Turkey's best-selling writer Orhan Pamuk, the author of "My Name is Red" and "Snow," won the 2006 Nobel Literature Prize, becoming the first Turk to win the coveted award. A commentary by Stefan Weidner
At last! A Nobel Prize for Literature that makes a statement! A relatively young Nobel Prize Laureate who is in the middle of his creative literary period, whose work has not long since passed its zenith, and from whom we still have much to expect!
A Nobel Prize Laureate whose work we really want to read and not – with all due respect – a has-been dramatist à la Dario Fo or Harold Pinter, or a writer like Elfride Jelinek, who is more highly esteemed than actually read.
By giving the Nobel Prize to Orhan Pamuk, the Swedish Academy has done what it has shockingly failed to do over the past few years, namely to consciously use the award's noble reputation to focus the world's attention on literature, reading, and an incorruptible literary voice.
All of this has now come about. Literature as such has been pushed into the limelight because Pamuk is not a politician or a do-gooder in the guise of a writer, but a genuine and – let's tell it like it is – truly ingenious author. We read his books, not because he voices the right opinions, but because he seduces us into reading his stories and immersing ourselves in them.
We read his books because his stories are always much more than excitement and suspense; they are conquests, conquests of worlds that somehow have something to do with the everyday world in which we live, yet somehow manage to hide themselves from our view.
Pamuk's last two novels in particular, My Name Is Red and Snow, are not only as thrilling as murder mysteries, they also open our eyes to the gaping chasms of the Turkish soul, which is torn between Europe and the Orient. They demonstrate what literature can genuinely do in a media age that is saturated and dominated by images: of all media, literature is the most free and the one that best encapsulates the world.
Words and literature are both free and liberating at the same time. Pamuk has proven this point in recent years like no other author of his calibre. Even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he used the freedom that his reputation as a writer gave him to remind his fellow citizens in Turkey to start the self-critical process of coming to terms with their past and addressing the issue of the Armenian genocide.
While this earned him the fierce animosity of Turkish nationalists, it certainly didn't awe him. And it is a coincidence – albeit a happy one – that on the day that Pamuk was named winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and despite angry protests from Turkey, the French national assembly passed a bill making it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide.
Nevertheless, Pamuk proved last year when he accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt that he has no intention of dancing to the West's tune and no desire to run down Turkey. On this occasion, the critic of Turkey surprised many by speaking passionately about his homeland as an integral part of Europe and supporting the accession of Turkey to the EU.
This being the case, the decision announced yesterday in Stockholm turns out to be not only literarily sound, but also eminently political. The Nobel Prize Committee is making European politics: it is speaking out in favour of the accession of Turkey, against narrow-minded Turkish nationalism, and in support of the forces of balance and rapprochement on both sides.
But the cultural symbolism of the prize doesn't end there. After Mahfouz, Pamuk is only the second Muslim author to win the award, and one who writes in one of the major cultural languages of Islam. As well versed as he is in the ways of the world and as fluently as he speaks English, it is no coincidence that he writes in Turkish.
Pamuk considers himself to be part of the centuries-old tradition of Ottoman oriental literature and poetry. He plays with themes and forms that have been handed down in this tradition and cultivates them for the present day. It is this Ottoman heritage that makes Pamuk's writing so fascinating, not only for Turks, but equally so for western readers. And so, this Nobel Prize honours the great oriental tradition of storytelling that is reborn in Pamuk.
However, it does make one sorry for another worthy Nobel Prize candidate, the 77-year-old Arabic poet Adonis, who year after year is named as a likely candidate and year after year goes away empty handed. While it was galling that Adonis was not rewarded in previous years when significantly weaker candidates walked away with the honours, there is no real desire to accuse the committee of injustice this time around.
So let us repeat this wonderful piece of news: the Nobel Prize for literature is back! Even though it will not be easy for the Swedish Academy to repeat its success in choosing a candidate as deserving as this one, let us sincerely hope that this breath of fresh air from Stockholm will continue to blow for many years to come.
© Stefan Weidner 2006
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan