Bittersweet Nobel for Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk

Man Without a Country: A Feeling of Detachment is Central to Pamuk’s Writing, a Rift Between a Nationalist Society and the Individual Striving for Self Actualization

Writer Orhan Pamuk is a divisive figure in Turkey. The first Turk ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, his award has divided his countrymen and renewed the debate on Turkey’s place in the European Union.

Orhan Pamuk: “I am the only one willing to say that a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were murdered in Turkey.” | Photo: Orhan Pamuk

In spite of the honour, many of his countrymen are anything but proud of him. The naming is seen as politically motivated rather than deserved for literary achievements.

In the past, people say, he has often refused to comment on political issues, no matter how pressed to do so by the media. So now he comes across as an opportunist, a man willing to sell his political perspective when it suits his convenience.

“I want to be recognised for my writing, not my political opinions,” he has said repeatedly. Yet two years ago, the author changed his mind in an interview to a Swiss newspaper and touched upon the taboo topic of Turkish history: The genocide of Armenians in 1915 and the persecution of Kurds by the state.

Why do so many people dislike him? “Because I am the only one willing to say that a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were murdered in Turkey,” he replied.

The government sued Pamuk in 2005 for defaming the Turkish state, applying Article 301 introduced in the summer of 2005 that prohibits anyone from insulting “Turkishness,” the Republic or the Grand National Assembly, causing the already controversial author to be shunned further.

Although the charge was dropped after the first hearing in January, a shadow remained after Pamuk appeared on an interview on CNN-Turk, when he denied that he had accused the Turks of genocide, claiming he fell victim to a defamation campaign.

While denying that he is a political writer, Pamuk admits to leftist leanings. Yet while the campus of his architectural college was home to militant Marxist sympathisers, these never really had any substantial influence on him.

“I never joined any [of these Marxist factions] and I would go home and read Virginia Woolf,” Pamuk explains on his web site. “Although I had my sympathies, I saved my spirits by reading Faulkner and Mann and Proust. I felt guilty, but I also felt they were more interesting.”

When the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie was proclaimed, Pamuk, along with two other Turkish authors were among the first to speak out against the sentence.  And following the publication of his enormously successful novel The New Life, Pamuk agreed to hawk a Kurdish newspaper on the street after their offices were bombed.

Pamuk acknowledges that being a literary figure in a society like modern-day Turkey bonds a person even more to their homeland, melding individual and collective success, and reflecting his work from an ethnic, as much as a humanistic perspective.

“I was surprised that the word Turk was used as a sort of synonym for my name. Instead of writing ‘Pamuk says this or that’ they wrote ‘this Turkish author said this or that.’ It did upset me a little,” he admits, “It seems if you write fiction [in the West] your nationality is not that important, but if you write fiction in this part of the world your nationality and, even worse, ethnicity are important. When an English writer writes about a love affair he writes about humanity’s love affair, but when I write about a love affair I am only talking about a Turk’s love affair.”

The feeling of detachment from Turkey is a topic Pamuk often stresses and elaborates in his novels. In his memoir Istanbul, the writer identifies the emotions of isolation that his hometown provokes, articulating the rift between the common, often nationalist, society and the individual striving towards a self-actualization impossible to achieve in a circle focusing on the collective.

“I’ve never wholly belonged to this city, and maybe that’s been the problem all along. Sitting in Grandmother’s apartment, drinking beer and liqueur with my family after a holiday feast, or tooling around the city on a winter’s day with my rich, would-be-playboy friends from Robert Academy in one of their father’s cars, I felt the same way I feel now if I’m walking the streets on a warm Spring afternoon; the idea rises up inside me that I’m worthless and belong nowhere, that I must distance myself from these people and go hide in a corner – an almost animal instinct – but it’s the desire to flee the very community that has opened its arms to me, it’s God all-seeing, all-forgiving gaze that induces such deep guilt… It was this greater community – where strangers address you as an elder citizen, where everyone said ‘we,’ as if the entire city was watching the same football match – from which I’d cut myself off.”

The local debate on Pamuk has now reached global dimensions, and the Academy’s choice is seen as a stab in the back by the West. Shortly before the Nobel judges’ announcement, the French state passed a law restricting public denouncement of the Armenian Genocide. Turkey was outraged over what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described as “none of France’s business.” The French action appeared puzzling at first, as no other Western European country has taken a position on the matter. However, with 450,000 French-Armenians living in the country and presidential elections coming up next year, some see the action as play for votes.

“I believe the Socialist party has adopted an electoralist point of view,” said socialist MP Jack Lang. The goal for this law, according to Lang “ is only to get the support of the Armenian community.”

The two incidents have come too close together to be a coincidence, and many Turks feel the latest developments are just another way of distancing Turkey from Europe and EU membership.  At home and abroad, Pamuk’s award was the spark that blew open the Armenian question. The high-circulation tabloid Hürriyet immediately denounced the Swedish Academy and Pamuk in its headline: “Armenian Shadow Over the Nobel Prize.”

In Turkey, students are taught from the earliest age that no genocide took place, and there are few diverging views.

In Armenia, a person can be held responsible for denying the atrocities ever occurred, while in neighbouring Turkey the law will hold anyone liable who claims that the Turkish state committed genocide.
The official position of Turkey is that killings did take place in the conflict between Ottoman forces and the Armenians, but that they do not amount to genocide.

Pamuk himself wants to break with Turkey, planning to spend more time in the US than in his homeland. This decision comes as no surprise to his critics.

“Now,” said Turkish poet Özdemir Ince, “everyone will say that even the great Nobel Prize winner Pamuk has recognised the genocide against the Armenians.”

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