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Memories and the City

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A shimmering evocation, by turns intimate and panoramic, of one of the world’s great cities, by its foremost writer. Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul and still lives in the family apartment building where his mother first held him in her arms. His portrait of his city is thus also a self-portrait, refracted by memory and the melancholy–or hüzün– that all Istanbullus share: the sadness that comes of living amid the ruins of a lost empire.With cinematic fluidity, Pamuk moves from his glamorous, unhappy parents to the gorgeous, decrepit mansions overlooking the Bosphorus; from the dawning of his self-consciousness to the writers and painters–both Turkish and foreign–who would shape his consciousness of his city. Like Joyce’s Dublin and Borges’ Buenos Aires, Pamuk’s Istanbul is a triumphant encounter of place and sensibility, beautifully written and immensely moving.


Chapter One

Another Orhan

From a very young age, I suspected there was more to my world than I could see: Somewhere in the streets of Istanbul, in a house resembling ours, there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my twin, even my double. I can’t remember where I got this idea or how it came to me. It must have emerged from a web of rumors, misunderstandings, illusions, and fears. But in one of my earliest memories, it is already clear how I’ve come to feel about my ghostly other.

When I was five I was sent to live for a short time in another house. After one of their many stormy separations, my parents arranged to meet in Paris, and it was decided that my older brother and I should remain in Istanbul, though in separate places. My brother would stay in the heart of the family with our grandmother in the Pamuk Apartments, in Niflantaflý, but I would be sent to stay with my aunt in Cihangir. Hanging on the wall in this house–where I was treated with the utmost kindness–was a picture of a small child, and every once in a while my aunt or uncle would point up at him and say with a smile, “Look! That’s you!”

The sweet doe-eyed boy inside the small white frame did look a bit like me, it’s true. He was even wearing the cap I sometimes wore. I knew I was not that boy in the picture (a kitsch representation of a “cute child” that someone had brought back from Europe). And yet I kept asking myself, Is this the Orhan who lives in that other house?

Of course, now I too was living in another house. It was as if I’d had to move here before I could meet my twin, but as I wanted only to return to my real home, I took no pleasure in making his acquaintance. My aunt and uncle’s jovial little game of saying I was the boy in the picture became an unintended taunt, and each time I’d feel my mind unraveling: my ideas about myself and the boy who looked like me, my picture and the picture I resembled, my home and the other house–all would slide about in a confusion that made me long all the more to be at home again, surrounded by my family.

Soon my wish came true. But the ghost of the other Orhan in another house somewhere in Istanbul never left me. Throughout my childhood and well into adolescence, he haunted my thoughts. On winter evenings, walking through the streets of the city, I would gaze into other people’s houses through the pale orange light of home and dream of happy, peaceful families living comfortable lives. Then I would shudder to think that the other Orhan might be living in one of these houses. As I grew older, the ghost became a fantasy and the fantasy a recurrent nightmare. In some dreams I would greet this Orhan–always in another house–with shrieks of horror; in others the two of us would stare each other down in eerie merciless silence. Afterward, wafting in and out of sleep, I would cling ever more fiercely to my pillow, my house, my street, my place in the world. Whenever I was unhappy, I imagined going to the other house, the other life, the place where the other Orhan lived, and in spite of everything I’d half convince myself that I was he and took pleasure in imagining how happy he was, such pleasure that, for a time, I felt no need to go to seek out the other house in that other imagined part of the city.

Here we come to the heart of the matter: I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighborhoods of my childhood. Although I’ve lived in different districts from time to time, fifty years on I find myself back in the Pamuk Apartments, where my first photographs were taken and where my mother first held me in her arms to show me the world. I know this persistence owes something to my imaginary friend, the other Orhan, and to the solace I took from the bond between us. But we live in an age defined by mass migration and creative immigrants, so I am sometimes hard-pressed to explain why I’ve stayed, not only in the same place but in the same building. My mother’s sorrowful voice comes back to me: “Why don’t you go outside for a while? Why don’t you try a change of scene, do some traveling . . . ?”

Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul–these are writers known for having managed to migrate between languages, cultures, countries, continents, even civilizations. Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness. My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.

Gustave Flaubert, who visited Istanbul 102 years before my birth, was struck by the variety of life in its teeming streets; in one of his letters he predicted that in a century’s time it would be the capital of the world. The reverse came true: After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the world almost forgot that Istanbul existed. The city into which I was born was poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had ever been before in its two-thousand-year history. For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy. I’ve spent my life either battling with this melancholy or (like all ‹stanbullus) making it my own.

