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.

Orhan Pamuk, the celebrated Turkish novelist, has won the Nobel prize for iterature. It would be difficult to conceive of a more perfect winner for our catastrophic times. Just as Turkey stands at the crossroads of the Muslim East/Middle East and the European and North American west, so Pamuk's work inhabits the shifting ground of an increasingly dangerous cultural and religious overlap, where ideologies as well as personalities collide.

It's no exaggeration to say that you have to read Pamuk if you want to begin to understand what's going on in people's hearts, minds and souls, not only in Turkey, but also in Britain, where the current Jack Straw headscarf controversy eerily mirrors the subject matter of Pamuk's recently-translated 1996 novel, Snow (in which we are reminded that Ataturk's ruthless modernisation campaign included a much-disputed banning of headscarves.

Pamuk has felt the shockwaves from such factional collisions. He has never been one to duck controversy: just a year ago he was facing prosecution on charges of "un-Turkishness" - he'd been so rash as to have mentioned the fate of the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century, a taboo subject for the authorities. Possibly in response to international outcries, the charges were dropped, but many lesser-known Turkish writers have not been so lucky.

He has already won many literary prizes, including the 2003 Dublin Impac Award for his sixth novel, My Name Is Red. In Turkey, he is far more than a novelist: people rush to read his novels as if he's a kind of sure-fire prophet, or a hugely popular singer, or a national psychoanalyst or a one-man newspaper editorial page. There is nothing programmatic about his novels; he simply writes out of the centre of the whirlwind both his characters and his Turkish readers feel swept up in every day.

Where is Turkey going? How will it come to terms with its once-glorious, often-troubled history, and resolve the conflict between old and new, and handle the power struggle between secularists and Islamists, and find self-respect, or peace of mind, or inner wholeness or a new direction? Pamuk's novels don't provide cut-and-dried solutions, but they follow the tortuous lines of such questionings with anguished and wrenching fidelity. Sometimes his characters are almost literally torn apart by choices they don't know how to make, but are forced to make. His power as a novelist stems in part from his refusal to judge the choices his characters make: their tragedy is that no matter what path they take, they can't be at ease; and, worse, some other element in their society is bound to condemn them.

Thus Pamuk's heroes - they are typically heroes, not heroines - wander through the plots of their books as if in caught in a particularly anxious and threatening collective dream.

I wrote of his novel Snow in the New York Times Book Review: "The twists of fate, the plots that double back on themselves, the trickiness, the mysteries that recede as they're approached, the bleak cities, the night prowling, the sense of identity-loss, the protagonist in exile - these are vintage Pamuk, but they're also part of the modern literary landscape."

It is not unusual for a Pamuk protagonist to end up dead at the hands of persons unknown.

Pamuk's heroes are pestered by Turkey's former pre-eminence: they may stumble upon architectural fragments of the huge, opulent Ottoman empire, or see an Armenian church standing empty, or be reminded of earlier Russian rulers, or glimpse a fly-spotted picture of the once revered Ataturk, whose attempts to forge a fully westernised, secular Turkey now seem futile. Where has all the power gone? such echoes say. The Christian Byzantine city of Constantinople casts a long shadow, and the European west and the Muslim east are seen as mirror-opposite twins ensnared in a net that traps them both.

Pamuk gives us what all novelists give us at their best: the truth. Not the truth of statistics, but the truth of human experience at a particular place, in a particular time. And as with all great literature, you feel at moments not that you are examining him, but that he is examining you. "No one could understand us from so far away," says a character in Snow. Reader, it's a challenge.

Margaret Atwood

The GuardianTramp

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