Not so long ago, novelist Orhan Pamuk faced imprisonment in his homeland of Turkey. On Thursday, 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 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. 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 the 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 Turkish 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 evolution.
Pamuk’s narrative artistry is widely praised, but it is his political activism (which he contends was thrust upon him) that has drawn the most 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, under Article 301 of the state penal code. The charges stemmed from an interview with a Swiss newspaper in which he spoke of large-scale historical killings in Turkey of Armenians and of the deaths of Kurds in an ongoing military campaign against an insurgency -- topics traditionally taboo in his homeland.
“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.
The Turkish government does not recognize the early 20th century slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman forces as genocide, and it has long battled separatist aspirations among the nation’s Kurdish minority.
Pamuk later noted that he was not offering a definitive contradiction of the official version of history but urging that the matters be discussed.
At his trial, he said he had not insulted 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 talks to be allowed to join the European Union as its first Muslim member. The EU has demanded that Turkey fulfill numerous requirements, including improving its human rights record and assuring freedom of speech and worship.
The Pamuk case drew the most attention, but it was one of dozens involving writers, publishers and scholars who have faced and still face prosecution on similar charges of insulting national identity.
“The hardest thing was to explain why a country officially committed to entry in the European Union would wish to imprison an author whose books were well-known in Europe, and why it felt compelled to play out this drama (as Conrad might have said) ‘under Western eyes,’ ” Pamuk wrote in the New Yorker magazine during the trial.
“What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk worldwide?”
Here in Istanbul, which Pamuk lyrically evokes in his writings, word of the prize spread quickly. Afternoon newspapers carried front-page articles, and his name was sprinkled in conversations aboard commuter ferries plying the Golden Horn and at kebab restaurants where people gathered in the evening to break the Ramadan fast.
However, many Turks greeted the news with mixed feelings. Though Pamuk’s 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.”
Right-wing nationalists were furious. “The prize was not given to Pamuk for being a writer, nor to his works,” said Kemal Kerincsiz, a lawyer who heads a conservative group that has advocated prosecution of Pamuk and other authors. “He was given the award for directly insulting the Turkish nation.”
Pamuk’s Turkish publisher, Iletisim, hailed his win. Editor Bahar Siber acknowledged that Pamuk’s work was controversial, but she said those who accuse him of being a traitor do not understand his writing.
“In my view, he hasn’t attacked the national identity,” she said. “He expresses his political thoughts freely and has been attacked for that, but he is stimulating discussion of themes that Turkey needs to discuss.”
Erdag Goknar, an assistant professor at Duke University who has translated works including “My Name Is Red,” said the hours he spent closeted with Pamuk as the two collaborated on the translation offered insights into the character of a man who often appears shy and aloof. “He’s brilliant, very cerebral, and can be extremely intense and serious,” Goknar said. “But then he will make some silly joke and laugh so hard at his own silly joke that you can’t help laughing too.”
Pamuk is the first writer from a predominantly Muslim country to win the literature prize since Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz did in 1988. Mahfouz died in August.
Pamuk, who was born into a prosperous secular Turkish family, is an emphatic defender of Turkey’s secularism and advocates the country’s entry into the EU. But he surprised some of his fans with “Snow.” In the novel, set in the remote Turkish city of Kars in the 1990s, Pamuk shows sympathy for a group of Muslim girls who commit suicide rather than give up their head scarves.
“I’m not interested in a blanket condemnation of all Islamists as evil, as is often the case in the West,” he told a German interviewer last year. “At the same time, I am critical of the Islamist perception of the secularists as undignified imitators of the loathed West. I want to destroy the cliches cultivated by both sides. This is what I perceive as the task of a political novel.”
King reported from Istanbul and Wilkinson from Rome. Times staff writer Josh Getlin in New York contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Storyteller and commentator
Orhan Pamuk had been writing for nearly two decades before popular success came to him. His earliest novels -- “Darkness and Light,” “The Silent House” and “The White Castle” -- were mostly conventional, but the 1990 publication of “The Black Book” marked a change that has been characteristic of Pamuk’s work since. Dispensing with predictable narrative techniques, the following novels provide a rich sense of Pamuk as storyteller and outspoken commentator on politics, past and present. .
“The Black Book” (1990) -- Galip is a plodding lawyer searching the streets of Istanbul for his restless wife, Ruya. Her fascination with detective novels and her attraction to her half-brother are tipoffs 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.
“The New Life” (1994) -- “I read a book one day and my whole life changed,” declares Osman, the 22-year-old Turkish student who narrates this novel. We never learn what the book is about (an example of Pamuk’s style of providing tantalizing but incomplete information), but its impact is so powerful that mysterious figures want to kill its readers. One strand of the story follows the killers’ pursuit of Osman and others, while another meditates on the influence of world literature in the writing of this novel -- which may or may not be the same book that changes Osman’s life.
“My Name Is Red” (1998) -- In the Ottoman world of 1591, we encounter Black, a painter of miniatures who’s helplessly in love with his beautiful cousin, Shekure. Although murder and intrigue are parts of the narrative, the heart of this novel has to do with the difficulties that faced artists who sought expression while adhering to the methods of past Islamic masters. Those masters exhorted followers to create art bearing no trace of individuality. Why? The dangers of personal expression are obvious, Satan tells God at one point in the story: "[T]his narcissism can only culminate in their forgetting you entirely.”
“Snow” (2002) -- Violence explodes in a small Turkish town on the eve of municipal elections. As secular officials clash with Islamic fundamentalists, a poor poet named Ka attempts to woo an old college classmate. Meanwhile, a heavy snow falls, speaking to the poet “of hopelessness and misery,” not innocence.
“Istanbul: Memories and the City” (2003) -- Part memoir and part city portrait, this book offers glimpses into Pamuk’s large, privileged family and the people who have inspired his development as an artist. The city itself, and the air of melancholy that Pamuk says hangs over everyone and everything, has also been crucial to the formation of his art. “Istanbul’s fate is my fate,” he says. “I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.”
* Birthplace: Istanbul
* Education: Graduated from Istanbul University, 1977
* Novels: “Cevdet Bey and His Sons” (1982), “The Silent House” (1983), “The White Castle” (1985), “The Black Book” (1990), “The New Life” (1994), “My Name Is Red” (1998), “Snow” (2002), “Istanbul: Memories and the City” (2003).
* Personal: Divorced, has one daughter
* Quote: “My political observations are about Turkey, because that’s what I know. I never asked for a political role ... it just happened to me.”
Times research by Scott Wilson