At least once in a lifetime, self-reflection leads us to examine the circumstances of our birth. Why were we born in this particular corner of the world, on this particular date? These families into which we were born, these countries and cities to which the lottery of life has assigned us–they expect love from us, and in the end we do love them from the bottom of our hearts; but did we perhaps deserve better? I sometimes think myself unlucky to have been born in an aging and impoverished city buried under the ashes of a ruined empire. But a voice inside me always insists this was really a piece of luck. If it is a matter of wealth, I can certainly count myself fortunate to have been born into an affluent family at a time when the city was at its lowest ebb (though some have ably argued the contrary). Mostly, I am disinclined to complain; I’ve accepted the city into which I was born in the same way that I’ve accepted my body (much as I would have preferred to be more handsome and better built) and my gender (even though I still ask myself, naïvely, whether I might been better off had I been born a woman). This is my fate, and there’s no sense arguing with it. This book is concerned with fate.

I was born in the middle of the night on June 7, 1952, in a small private hospital in Moda. Its corridors, I’m told, were peaceful that night, and so was the world. Aside from the Strambolini volcano’s having suddenly begun to spew flames and ash two days earlier, relatively little seems to have been happening on our planet. The newspapers were full of small news: a few stories about the Turkish troops fighting in Korea; a few rumors spread by Americans stoking fears that the North Koreans might be preparing to use biological weapons. In the hours before I was born, my mother had been avidly following a local story: Two days earlier, the caretakers and “heroic” residents of the Konya Student Center had seen a man in a terrifying mask trying to enter a house in Langa through the bathroom window; they’d chased him through the streets to a lumberyard, where, after cursing the police, the hardened criminal had committed suicide; a seller of dry goods identified the corpse as a gangster who the year before had entered his shop in broad daylight and robbed him at gunpoint.

When she was reading the latest on this drama, my mother was alone in her room, or so she told me with a mixture of regret and annoyance many years later. After taking her to the hospital, my father had grown restless and, when my mother’s labor failed to progress, he’d gone out to meet with friends. The only person with her in the delivery room was my aunt, who’d managed to climb over the hospital’s garden wall in the middle of the night. When my mother first set eyes on me, she found me thinner and more fragile than my brother had been.

I feel compelled to add or so I’ve been told. In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed, we use this tense. It is a useful distinction to make as we “remember” our earliest life experiences, our cradles, our baby carriages, our first steps, all as reported by our parents, stories to which we listen with the same rapt attention we might pay some brilliant tale of some other person. It’s a sensation as sweet as seeing ourselves in our dreams, but we pay a heavy price for it. Once imprinted in our minds, other people’s reports of what we’ve done end up mattering more than what we ourselves remember. And just as we learn about our lives from others, so too do we let others shape our understanding of the city in which we live.

At times when I accept as my own the stories I’ve heard about my city and myself, I’m tempted to say, “Once upon a time I used to paint. I hear I was born in Istanbul, and I understand that I was a somewhat curious child. Then, when I was twenty-two, I seem to have begun writing novels without knowing why.” I’d have liked to write my entire story this way–as if my life were something that happened to someone else, as if it were a dream in which I felt my voice fading and my will succumbing to enchantment. Beautiful though it is, I find the language of epic unconvincing, for I cannot accept that the myths we tell about our first lives prepare us for the brighter, more authentic second lives that are meant to begin when we awake. Because–for people like me, at least–that second life is none other than the book in your hand. So pay close attention, dear reader. Let me be straight with you, and in return let me ask for your compassion.

Chapter Two

The Photographs in the Dark Museum House

My mother, my father, my older brother, my grandmother, my uncles, and my aunts–we all lived on different floors of the same five-story apartment house. Until the year before I was born, the different branches of the family had (like so many large Ottoman families) lived together in a large stone mansion; in 1951 they rented it out to a private elementary school and built the modern structure I would know as home on the empty lot next door; on the facade, in keeping with the custom of the time, they proudly put up a plaque that said pamuk apt. We lived on the fourth floor, but I had the run of the entire building from the time I was old enough to climb off my mother’s lap and can recall that on each floor there was at least one piano. When my last bachelor uncle put his newspaper down long enough to get married, and his new wife moved into the first-floor apartment, from which she was to spend the next half century gazing out the window, she brought her piano with her. No one ever played, on this one or any of the others; this may be why they made me feel so sad.

