Perhaps to the slight disappointment of the Princetonians hoping to make the University home to a second Nobel Laureate in literature, this year’s Nobel Prize in literature went to Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most critically acclaimed novelists. The Swedish Academy commented when announcing the award that the 54-year-old author introduced readers to “new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures” in his “quest for the melancholic soul of his native city.” Indeed, caught between its desire to be a part of the European Union and to preserve its national and cultural values that reach back some 1,500 years in history, Turkey is now represented to the world arena – and perhaps problematically so – by both Pamuk’s works and the fiery debate that surrounds his public persona.
After declaring to a Swiss magazine earlier this year that “one million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds were killed [in Turkey]” and that “no one else but [he] dared talk about it,” Pamuk quickly became the center of angry criticism in his homeland. Charged with the crime of insulting Turkish identity, the lawsuit filed against him by the government was dropped on a technicality, but both the general public and Turkish academicians were quick to pick sides – the Pamuk sympathizers making up the considerably small minority. The debate was of course rekindled with Pamuk’s Nobel victory, which generated mixed feelings in the Turkish literary circles; “a bitter-sweet joy” was the phrase writers and politicians often used to express their views on the subject.
The recipient of the prize was not the only one criticized, however. The Swedish Academy was, once again, accused of giving the prize to a literary figure in conflict with his own country and dragging politics into the realm of literature. Last year’s prize was awarded to the British playwright Harold Pinter, an ardent opponent of the policies of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The choice of Pamuk as this year’s laureate seemed to confirm, in the eyes of the critics, the Academy’s trend in picking controversial literary figures for the award. And the justification that Pamuk’s portrayal of the “clash and interlacing of cultures” earned him the Nobel did not help the Academy in disproving these claims; the word “clash” immediately generated loaded connotations directly tied to the theory of the “clash of civilizations,” popularized by the Harvard scholar Samuel P. Huntington.
It is impossible to assert, of course, that the subject matter of Pamuk’s works are devoid of Turkey’s inner political conflicts. His latest novel, Snow, deals with the problem Turkey’s secular democracy faces concerning the issue of whether female students should be allowed to wear their headscarves (which are more often than not worn by Islamic fundamentalists to create political provocation targeting secularism rather than to represent religious piety) in schools and other governmental institutions. Yet the author’s purpose in writing about this subject is not to further escalate the debate or to find a solution to the problem. Writing about a conservative city in Eastern Turkey, Pamuk develops around the issue of the headscarf various conflicts that work to advance the plot of the work and build characters that evolve throughout the course of the work as he stays loyal to the formal prerequisite of the genre of the novel.
Similarly, the air of mysticism that Snow emanates and the subtle traces of magical realism that can be detected in the work come into creation with the help of Pamuk’s depiction of the equivocal views held by his self-doubting characters regarding the issue of the headscarf. This allows him to elevate the question of secularism versus fundamentalism represented by the motif of the headscarf to a more philosophical and universal level, where both the novel’s characters and its readers are challenged concerning their faith in God, destiny, and spiritualism, thus enabling the novel to speak to a larger audience. Snow is therefore not a declaration of Pamuk’s personal views about the question of the headscarf or the way Turkey chooses to deal with it, but rather a purely literary work that paints the portrait of group of people who find themselves trying to narrow the gap between tradition and modernity, between the East and the West.
And it should come as no surprise that this group of people is, in fact, none other than Turkish society itself, which, through Pamuk’s works, introduces to the rest of the world its identity, its traditions, its values, its conflicts, and its anxieties. And that it is doing so within the framework of an essentially Western genre that can speak to the West most directly only proves that Pamuk is, indeed, creating “new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures” without taking anything away from the essence of his native culture or giving it in an antagonistic stance vis-à-vis the West. The New York Times writes that Orhan Pamuk is “not an ideologue, a politician, or a journalist.” The Turkish Nobel Laureate in literature is simply “a great novelist” and demands to be read.