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Outstanding - and outspoken - Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Writer recently occupied international spotlight not for his work but as a target of his country's prosecutors

His name has been floated for years now, with bookies often quoting the odds in his favor over a pack of strong contenders - including Syrian poet Adonis, American novelist Philip Roth, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, Mexico's Carlos Fuentes, Algeria's Assia Djebar and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa. But the coveted Nobel Prize for literature has eluded Orhan Pamuk - until now.

On Thursday, Turkey's leading novelist finally got the award, making him the first Nobel literature laureate from the Middle East - if one considers Turkey to be a part of the region, and this newspaper does - since the late Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, who won in 1988. (Israel's Shmuel Yosef Agnon split the Nobel with German poet and playwright Nelly Sachs in 1966. No Turkish writer has ever been honored in the prize's 105-year history).

Making the announcement at mid-day on Thursday, the Swedish Academy in Stockholm - charged with doling out the award and its attendant check for $1.36 million - praised Pamuk for discovering "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city ... new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

Pamuk has published one memoir - "Istanbul: Memories and the City" - and nine novels, five of which have been translated into English. Overall, his work has earned widespread critical acclaim and international recognition while finding its way into print in some 40 different languages.

That said, with the exception of a pirated translation from Syria of his first novel "Cavdet Bey," his work is not widely available in Arabic, and Pamuk himself has reportedly made a few disparaging remarks in the past about there being little need for such translations as so few Arabic speakers read novels.

However, outside literary circles and those who do, whatever the language, read novels, Pamuk is best known as the famous writer who went on trial in Turkey. In February 2005, he gave an interview to the Swiss publication Das Magazin, in which he declared: "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it." For that statement, a prosecutor named Turgay Evsen charged Pamuk with violating Article 301 of Turkey's controversial penal code, which prohibits public denigration of Turkish national identity, the republic or the national assembly.

In December 2005, Pamuk's trial stalled as soon as it started. The presiding judge, Metin Aydin, postponed the proceedings for two months on a technicality and eventually the entire case was dropped. Though he is known for his reclusive and introverted work ethic, Pamuk never ceases to speak out in defense of free speech and on behalf of lesser-known colleagues who, without the benefit of kicking up an international storm of ultra-nationalist protestors on one side and lemon-faced European Union observers on the other, have been or are being brought up on the same charges, particularly the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Another Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, went on trial for violating Article 301 last month. Her case, dropped for lack of evidence, had the rare distinction of being based entirely on the words Shafak put into the mouths of fictional characters in her novel "The Bastard of Istanbul."

Beyond his ability to puncture the often tough tissue of sociopolitical taboo, Pamuk is arguably unrivaled in his ability to capture the complexities of the Turkish psyche and, more broadly, the disappointments and depravations of those living in the developing - but not yet embraced as developed - world.

Pamuk is a brilliant literary stylist. He coils one story into another and then another, all in the space of a single page, often even a single paragraph. He crafts his novels into compelling, blood-rushing narratives of pursuit - his books are essentially detective stories shot-through with post-modern twists, turns, doubling backs and returns.

"Snow," his most recent novel to appear in English, follows the poet Ka to the remote Turkish city of Kars, where he is to report an investigative feature for a newspaper on a rash of suicides by so-called "headscarf girls." Really, though, he has traveled to this foreboding corner of the country to find his first love, Ipek. Just as he sits down with her in a cafe, a man one table over is shot to death in the chest, a victim of political assassination.

Yet the core of "Snow" is filled with a certain melancholy characteristic of all Pamuk's work. The poet Ka - secular, Western - wonders why people are growing so religious. He strains to understand but at the same time seems to seek an alternative source of spirituality - inseparable from the creativity of his craft - to either fill the gap of godlessness or protect him from the impulse to give up and go religious himself. (Pamuk, who was born to an elite family in Istanbul, has said in the past that members of his social class regard religion as the reserve of the poor and provincial).

Yet Pamuk's take on class division betrays no arrogance. Rather, it is part of a more mournful attempt to document and probe what is too often reduced to a clash of civilizations. In 2001, Pamuk penned one of the most cogent responses ever committed in print to the ways in which the attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the dynamic of global politics.

"The Western world is scarcely aware of [the] overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population," he wrote in The New York Review of Books. "This is the grim, troubled private sphere that neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom. And it is while living within this private sphere that most people in the world today are afflicted by spiritual misery.

"The problem facing the West is not only to discover which terrorist is preparing a bomb in which tent, which cave, or which street of which city, but also to understand the poor and scorned and 'wrongful' majority that does not belong to the West."

Pamuk's strength as a writer lies in his skill for channeling such concerns into fiction and then going one step further by inscribing them onto the surface of the city he loves most. Mid-way through his masterful novel "The Black Book," Pamuk's only work of fiction set wholly in Istanbul, the protagonist Galip, who is searching for his missing wife and her half-brother, whom he suspects may be together, remarks: "While it was possible to perceive the city's old age, its misfortune, its lost splendor, its sorrow and pathos in the faces of the citizens, it was not the symptom of a specifically contrived secret but of a collective defeat, history, and complicity."

Beirut,10 16 2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star
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