But it wasn’t just the unplayed pianos; in each apartment there was also a locked glass cabinet displaying Chinese porcelains, teacups, silver sets, sugar bowls, snuffboxes, crystal glasses, rosewater pitchers, plates, and censers that no one ever touched, although among them I sometimes found hiding places for miniature cars. There were the unused desks inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the turban shelves on which there were no turbans, and the Japanese and Art Nouveau screens behind which nothing was hidden. There, in the library, gathering dust behind the glass, were my doctor uncle’s medical books; in the twenty years since he’d emigrated to America, no human hand had touched them. To my childish mind, these rooms were furnished not for the living but for the dead. (Every once in a while a coffee table or a carved chest would disappear from one sitting room only to appear in another sitting room on another floor.)

If she thought we weren’t sitting properly on her silver-threaded chairs, our grandmother would bring us to attention. “Sit up straight!” Sitting rooms were not meant to be places where you could lounge comfortably; they were little museums designed to demonstrate to a hypothetical visitor that the householders were westernized. A person who was not fasting during Ramadan would perhaps suffer fewer pangs of conscience among these glass cupboards and dead pianos than he might if he were still sitting cross-legged in a room full of cushions and divans. Although everyone knew it as freedom from the laws of Islam, no one was quite sure what else westernization was good for. So it was not just in the affluent homes of Istanbul that you saw sitting-room museums; over the next fifty years you could find these haphazard and gloomy (but sometimes also poetic) displays of western influence in sitting rooms all over Turkey; only with the arrival of television in the 1970s did they go out of fashion. Once people had discovered how pleasurable it was to sit together to watch the evening news, their sitting rooms changed from little museums to little cinemas–although you still hear of old families who put their televisions in their central hallways, locking up their museum sitting rooms and opening them only for holidays or special guests.

Because the traffic between floors was as incessant as it had been in the Ottoman mansion, doors in our modern apartment building were usually left open. Once my brother had started school, my mother would let me go upstairs alone, or else we would walk up together to visit my paternal grandmother in her bed. The tulle curtains in her sitting room were always closed, but it made little difference; the building next door was so close as to make the room very dark anyway, especially in the morning, so I’d sit on the large heavy carpets and invent a game to play on my own. Arranging the miniature cars that someone had brought me from Europe into an obsessively neat line, I would admit them one by one into my garage. Then, pretending the carpets were seas and the chairs and tables islands, I would catapult myself from one to the other without ever touching water (much as Calvino’s Baron spent his life jumping from tree to tree without ever touching ground). When I was tired of this airborne adventure or of riding the arms of the sofas like horses (a game that may have been inspired by memories of the horse-drawn carriages of Heybeliada), I had another game that I would continue to play as an adult whenever I got bored: I’d imagine that the place in which I was sitting (this bedroom, this sitting room, this classroom, this barracks, this hospital room, this government office) was really somewhere else; when I had exhausted the energy to daydream, I would take refuge in the photographs that sat on every table, desk, and wall.
Orhan Pamuk

About Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk - Istanbul

Photo © Elena Seibert

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. His novel My Name Is Red won the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has been translated into more than sixty languages. 

Orhan Pamuk is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Praise | Awards


Delightful, profound, marvelously original. . . . Pamuk tells the story of the city through the eyes of memory." –The Washington Post Book World"Far from a conventional appreciation of the city's natural and architectural splendors, Istanbul tells of an invisible melancholy and the way it acts on an imaginative young man, aggrieving him but pricking his creativity." –The New York Times"Brilliant. . . . Pamuk insistently discribes a]dizzingly gorgeous, historically vibrant metropolis." –Newsday “A fascinating read for anyone who has even the slightest acquaintance with this fabled bridge between east and west.” –The Economist


WINNER 2006 Nobel Prize
FINALIST 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction
WINNER 2010 Mailer Prize for Lifetime Achievement
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Delightful, profound, marvelously original. . . . Pamuk tells the story of the city through the eyes of memory.” —Alberto Manguel, The Washington Post Book World


The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, an intimate, richly rewarding tale of growing up in a city haunted by the ghosts of its glorious past.

