Turkish novelist wins Nobel

Political activism has drawn attention

October 13, 2006|By Tracy Wilkinson and Laura King | Tracy Wilkinson and Laura King,Los Angeles Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Not so long ago, novelist Orhan Pamuk faced imprisonment in his homeland of Turkey. Yesterday, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for novels of rich melancholy that evoke what the Swedish Academy called "new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

A best-selling and provocative author in Turkey who has steadily gained an international following, Pamuk is also seen by his supporters as a courageous, if sometimes reluctant, champion for the cause of free expression.

Speaking from New York, where he is teaching at Columbia University, Pamuk said, "This is first of all an honor bestowed upon the Turkish language, Turkish culture and Turkey itself, as well as on my writings ... which I produced solitary in my room."

Pamuk waved off several questions about the political impact of his award.

"This is a day for celebrating, for being positive. It is not a day for making political comments," he said. "My writing shows that East and West can combine; that is what we have to wish for, to hope for," he said. "The fact that the image of Turkish culture does not exist in Western literature doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

In novels such as My Name is Red and Snow, Pamuk, 54, sets modern struggles over personal, cultural and political identity against backdrops of Turkey's tortured Ottoman past, its wars and the majestic beauty of his native Istanbul.

He subtly draws attention to some of the darkest chapters in Turkey's history and infuses his writing with mystical symbols and legends while invoking contemporary clashes between East and West, Islam and secularism - the essence of Turkey's own evolution.

While Pamuk's narrative artistry is widely praised, it is his political activism (which he contends was thrust upon him) that has drawn exceptional attention recently - and which many Turks suspect was behind the Swedish Academy's decision.

In December, Pamuk was put on trial for "insulting the Turkishness" of his country. The charges stemmed from an interview with a Swiss newspaper in which he spoke of the massacres in Turkey of Armenians and Kurds - topics traditionally taboo in nationalist Turkey.

"Thirty-thousand Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it," he said in the interview.

Turkey does not recognize the early 20th century slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide and has long battled separatist aspirations among its Kurdish minority. Pamuk later pointed out that he was not offering a definitive contradiction of the official version of history but urging that the matters be discussed.

In his trial, he said he did not insult Turkey. "But what if it is wrong?" he said. "Right or wrong, do people not have the right to express their ideas peacefully?"

Within a few months, the case was dropped on a technicality. But it came at an especially delicate time, when Turkey had embarked on negotiations to be allowed to join the European Union as its first Muslim member.

In Pamuk's home city of Istanbul, which he so lyrically evokes in his writings, word of the prize spread quickly yesterday. Afternoon newspapers carried front-page articles, and his name was sprinkled in conversations aboard commuter ferryboats plying the Golden Horn and at kebab restaurants where people gathered in the evening to break the Ramadan fast.

Many Turks, though, greeted the news with mixed feelings. While the awarding of such a prestigious honor was seen as a national achievement, it also intensified the sense of being under international siege over the issue of the Armenian genocide.

"Of course, we are proud that this prize would go to a Turk," said Gunel Altintas, a poet. "But it's a political decision, too, and so it is very difficult in many ways for us to accept."

Tracy Wilkinson and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

Novels and Memoirs from Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk had been writing for nearly two decades before popular success came to him. His earliest novels were mostly conventional, but with the publication of The Black Book in 1990, Pamuk marked a change that has been characteristic of his work ever since. Dispensing with predictable narrative techniques, the following books provide a rich sense of Pamuk as a storyteller and an outspoken commentator on politics, past and present.

The Black Book: A Novel (1990) - Galip is a plodding lawyer searching the streets of Istanbul for his restless wife, Riya. Her fascination with detective novels and her attraction to her half-brother are tip-offs that Galip's quest is going to be a difficult, painful one: His search takes him deep into the city's history and results in a plot that is, in the fullest sense of the word, Byzantine.

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