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Thursday, October 12, 2006 - Page updated at 10:09 AM

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Turkey's Orhan Pamuk wins Nobel literature prize

The Associated Press

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whose uncommon lyrical gifts and uncompromising politics have brought him acclaim worldwide and prosecution at home, won the Nobel literature prize today for his works dealing with the symbols of clashing cultures.

The selection of Pamuk, whose recent trial for "insulting Turkishness" raised concerns about free speech in Turkey, continues a trend among Nobel judges of picking writers in conflict with their own governments. British playwright Harold Pinter, a strong opponent of his country's involvement in the Iraq war, won last year. Elfriede Jelinek, a longtime critic of Austria's conservative politicians and social class, was the 2004 winner.

Pamuk, currently a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he was overjoyed by the award, adding that remarks he made earlier this year referring to the Nobel literature prize as "nonsense" were a mistranslation.

He told AP that he accepted the prize as not "just a personal honor, but as an honor bestowed upon the Turkish literature and culture I represent."

The author did have one complaint: The Swedish Academy announced the prize at 7 a.m., EDT.

"They called and woke me up, so I was a bit sleepy," said Pamuk, adding that he had no immediate plans to celebrate, but looked forward to being with friends back in Turkey.

Pamuk, whose novels include "Snow" and "My Name is Red," was charged last year for telling a Swiss newspaper in February 2005 that Turkey 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 told the newspaper.

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 criticized the trial.

The charges against Pamuk were dropped in January, ending the high-profile trial that outraged Western observers.

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The Swedish Academy said that the 54-year-old Istanbul-born Pamuk "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

In Turkey, fellow novelists, poets and publishers were among the first to congratulate Pamuk, but nationalists who regard the novelist as a traitor accused the Swedish Academy of rewarding the author because he had belittled Turks.

"The prize came as no surprise, we were expecting it," said Kemal Kerincsiz, a nationalist lawyer who helped bring charges against Pamuk. "This prize was not given because of Pamuk's books, it was given because of his words, because of his Armenian genocide claims."

Turkey's Foreign Ministry congratulated Pamuk, wishing him continued success and saying the prize would help give Turkish literature a wider audience abroad.

Prominent Armenian writers also hailed the decision to award a Nobel to Pamuk.

"This a lesson to those Turks who wanted to put him on trial. This is a victory for democracy in Turkey," said Perch Zeituntsian, a leading Armenian writer and playwright, speaking in Yerevan, Armenia.

The head of Armenia's Union of Writers, David Muradian, said the decision to award Pamuk the Nobel prize sends a strong message. "This is a both a literature prize and about morality."

The head of the PEN American Center, the U.S. chapter of the international writers-human rights organization, also praised Pamuk's selection.

"I think that Orhan Pamuk was a splendid choice for the Nobel Prize, not only for the evident literary merit of his work, but because of his courageous defiance of political pieties in Turkey," said historian Ron Chernow, the chapter's president.

Academy head Horace Engdahl said Pamuk's political situation in Turkey had not affected the decision.

"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 was selected because he had "enlarged the roots of the contemporary novel" through his links to both Western and Eastern culture.

"This means that he has stolen the novel, one can say, from us Westerners and has transformed it to something different from what we have ever seen before," Engdahl said.

Earlier Thursday, 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 spoken up for other writers in peril. He was the first Muslim writer to defend Salman Rushdie when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned Rushdie to death because of "The Satanic Verses," a satire of the Prophet Muhammad published in 1989. Pamuk has also been supportive of Kurdish rights.

Pamuk himself had little religious upbringing. Growing up in Istanbul, his extended family was wealthy and privileged — his grandfather was an industrialist and built trains for the new nation. Religion, Pamuk has said, was considered to be something for the poor and the provincial.

Instead, Pamuk was educated at the American school, Robert College, founded in the 1860s by secular Americans, where half the classes were taught in English. Among the Turkish graduates are prime ministers and corporate executives.

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 other languages, including English, French, Swedish and German.

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

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.

In winning the prize, Pamuk will likely see new interest in his work, although there was little increase in sales for Jelinek and Pinter. Pamuk will also receive a $1.4 million check, a gold medal and diploma, and an invitation to a lavish banquet in Stockholm on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of prize founder Alfred Nobel.

Associated Press writer Mattias Karen contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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