About the Guide

Blending reminiscence with history; family photographs with portraits of poets and pashas; art criticism, metaphysical musing, and, now and again, a fanciful tale, Orhan Pamuk invents an ingenious form to evoke his lifelong home, the city that forged his imagination. He begins with his childhood among the eccentric extended Pamuk family in the dusty, carpeted, and hermetically sealed apartment building they shared. In this place came his first intimations of the melancholy awareness that binds all residents of his city together: that of living in the seat of ruined imperial glories, in a country trying to become “modern” at the dizzying crossroads of East and West. This elegiac communal spirit suffuses Pamuk’s reflections as he introduces the writers and painters through whose eyes he came to see Istanbul. Against a background of shattered monuments, neglected villas, ghostly back streets, and, above all, the fabled waters of the Bosphorus, he presents the interplay of his budding sense of place with that of his predecessors’. And he charts the evolution of a rich, sometimes macabre, imaginative life, which furnished a daydreaming boy refuge from family discord and inner turmoil, and which continued to serve the famous writer he became.

About the Author

Orhan Pamuk, born in Istanbul in 1952 into a well-to-do secular family, studied painting and architecture before becoming a writer. He is the author of seven novels and his work has been translated into more than forty languages. He lives in Istanbul.

Discussion Guides


“I can’t remember where I got this idea or how it came to me,” Pamuk writes, but from as early in life as he could remember he sensed the presence of a second self [p. 3]. When his aunt verified this notion by insisting that a strange boy in a photograph in her apartment was Orhan, the “ghost of the other Orhan” came to haunt him [pp. 4–5]. What interpretations might you suggest for this fascination with and fear of the double self? If you have read Pamuk’s fiction, which books does the story of “the other Orhan” bring to mind?


In saying “This book is concerned with fate” [p. 7], Pamuk suggests that fate consists largely in being born in a particular place at a particular time. If fate usually connotes a fixed course in life and a passive acceptance of circumstance, how does Pamuk, as a writer, manipulate his own fate? What does he make of the fate of being born an Istanbullu?


Why does Pamuk refer to his family-owned apartment building as “our bleak museum house” [p. 34]? What are the circumstances or physical details that convey the sense of bleakness or entrapment?


Readers familiar with Pamuk’s writing are aware of his delight in lists. What is the purpose of the list that runs from page 94 to page 99? What is its effect?


What do the photographs contribute to the book? Although the images come from a variety of sources, those of Ara Güler and those from the archives of Selahattin Giz are most numerous (see pp. 371–73). Do the photographs convey a certain mood or a certain perspective on Istanbul? What do they express about the city, particularly for readers who have never visited?


To what degree is Pamuk’s adult identity rooted in his childhood and adolescent experiences? If you have read Marcel Proust or other writers whose childhood memories are the source of their creative life, how does Pamuk’s writing compare?


How does nostalgia differ from memory? Throughout the book Pamuk expresses a painful nostalgia for the Istanbul of his past, as well as for the Istanbul that existed before he himself was born. What are the mixed emotions evident in the following passage: “To see the cypress trees, the dark woods in the valleys, the empty and neglected yalis, and the old weathered ships with their rusty hues and mysterious cargoes, to see—as only those who have spent their lives on these shores can—the poetry of the Bosphorus ships and yalis, to discard historical grievances and enjoy it as fully as a child, to long to know more about this world, to understand it—this is the awkward surrender to uncertainty that a fifty-year-old writer has come to know as pleasure” [p. 56]?


Pamuk is interested in the way that a place becomes part of a person, and believes that neither he nor his art would be the same without his having lived in Istanbul throughout his life: “There are writers like Nabokov and Naipaul and Conrad who exchanged their civilizations and nations and even languages. It is a very cherished and fashionable idea in literature and so in a sense I am embarrassed that I have done none of this. I have lived virtually in the same street all my life and I currently live in the apartment block where I was brought up. But this is how it has to be for me and this is what I do” [“Occidental Hero,” The Guardian (London), May 8, 2004]. Consider Pamuk in comparison both to writers who stayed home—like Flannery O’Connor and Jorge Luis Borges—and writers who left home for most of their lives—like James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. What are the relative advantages of lifelong immersion in one’s native city and culture versus lifelong exile for a writer’s work?


Does it seem that Pamuk possesses an extraordinarily extensive memory for the scenes and events he experienced as a child? Is it possible that children are far more sensitive to their surroundings than adults? If so, why?


For a person so rooted in his native culture, is Pamuk also alienated, in certain ways, from Turkish culture? What are the causes of his alienation? How does his status as a writer of international fame contribute to his isolation?


