign against a referendum to broaden the powers of the presidency was reportedly spiked due to government pressure.

In 2006, Pamuk received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the award’s second youngest winner ever. The Nobel committee specifically mentioned how “in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city [he] has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.”

A theme threading through many of Pamuk’s works is the deep-rooted tensions between East and West, between tradition and secularism. Pamuk has sold more than 13 million copies of his books in 63 languages. Yet despite his renown and popularity, Turkish public opinion remains deeply divided on its native son.

Pumuk continues to write and publish actively. However, some members of a new generation of Turks raised under the authoritarian regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believe that the old conflicts between Western modernity and Eastern tradition have been resolved decidedly in favour of Turkey’s Ottoman past. Thus it is difficult to see Pamuk’s writings carrying the same resonance in this new future as it had before. It may be that Orhan Pamuk’s era as the voice of modern Turkey is growing fainter.