Pamuk Wins Nobel Literature Prize

For the third consecutive year the Swedish Academy honours a writer who has criticised their home country, both in print and in public

Matt Moore
Karl Ritter


Novelist Orhan Pamuk, whose prosecution for "insulting Turkishness" raised concerns about suppression of free speech in Turkey, won the Nobel literature prize on October 12 for his works that focus on the symbols of clashing cultures.

Turkish author Orhan Pamuk

The Academy's decision honoured a writer whose attempts to bridge Turkey's past with a future tied to Europe and the West has resulted in trials and condemnations on grounds of "insulting Turkishness."

Pamuk, an incendiary social commentator and the first writer in the Muslim world to condemn a fatwa levelled at Salman Rushdie by Iran, has been roundly supported by the west and writers for taking a stand in ensuring that the killing of scores of Armenians during and after World War I at the hands of Turkey be known.

He was charged last year and faced the threat of prison for telling a Swiss newspaper in February 2005 that his homeland was unwilling to deal with two of the most painful episodes in recent Turkish history: the massacre of Armenians during World War I, which Turkey insists was not a planned genocide, and recent guerrilla fighting in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast.

"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, a statement he never disavowed. Earlier this year, the charges were dropped. The controversy came at a particularly sensitive time for the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Turkey had recently begun membership talks with the European Union, which has harshly criticised the trial, questioning Turkey's commitment to freedom of expression.

The award was the third consecutive year that the Swedish Academy has honoured a writer who has criticised their home country, both in print, and in public. Last year's winner, Briton Harold Pinter called for Prime Minister Tony Blair to be impeached, while the 2004 winner, Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, criticised the treatment of women in her country.

Kemal Kerincsiz, who leads a group of ultra-nationalist lawyers that helped bring the charges against Pamuk, said he was ashamed Pamuk had been honoured with a Nobel. "I don't believe this prize was given for his books or for his literary identity," Kerincsiz said. "It was given because he belittled our national values, for his recognition of the genocide."

Horace Engdahl, the head of the Swedish Academy, which has decided the winner of every literature prize since 1901, said the selection of Pamuk was not influenced by his political squabbles in Turkey. "It could of course lead to some political turbulence but we are not interested in that," Engdahl said. "He is a controversial person in his own country, but on the other hand so are almost all of our prize winners." He said Pamuk, a non-practising Muslim, was selected because he had "enlarged the roots of the contemporary novel" through his links to both Western and Eastern culture.

Earlier on October 12, French lawmakers in the National Assembly in Paris approved a bill making it a crime to deny that the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during and after World War I amounted to genocide, a move that has infuriated Turkey. Pamuk has long been considered a contender for the Nobel prize and he figured high among pundits and bookmakers. His works, written in Turkish, have been translated into languages including English, French, Swedish and German.

Pamuk's prize marked the first time that a writer from a predominantly Muslim country has been honoured for literature since 1988, when the award went to Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, who died in August.

"This is a historic moment," said Turkish novelist Adalet Agaoglu. Writer Cetin Tuzuner said that Pamuk's honour would help other writers from Turkey. "Pamuk will be a locomotive, he will open the way for other writers," he said. "Turkish writers will find their place in literature."

In its citation, the academy said that "Pamuk has said that growing up, he experienced a shift from a traditional Ottoman family environment to a more Western-oriented lifestyle. He wrote about this in his first published novel, a family chronicle... which in the spirit of Thomas Mann follows the development of a family over three generations."

"Pamuk's international breakthrough came with his third novel, The White Castle. It is structured as an historical novel set in 17th-century Istanbul, but its content is primarily a story about how our ego builds on stories and fictions of different sorts. Personality is shown to be a variable construction," the academy said.

"This is an author that creates an immediate and almost childish joy of reading," Engdahl said.


(Posting date 24 October 2006)

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