The concept of hüzün is perhaps the most important idea in the book. The sense of melancholy, of paralysis, of having been left behind by modernity, exists in many cultures—it even pervades James Joyce’s Dubliners. What is the cause of hüzün in Istanbul? Does this phenomenon have different causes and different manifestations in different cultures?


In an interview, Pamuk described the dual urges behind the writing of Istanbul: “Walter Benjamin says there are two kinds of city writing: those books written by people who come from outside, who tend to look for the exotic, and those written by the people who have lived in the city, which tend to be autobiographical. So I thought, why don’t I go ahead and write a book that would be ambitious as autobiography, and also ambitious as a strange essay about the town? I thought that if I tried to do this, I would find something new. And this is my attempt” [“A City of Constant Melancholy,” The Irish Times, April 23, 2005]. Does Istanbul come across as “something new” in its merging of two genres?


How does Pamuk relate himself to the four Turkish writers—Kemal, Tanpinar, Hisar, and Koçu—he discusses in chapter 11?


Pamuk notes that Antoine-Ignace Melling, who created beautiful scenes of Istanbul, was a European. What happens when Western visitors to Istanbul romanticize the city, and when natives see themselves and their city through Western eyes? What does Pamuk mean when he writes, “the roots of . . . hüzün are European” [p. 233]?


Pamuk is aware that his family was a privileged one that has come down in the world. He writes, “It was a long time coming . . . but the cloud of gloom and loss spread over Istanbul by the fall of the Ottoman Empire had finally claimed my family too” [p. 17]. How does his family history affect his view of himself and his city? How does his status as an internationally known writer affect his identity as an Istanbullu?


In chapter 5, “Black and White,” Pamuk writes, “To see the city in black and white is to see it through the tarnish of history: the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world. Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease” [pp. 39–40]. Is such a vision full of opportunities for a writer like Pamuk? How does the relative world-historical significance of his native land affect a writer’s creative outlook?


Speaking of the scenic paintings by Antoine-Ignace Melling, Pamuk says, “At times when I was most desperate to believe in a glorious past . . . I found Melling’s engravings consoling. But even as I allow myself to be transported, I am aware that part of what makes Melling’s paintings so beautiful is the sad knowledge that what they depict no longer exists. Perhaps I look at these paintings precisely because they make me sad” [p. 63]. Is this ability to take pleasure in melancholy perhaps a major reason that Pamuk has remained in Istanbul when many other writers might have left?


Pamuk has said, “It seems if you write fiction [in the West] your nationality is not that important, but if you write fiction in this part of the world your nationality and, even worse, ethnicity are important. When an English writer writes about a love affair he writes about humanity’s love affair, but when I write about a love affair I am only talking about a Turk’s love affair” [“Occidental Hero,” The Guardian (London), May 8, 2004]. Is this an accurate judgment of how non-Western writers are viewed by the West?


