The Magazine

Read Pamuk's Novels

They're smarter about Turkey and Europe than his political pronouncements.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By BART J. SPRUYT
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THE FAMOUS TURKISH NOVELIST ORHAN Pamuk has not (yet) received the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was honored this year with the most important literary prize in Germany, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Pamuk accepted the prize in Frankfurt in October with an acceptance speech that was itself a little masterpiece--and one that bears examining in light both of the controversy over whether Turkey should be admitted to the European Union, and of Pamuk's own prosecution by the government in Ankara.

The novel, Pamuk says, is "one of the greatest artistic achievements to come out of Europe . . . one of the cornerstones of European civilization." Indeed, the novel is "the means by which Europe has created and made visible its nature, if there is such a thing." To write and read novels, he argued, requires certain characteristic skills--of imagination and empathy--that are also necessary in social and political life. Author and reader must "liberate" themselves "from the confines" of their own personae. "The history of the novel is the history of human liberation: By putting ourselves in others' shoes, by using our imaginations to free ourselves from our own identities, we are able to set ourselves free."

But this liberation is not without danger. It involves disclosing the "whispered secrets" of shame, pride, anger, and humiliation. And he who unveils "life's hidden geometry" may cause his fellow citizens unease. Citizens prefer to conceal certain truths. "Novels," Pamuk contends, "give voice not just to a nation's pride and joy, but also to its anger, its vulnerabilities, and its shame. It is because they remind readers of their shame . . . that novelists still arouse such anger . . . that we still see books burned, and novelists prosecuted."

Pamuk teaches that the skills honed in reading and writing novels underlie the European ideals of enlightenment, equality, and democracy. But "certain politicians" in Europe, nationalistic and narrow-minded Christians, have departed from those ideals, in their anti-Turkish sentiments and their harsh opposition to Turkey's E.U. membership. In so doing, they have only increased the "silent shame" among Turks, fearful of rejection. Turkish nationalists--again described by Pamuk in vague terms as "certain politicians in my own country"--cunningly take advantage of these feelings of frustration to stoke anti-Western sentiments. And so Turkey and Europe face the same choice: between "peace and nationalism," between the imagination of the writer and "the sort of nationalism that condones burning his books."

Pamuk speaks with authority about the relationship between East and West. It is the most important theme of his scintillating body of work. And he certainly has come into heavy-handed contact with the dark side of the Turkish state. The Turkish secular establishment is increasingly nervous about Pamuk's lack of respect for the state ideology. He blames the Turkish state for being narrow-mindedly nationalistic, denounces the jailing of writers, and openly criticizes the government and army for deciding to deal with Kurdish separatism by force alone. When Ankara in December 1998 sought to coopt Pamuk by offering him the dignity of becoming an "artist of the state," Pamuk declined.

This past summer, Pamuk told a German journalist that he had been advised to watch his words. But it was already too late. In a February 2005 interview with the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger, Pamuk deplored the "more than 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians" who were killed in Turkey. "Nobody dares to say so. That's why I do it. And that's why they hate me." Protests and book burnings followed. A complaint was brought against Pamuk under Article 301 of the criminal code, which prohibits publicly denigrating Turkey. On December 16, Pamuk is due in court. A four-year prison sentence is a distinct possibility.

Pamuk is indisputably right about "certain nationalistic politicians" in his country. They evidently do not appreciate the public revelation of "life's hidden geometry." But is Pamuk equally justified in criticizing European politicians who oppose Turkey's entry into the E.U.? All he has to say about them is that they lack the imagination and empathy of the writer, and for that reason continue to paint Turkey as a dangerous "other."