Reading Group Center


By Orhan Pamuk

“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.


“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