Orhan Pamuk Reader’s Companion
Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the first Turkish author to receive the award. He is the overall bestselling author in his homeland and his books have been published in more than fifty languages. This guide is designed to help you explore Pamuk’s world and writings, whether your group chooses to read all of his works or to focus on his acclaimed novels or engaging nonfiction titles.
Born in Istanbul in 1952, Pamuk grew up in a well-to-do, Western-oriented family. As a child he attended private schools and dreamed of becoming an artist. He began his studies at Istanbul Technical University in architecture, but at the age of twenty-two switched to journalism, taking the first step in his career as a writer. Pamuk’s first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons, the story of three generations of a Turkish family, was published in Turkey in 1982. The White Castle, the first of his novels to be translated into English, takes place in seventeenth-century Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) and explores the meeting between East and West, a theme that recurs throughout Pamuk’s writing career. The White Castle also introduced a deeper, more personal interest, one that imbues in his works of fiction and nonfiction alike: the relationship between dreams and reality, memory and imagination.
In his early years as a writer, Pamuk spent five years in residence at Columbia University, where he now holds a position as a visiting professor. In the autobiographical profile he wrote for the Nobel Prize committee, Pamuk reflected on his time as a visiting scholar at Columbia and the influence that had on his evolution as a writer: “I was thirty-three years old . . . and asking myself hard questions about who I was, and about my history. . . . During my time in New York, my longing for Istanbul mixed with my fascination for the wonders of Ottoman, Persian, Arab, and Islamic culture” (copyright © The Nobel Foundation, 2006). For much of those five years, Pamuk devoted himself to writing The Black Book, a strikingly original novel that weaves multiple voices and beguiling stories about Istanbul, past and present, into a modern-day detective story.
In his next novel, The New Life, Pamuk once again transformed the conventions of mystery into an intellectual adventure, creating a world in which a mysterious book, a fleeting romance, and conspiracies real and imagined wreak havoc on a university student’s life and his sense of identity. Set in the sixteenth century, My Name Is Red revisits Turkey’s rich and complex Ottoman past in a fascinating tale about the impact of Western art and aesthetics on an Islamic society that stifled individual creativity and strictly prohibited the creation of representational paintings.
As Pamuk’s fame grew throughout the 1990s, journalists in Turkey and abroad looked to him for elucidation on the political situation in his homeland and its relations with the West. Troubled by the changes occurring in Turkey, Pamuk wrote Snow, his first overtly political novel. A thought-provoking, witty, and balanced portrait of the rise of political Islamism, Snow was widely read and discussed in Turkey and became an international bestseller. The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk’s newest work of fiction, examines the nature of romantic attachment and the mysterious allure of collecting as it traces a wealthy man’s lifetime obsession with the lower-class woman he had loved and abandoned as a young man.
Collected essays, articles, and autobiographical sketches
Now in his late fifties, Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul in the same apartment building he grew up in. His deep attachment to the city is beautifully captured in Istanbul: Memories and the City, a combination of childhood memoir and journey into Istanbul life through his own eyes and those of painters and writers (including European visitors like the German artist Antoine-Ignace Melling and the French writers Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert); enhanced with photographs, it illuminates the personal and artistic influences on his work. Other Colors showcases the range and depth of Pamuk’s interests. There are short, lyrical pieces about his personal life collected under the apt and intriguing title “Living and Worrying”; critical essays on literary figures such as Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, Vargas Llosa, and Rushdie, along with assessments of several of his own novels; and commentaries on a wide variety of political and cultural matters. A captivating collection, Other Colors provides fresh insights into the mind and imagination of one of today’s most notable writers.
A political drama and the recognition of Pamuk’s contributions to literature
In an interview with a Swiss newspaper in February 2005, Pamuk denounced the Ottoman massacre of millions Armenians in 1915 and the slaughter of thirty thousand Kurds in Turkey during the 1990s. His comments caused a furor in Turkey: several newspapers launched campaigns against him and he was officially charged with the crime of “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.” Facing death threats, Pamuk moved abroad. He returned to face a trial and the possibility of three years of imprisonment; the charges were dropped on a technicality in January 2006. The incident reverberated internationally, highlighting the conflict between anti-European nationalism in Turkey and the government’s campaign to join the European Union. It exposed, as well, the simmering distrust of—and sometimes blatant hostility toward—Muslim populations in the United States and Europe.
In awarding Orhan Pamuk the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, the Swedish 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.” Pamuk’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “My Father’s Suitcase” (Other Colors, pages 403–17), offers a more personal explanation of why he became a writer and what he hopes to accomplish:

It was only by writing books that I came to a fuller understanding of the problems of authenticity (as in My Name Is Red and The Black Book) and the problems of life on the periphery (as in Snow and Istanbul). For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us. . . . My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble one other, that others carry wounds like mine—that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble one another.
For discussion
1.     Have Pamuk’s books changed your perceptions of Turkey? What insights do they offer into the country’s history and place in the world? 

2.     Have his books given you a deeper understanding of the Muslim world? Have they altered your opinion about the current situation in the Middle East and other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion? Have you become more or less sympathetic?

3.     Pamuk’s novels range over a wide span of time, from the sixteenth century (My Name Is Red) to the present day (Snow). Compare your reactions to the historical novels and the contemporary works. Which do you prefer and why?

4.     In these books what impact do the tensions between Eastern and Western beliefs and customs have on individual lives, on the relations between classes and ethnic groups, or on political debates? What competing ideologies (or ways of thinking) affect the characters’ behavior and emotional responses? Consider the ethical, religious, and social dilemmas individuals face and how they resolve them.

5.     Snow is prefaced by epigraphs from Robert Browning, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, and Joseph Conrad. How does each of them apply not only to Snow, but also to the other Pamuk books you have read? Citing specific passages, how would you characterize the author’s feelings about Western attitudes toward the Muslim world?

6.     What role do perceptions—or misperceptions—about Islamic law and religious customs play in the assumptions Westerners make about Muslims? Are there current controversies in the United States or Europe that support your view?

