Robert McCrum: This noble winner should get the Peace Prize, too

Robert McCrum: This year, the Academy has done the right thing, thank God, saluting a writer who, in the words of the Nobel citation, 'has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures'. With Turkey and its record as much in the news as it was in 2005, Orhan Pamuk has become the first Turkish writer in 100 years ever to receive this supreme accolade.

When Harold Pinter won the Nobel prize for literature last year it was a great day for British theatre but a lot of smart literary money went astray. It was not just that the punters were wrong-footed (everyone had been saying that Orhan Pamuk would be nominated), they also became suddenly nervous. Was the Swedish Academy once again shunning political controversy as it has so often preferred to do in the past?

In the end, the literary world's fears were ungrounded. This year, the Academy has done the right thing, thank God, saluting a writer who, in the words of the Nobel citation, 'has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures'. With Turkey and its record as much in the news as it was in 2005, Pamuk has become the first Turkish writer in 100 years ever to receive this supreme accolade. In the words of Pinter: 'Pamuk is a great writer, and this award could not be more appropriate.'

He is also a brave one, speaking out for free expression in a country where powerful factions have wanted to put him in prison for daring to describe the Armenian massacres as genocidal, and for challenging a repressive silence at the highest levels of government and society about the universal issue of human rights. Moreover, he has done this with that instinctive determination to assert the duty of literature to transcend political barriers that has always characterised the great artist. As Pamuk himself put it in 2000: 'Freedom of thought and expression are freedoms which people long for as much as bread and water. They should never be limited by nationalist sentiment, or (worst of all) business and military interests.'

The new Nobel laureate was born in Istanbul in 1952 into a well-to-do Western-oriented family. His grandfather, a civil engineer and industrialist, made a fortune building railways, and the young Pamuk trained to be an architect, and had ambitions to be a painter. His first books, written in the shadow of Thomas Mann, appeared in the early Eighties. It wasn't until he published The White Castle that he began to find his distinctive and compelling writer's voice.

As long as I've known him, Orhan has always revelled in being a thorn in the side of authority. The first time we met, on the banks of the river Granta in Cambridge, was in the summer of 1991. He was an unknown Turkish novelist, visiting England for a conference. The White Castle, a haunting story about a 17th century Muslim master and his Christian slave, had just been published in paperback. Already celebrated in Turkey, where he has often been a bestseller, Pamuk seemed young, articulate (his English is exceptional) and tremendously self-possessed. We drank beer, overlooking the mill-race by the Silver Street bridge, and I remember thinking that here was an international writer going places.

Since then, Pamuk has gone from strength to strength with a succession of novels that address themselves in different ways to Turkey's 20th century crisis in the aftermath of the Ottoman empire: The Black Book, The New Life, My Name is Red and Snow. With each title, written in an exquisitely constructed, wistful prose that mediates the lethal no man's land between Islamism and the west, it is not an exaggeration to say that Pamuk's reputation has continued to rise to ever greater international heights.

Rarely in modern times has a novelist found the voice to tell his people the daring, possibly transgressive, stories about themselves that they crave. Not since the days of dissident literature in the USSR has a writer been so much the spokesperson for a generation. In Turkey this has brought the adulation of the young.

This is all the more remarkable because Pamuk is hardly an easy writer. His literary instincts are post-modern, with affiliations to Borges. (His favourite writers are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust and Mann.) But he is also a master storyteller, drawn to a dangerous imaginative territory between indigenous Turkish culture on one hand and the western literary tradition on the other. Counterbalancing the secular and the religious, present and past, the message of Pamuk's books is that the clash of East and West does not need to be the source of conflict we see today - there is a middle way. It is probably this humane sympathy for his people's predicament in a world polarised by the War on Terror that has won the support of the Nobel committee.

Between 1991 and 2000, Pamuk's career developed at dizzying speed. By the turn of the century his identification with Turkey was complete. In one of his books he writes 'Istanbul's fate is my fate: I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.'

Last year it was this role as his country's unofficial conscience that placed Pamuk at odds with reactionary elements opposing Turkey's bid to join the enlarged EU. Seizing on an interview he gave to a Swiss-German magazine in which he referred to both the Kurdish and Armenian massacres, his enemies - led by a maverick state governor - called for Pamuk to be charged with 'insulting his country', and for his books to be burned.

The case, a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, was eventually thrown out on a technicality, and Pamuk went back to his writing desk, symbolically overlooking the Bosphorus. But the Armenian issue has remained a live one: in an ironic twist, on the day of the Nobel citation, the French parliament approved a bill to outlaw the denying of the Armenian genocide. So this week's Nobel Prize is a heartening reminder that when the novel becomes the expression of one writer's integrity, it is still capable of profound moral and political purpose. When was the last time anyone made that claim for a Booker prize winner?

· Who would be your candidate for a Nobel literature prize?


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Margaret Atwood: Pamuk is a Nobel winner for our times
Orhan Pamuk's work inhabits the shifting ground of an increasingly dangerous cultural and religious overlap, says Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood

13, Oct, 2006 @9:12 AM

Article image
Orhan Pamuk wins Nobel prize

Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, whose trial on charges of "insulting Turkishness" was dropped earlier this year, has won the 2006 Nobel prize for literature.

Richard Lea and agencies

12, Oct, 2006 @1:55 PM

Article image
Pamuk cancels Germany visit amid safety fears
Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has cancelled a publicity tour of Germany amid fears for his safety following the murder of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink.

Jess Smee in Berlin

31, Jan, 2007 @12:04 PM

A life in writing: Orhan Pamuk

A life in writing: Last year's Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has faced criminal charges and even death threats in his native Turkey, yet he refuses to be disillusioned about the country's future

Maya Jaggi

08, Dec, 2007 @11:54 PM

Pamuk's Nobel divides Turkey

Twenty-four hours after Orhan Pamuk became the first ever Turkish writer to win the Nobel prize, reactions in Turkey are strangely mixed.

Nicholas Birch

13, Oct, 2006 @3:26 PM

Leader: Literature
Leader: Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist, is an inspired choice as the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for literature.


12, Oct, 2006 @11:09 PM

Pamuk believed to be in exile in US

The Turkish author Orhan Pamuk has reportedly left his home country to live in America amid fears for his life. The Nobel laureate is believed to be at risk of assassination in Turkey following the murder of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink last month. Threats appeared to have been made against Pamuk by the man who confessed to orchestrating the murder.

Michelle Pauli

14, Feb, 2007 @3:28 PM

Elif Shafak: Pamuk's Nobel is a family affair

The anger and delight which greeted Orhan Pamuk's Nobel prize in Turkey are no surprise, says Elif Shafak. Turkey has always expected novelists to provide more than words.

Elif Shafak

20, Oct, 2006 @10:29 AM

Article image
Nobel prize for hero of liberal Turkey stokes fears of nationalist backlash
· Controversial figure wins €1.1m after troubled year
· Prize given for politics, not novels, claim critics

Ian Traynor

13, Oct, 2006 @9:07 AM

Leader: In praise of ... the Nobel prize in literature
Leader: Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian novelist who died yesterday, would in all likelihood have been largely unread outside his own country and language had it not been for a single act: the 1988 decision by the Swedish Academy to award the Nobel prize in literature to the author of Children of Gebelawi.


30, Aug, 2006 @11:15 PM