13 October 2006Elizabeth Davies
Turkey's leading writer and searing social commentator, whose refusal to shy from controversial aspects of his country's past enraged conservatives at home, has confounded his critics by winning the world's most prestigious literary prize.
Orhan Pamuk, who had faced jail for referring to the suffering of Turkey's Armenian population, has been awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, a choice widely seen as motivated by achievements in the political sphere as well as by his literary output.
"I am very happy and honoured," said Pamuk, who has written a string of critically acclaimed novels. "I am very satisfied. I will try to recover from this shock." The author, whose novels My Name is Red and Snow gained plaudits worldwide for their skilful intertwining of Eastern and Western cultures, has long been praised for his courageous tackling of modern Turkey's demons.
He has gained a reputation as a leading defender of freedom of speech in a country with aspirations to join the EU but a track-record of silencing those who confront certain long-held national taboos.
Nine months ago, Pamuk stood in the dock in an Istanbul court accused of insulting "Turkishness" by speaking openly about the suffering of Armenians at the hands of the Turks during the First World War. The charges were eventually dropped on a technicality after pressure from Brussels and the wider international community not to apply the law which makes it a crime to denigrate the national character. But the furore surrounding the case cemented Pamuk's image as a vigorous critic of the state.
Yesterday luminaries worldwide were lining up to congratulate the novelist, whose discovery of "new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures" was lauded by the Swedish Academy. Horace Engdahl, head of the Academy, said Pamuk had "enlarged the roots of the contemporary novel" through his links to both Western and Eastern culture. "His roots in two cultures allows him to take our own image and reflect it in a partially unknown and partially recognisable image, and it is incredibly fascinating."
Pamuk published his first novel, The White Castle, in 1991. Since then, he has found increasing critical and commercial success with works such as The Black Book and, most recently, his memoir Istanbul.
The majority of reaction, however, centred on the author's politics. Harold Pinter, the equally controversial recipient of last year's Nobel Prize for Literature, said he "couldn't be more delighted".
Activists and campaigners for social change all over Europe expressed their delight. Lisa Appignanesi, the deputy president of the human rights group English PEN, said: "He is a great writer. He has also been a brave one, speaking out for free expression in a country where certain factions would still rather that silence be maintained."
But the news that one of the most tenacious critics of modern Turkey has been catapulted into international literary stardom was unwelcome for many. Pamuk, through his comments on matters ranging from women wearing the veil to the Armenian question, is seen as a traitor by Turkey's conservatives.
Kemal Kerincsiz, head of a group of ultra-nationalist lawyers that helped bring the charges against Pamuk, said he was ashamed the author had been honoured with a Nobel. "I don't believe this prize was given for his books or for his literary identity," Mr Kerincsiz said. "It was given because he belittled our national values, for his recognition of the genocide."
The issue of the mass killings of Armenians during and after the First World War remains the ultimate taboo in modern Turkey and few dare to call it genocide, although it is a clear obstacle to EU accession.
Yesterday's announcement in Stockholm came within hours of the French National Assembly vote to approve a bill making it a crime to deny that the mass killings amounted to genocide. The move infuriated Turkey, with the government warning of imminent "retaliation," possibly in the form of a trade boycott.
In a statement, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said relations with France had been dealt a blow by "irresponsible false claims of French politicians who do not see the political consequences of their actions".
'I agreed joyously' Pamuk's statement
"I received word that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize early this morning by telephone. I was in bed in New York City. It was so dark that I thought it was the middle of the night. The phone rang, and it was Sarah Chalfant of The Wylie Agency, who told me that news of this award had been received in the agency's London office."
"I was told that the Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, would soon be calling me which in fact he did, a minute later; and he told me I'd received the Nobel Prize and that he was going to announce it in three minutes. He asked whether I would accept. And I agreed joyously first as a celebration of the Turkish language, of Turkish culture, which I'm a part of; and second, personally, I accepted this prize gratefully as a recognition of my 32 years of humble devotion to the great art of the novel."