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

When news that Orhan Pamuk had won the Nobel prize for literature reached Turkey, the literary world and wider society were split in two. Pride and condemnation went side by side. After all Pamuk has never fitted into the role which Turkish society demands of its novelists. Dedicating all his life to literature, he has always been more absorbed in his own fictional world than the "real" world outside.

Ever since the end of the 19th century Turkish society has been in a hurry. Abdullah Cevdet, one of the most radical thinkers of the late Ottoman Empire, asked despairingly "how long has it taken the western world to reach the level of civilisation that they now enjoy? Four hundred years perhaps? Can we wait that long?" His conclusion was that in order to catch up with western civilisation the flow of time had to be speeded up. This was the task that fell upon the Turkish intelligentsia - to quicken the flow of history, to expedite the process of westernisation - placing writers at the forefront of efforts to mould Turkish society.

With the establishment of a modern, secular Turkey, literature took on an even greater role. The new elite, depicting the new regime as a fundamental transformation from eastern civilisation to western civilisation, aimed to make culture the cement of the modern Turkish nation-state. For them modernisation and secularisation meant a complete detachment from the past, a mistrust of anything, of everything associated with the Ottoman heritage. The Turkish state elite was ready to speed up the flow of history from above.

So the novel - a literary genre which was new, modern and, unlike the old tradition of poetry, utterly western - gained a unique position. No wonder then that a novelist is always more than a novelist in Turkey. He is, first and foremost, a public figure. Novelists are the "babas", the fathers of their readers. They are loved and hated, looked up to and looked down upon. This is a society which is writer-oriented, not writing-oriented.

Orhan Pamuk has been working against this background for years. He writes with great passion and determination, all the while endorsing, publicising and internationalising the Turkish novel. As conspicuous as his books have been, he himself has always remained almost unreachable. If he has been any kind of "baba" to his readers he has only been a detached father more inspired by his own imagination than by his nation. Perhaps it is this that triggers some sons, some segments of Turkish society, to attack him.

As a Turkish woman writer, I too have often felt out of tune with the baba tradition. While the son-society keeps discussing the implications of this award, I am filled with delight, pride and optimism. Pamuk's Nobel is not only a great honour for him and for the richness of Turkish literature, but also a sign of the great contribution Turkey can make to world culture if and when it reaches out beyond national borders and nationalist debates.

Elif Shafak

The GuardianTramp

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