Turkish Novelist Wins Nobel Prize

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

The Nobel Prize for literature was awarded yesterday to Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who the Nobel Foundation said has "devoted his life to the study of mixture and plurality."

"This is a flattering recognition of my work as a novelist for the past 32 years," Pamuk said in a telephone interview, and also "a celebration of Turkish language and culture, of which I am a part."

Pamuk's novels, the best known of which are "Snow" and "My Name Is Red," evoke modern Turkey's complex blending of westernized culture and Ottoman tradition. It is a mix, Pamuk said, that puts the lie to the simplistic notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West.

"That is a fanciful, very dangerous idea," he said, "and so many people have been killed" because of it. His writing career, he added, is a testament to the fact that East and West can meet rather than clash.

Last year, Pamuk was charged by Turkish authorities with the "public denigrating of Turkish identity" after he spoke to a Swiss newspaper about official silence surrounding the massacre of more than a million Armenians by Turks in 1915 and the death of tens of thousands of southeast Turkey's Kurdish minority in more recent conflicts with Turkish forces.

Pamuk's case was greatly magnified by the fact that Turkey has been seeking to join the European Union, which looks with disfavor on this kind of restraint on free speech. The charges against him were later dropped. But numerous less well-known writers, publishers, scholars and others in Turkey have been similarly charged as part of a what some observers see as a campaign orchestrated by Turkish nationalists to keep the country out of the EU.

Ron Chernow, president of the PEN American Center -- which works to defend free expression worldwide -- said yesterday that he applauded Pamuk both "as an admiring reader" and because Pamuk has been "willing to defy those who would silence free speech."

At a news conference yesterday on the campus of Columbia University, where he is currently a visiting scholar, Pamuk deflected questions about politics. "This is a time for celebration," he said. But in the telephone interview, he said bluntly that "Turkey's future lies in the European Union," adding that its inclusion would be "a wonderful thing for Turkey, for Europe and for the world."

Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952, part of a large and well-to-do family, and he grew up dreaming that he would be a painter. But at age 23, he decided to write instead. Although it took him many years to achieve publication, he has never held another kind of job.

He is "a magnificent writer" who "really works hard -- he does tremendous research," said Walter Andrews, a professor in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department at the University of Washington. But Andrews, who has known Pamuk since coaching him in basketball in Istanbul ("he was pretty good") when Pamuk was a scrawny teenager, also points to a context for Pamuk's success he thinks most Americans don't understand.

"Turkey is a place full of really excellent writers, poets and literary critics," Andrews says. Compared with Americans, Turkish people are hugely interested in literature and culture, and Pamuk has "pushed to the top" internationally "because there's a base" for his achievements.

Maureen Freely, who has translated several of Pamuk's books, agreed. She called Pamuk "by far the most brilliant writer in that society," but noted that Istanbul is the kind of place where even non-literary professionals tend to read in several languages.

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