7.     Do Pamuk’s depictions of the relationships between men and women conform to your impressions of romance, marriage, and family life in a Muslim society? How are women presented in the historical novels? In what ways do the women in the novels set in the present (or in the recent past) embody both traditional female roles and the new opportunities they have to express their opinions and act on their beliefs?

8.     Istanbul opens with an essay about Pamuk’s feelings as a child that “somewhere in the streets of Istanbul . . . there lived another Orhan so much like me that he could pass for my own twin, even my double” (page 3). Many reviewers, including John Updike, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and Charles McGrath, have written about what McGrath calls “an enduring Pamuk preoccupation: the idea of doubleness or split identity” (New York Times, October 13, 2006). Can you find examples of doubleness in the books you have read, and if so, what do these add to the story? What insights do they reveal about Pamuk’s own sense of identity?

9.     What techniques does Pamuk use to bring his characters, real and fictional, to life? How do his descriptions of settings, manners, and other everyday details enhance the portraits he creates? What use does he make of humor, exaggeration, and other stylistic flourishes in his depictions of particular situations, conversations, musings, and arguments?

10.     Pamuk employs many of the literary devices associated with postmodern and experimental fiction. (McGrath, for example, notes his use of “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . .”). In what ways do his books echo Italo Calvino’s allegorical fantasies? What do they share with the writings of Jorge Luis Borges and other magical realists? What aspects of his literary style can be traced to earlier masters of innovative fiction like Kafka and Nabokov?

11.     In an essay on the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa in Other Colors, Pamuk writes, “It is clear . . . that there is a sort of narrative novel that is particular to the countries of the Third World. Its originality has less to do with the writer’s location than with the fact that he knows he is writing far from the world’s literary centers and he feels this distance inside himself” (page 168). Discuss how this manifests itself in Pamuk’s own works, as well as the works of Vargas Llosa and other authors writing from the Third World. Are there creative advantages to living and writing “far from the world’s literary centers”?

12.     Pamuk writes in Istanbul of authors who left their homelands—Conrad, Nabokov, Naipaul: “Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots, but through rootlessness” (page 6). If you have read the works of these writers, or other authors in exile, do you agree that their books reflect—in style or in content—the effects of living in a new, foreign culture? To what extent is Pamuk’s writing rooted in the storytelling traditions of Eastern cultures? In what ways does it show the influence of his early exposure to Western literature, his participation in international literary circles, and his longtime association with American academia?

13.     Despite the many differences between the societies Pamuk describes and our own, why do his characters and their behavior resonant with contemporary English-speaking readers? Are there aspects of Turkish mores that make it difficult to sympathize or engage with the characters in the novels? Do these factors also influence your reactions to his autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, and cultural observations in both Other Colors and Istanbul?

14.     How does Pamuk’s personal history, as well as the plots of some novels, mirror the complicated history of Turkey? Consider such topics as: the decline and dissolution of the once powerful Ottoman Empire; the sweeping changes initiated by Atatürk in the 1920s; the conflicting desires to preserve Turkey’s distinctive heritage and to become more active in the global community; and the rise of fundamentalist Islam throughout Middle East today.

15.     In discussing the importance of novels, Pamuk says, “Modern societies, tribes, and nations do their deepest thinking about themselves by reading novels; through reading novels, they are able to argue about who they are” (Other Colors, page 233). Do you agree? What can novels provide that nonfiction books and other media do not?
Suggestions for further reading
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy; Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss; Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground; Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum; Franz Kafka, The Castle; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Milan Kundera, Immortality; Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy; Gabriel García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; Vladimir Nabokov, Ada; V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
Pamuk’s works are available in Vintage paperback editions (listed here in order of their first translation into English): The White Castle; The New Life; My Name Is Red; The Black Book; Snow; Istanbul; Other Colors; The Museum of Innocence


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

André Aciman, Out of Egypt; Edmondo de Amicis, Constantinople; Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions; Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Le Corbusier, Journey to the East; Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt; Théophile Gautier, Constantinople; Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon; Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights; Lawrence Kelly, A Traveler's Companion to Istanbul; Knopf Guide: Istanbul; Gérard de Nerval, Journey to the Orient; Jennifer Radden, The Nature of Melancholy: From Aristotle to Kristeva; Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book; Edward Said, Orientalism; Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory; Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time; Mary Wortley, Lady Montagu and The Turkish Embassy Letters.

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