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

Orhan Pamuk, the acclaimed Turkish novelist acquitted of criminal charges of denigrating his country, won the Nobel prize for literature yesterday.

The decision to award the prize to a writer and campaigner who advocates Turkey's European ambitions, and is a searing critic of authoritarian trends in his country, came as a boon to freedom of expression. But Pamuk, a hero to Istanbul liberals, is reviled by his country's nationalists who see him as a traitor.

A 54-year-old native and chronicler of Istanbul who has devoted himself to his writing for more than 30 years, Pamuk was in New York when the €1.1m (£740,000) prize was announced in Stockholm.

In a statement last night, Pamuk said: "I received word that I had been awarded the Nobel prize early this morning by telephone. I was in bed in New York city.

"The secretary of the Swedish academy Horace Engdahl ... asked whether I would accept. And I agreed joyously - first as a celebration of the Turkish language, of Turkish culture, which I'm a part of; and second, personally, I accepted this prize gratefully as a recognition of my 32 years of humble devotion to the great art of the novel."

Mr Engdahl told journalists in Stockholm. "This is an author that creates an immediate and almost childish joy of reading. He has stolen the novel, one can say, from us westerners and has transformed it to something different from what we have ever seen before ... His roots in two cultures ... allows him to take our own image and reflect it in a partially unknown and partially recognisable image, and it is incredibly fascinating."

Best known for the novels Snow and My Name Is Red, which explore Turkey's position as a largely Muslim country with European aspirations, poised between east and west, between the Middle East and Europe, between ancient and modern, between religion and secularism, Pamuk first attracted international attention with his third novel The White Castle.

The mild-mannered writer was hauled before an Istanbul court last December for "belittling Turkishness", a criminal offence, after he told a Swiss newspaper that the massacres of more than one million Armenians in Turkey [in 1915] and of more than 30,000 Kurds in Turkey [in the 1990s] were taboo topics in his country.

The trial in Istanbul, at which Pamuk appeared hugely distressed, turned ugly, with a mob of baying nationalists scuffling with the writer's supporters as riot police looked on. Pamuk was acquitted on a technicality in January. The case became an international cause célèbre and dented Turkey's image as an increasingly liberal country seeking to join the EU.

Although Pamuk was acquitted, the notorious article of the penal code remains, and dozens of less well-known writers and journalists are being prosecuted in the clampdown on freedom of expression.

The nationalists denounced yesterday's prize as a political verdict by the Swedish academy aimed at pressuring Turkey. "As a Turkish citizen I am ashamed," said Kemal Kerincsiz, leader of a group of ultra-nationalist lawyers who are making careers out of bringing charges against writers and journalists. They are believed to enjoy at least tacit support from powerful parts of the Turkish establishment.

"I don't believe this prize was given for his books or for his literary identity," Mr Kerincsiz said. "It was given because he belittled our national values, for his recognition of the [Armenian] genocide."

Turkish writers reacted ambivalently to the prize which made Pamuk the first laureate from a Muslim country since 1988. Cetin Tuzuner, the head of Turkey's writers' union, said that the honour would have a huge knock-on effect. "Pamuk will be a locomotive, he will open the way for other writers. Turkish writers will find their place in literature."

But the poet Ozdemir Ince said that Turkish literature would derive no benefit from the prize, ranking Pamuk low down on his list of writers.

Mr Engdahl conceded that the award could generate "political turbulence".

Pamuk's work

Orhan Pamuk began writing on a regular basis in the mid-70s but it was not until 1990 that he really achieved popular success.

His novel The Black Book, influenced by James Joyce's Ulysses, was a sensation. Extraordinarily rich and textured it was for many people a wonderful piece of storytelling. But it was also a history of Turkey and Istanbul. It was a political allegory. It was a consideration of what a nation is. The story is about a man called Galip, searching for his wife and uncle, a newspaper columnist, who have disappeared.

A Guardian review of a recent paperback version, translated into English by Maureen Freely, said that it "defies description". It added: "There is a constant feeling of being watched, and an obsession with mirrors and doubling. Pamuk's paragraphs and sentences contain multitudes, twisting and shifting to leave the reader exhilarated yet off balance."

Pamuk's first published novel, Cevdet Bey and his Sons, followed the development of a family over three generations and his second, House of Silence, used five different narrators to describe family visits to an ageing grandmother at a seaside resort.

Publication of The White Castle, a historical novel set in 17th century Istanbul featuring the friendship of an Ottoman scholar with a Venetian slave, won the 1990 Independent award for foreign fiction and began to establish his reputation outside Turkey. Arguably his most accessible work, the New York Times Book Review declared: "A new star has risen in the east."

His two most recent novels are probably best-known to readers outside Turkey. My Name is Red (2000), which won the Impac Award, is a murder mystery set among Islamic miniaturists in 16th century Istanbul while Snow (2002) is a thriller set in the 1990s about a poet caught up in a military coup. Mark Brown


Ian Traynor

The GuardianTramp

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