How Orhan Pamuk escaped Turkish prison.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Oct. 12 2006 4:20 PM

Orhan Pamuk's Victory

How the Nobel Prize-winning novelist escaped Turkish prison.

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature today. Last winter, Pamuk faced as many as three years in prison for the crime of "insulting" the Turkish Republic. In a "Culturebox" article published this January, and reprinted below, Hugh Eakin explained how Pamuk came to be a controversial figure in his home country—and how he beat the rap.

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Pamuk: off the hot seat

With the abrupt cancellation this week of the trial of Orhan Pamuk, the celebrated Turkish writer, Turkey has sidestepped months of international censure. It has also temporarily salvaged its precarious bid to join the European Union. But the decision does not resolve the country's anxiety toward Europe and toward its own past—issues for which Pamuk has become an uncanny symbol.

The trouble began last February, when Pamuk told the Swiss news magazine Das Magazinthat "one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and no one but me dares talk about it." For this statement, Pamuk received death threats from Turkish nationalists and was eventually charged under a new Turkish law with "insulting" the Turkish Republic. When he went on trial in December, he faced up to three years in prison.

The charges were dropped this week only because the government refused to weigh in on the case. The court did not repudiate the law under which Pamuk was charged—a new law that was, ironically, slipped into an EU reform package—or even admit that the charges were wrong. More disturbingly, numerous other writers and journalists still have cases pending under similar charges. As Pamuk's December court appearance made clear, many Turks supported his indictment. On the day the trial began, onlookers pelted the writer's car with eggs and chanted, "Traitor! Traitor!" It all seemed to play directly into the hands of the country's critics, who have adopted Pamuk as a cause célèbre against Turkey's candidacy for membership in the European Union.

In fact, Pamuk's cult status in Europe may be precisely the issue. Turkey is dead serious when it comes to defending Turkishness, and the writer's international success has made him all too European for the conservative establishment at home. His recent novel, Snow, draws on all the latest Western literary techniques to show how backward and un-European that establishment is. While increasingly controversial in Turkey, Pamuk is being translated into some 40 languages and has received numerous European accolades, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair Prize. In contrast, he has rejected Turkey's own laurels, including a government offer a few years ago to make him an official "state artist."

Pamuk's emergence as an outspoken public intellectual couldn't come at a more sensitive time for Turkey. Since the moderate Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, Turkey has made many democratic reforms. But Turkey's powerful military bureaucracy, which has formed the country's true power center for decades, still wields enormous influence. And the Turkish government's effort to adapt to stringent European human rights standards has been marred by its refusal to address concerns about the longstanding oppression of Kurdish separatists and its continued denial of the Armenian genocide in 1915. So Pamuk's recent comments have struck a nerve.

According to one popular view in Turkey, Pamuk's statements to Das Magazin were simply a ploy to gain dissident status in the West. As a prominent Turkish lawyer put it last fall, "[He] demeans the Turkish people, Turkish values as well as the Turkish military as a short cut to receiving the Nobel and similar prizes." To be sure, Pamuk, who is 53, is a complicated figure, whose recent devastating (and dead-on) pronouncements about Turkish society appear at odds with his enthusiasm for Turkish EU membership. In his own defense, he has long maintained that he is not interested in politics and his previous novels have not dealt with current affairs. But Snow is a deeply political novel. Pamuk describes Kars, a bleak town in eastern Turkey, as a place in which civil society has long since given way to rival factions of secular militants, state informants, radical Islamists, and Kurdish separatists. His protagonist is a Europeanized poet named Ka who has returned after years of political exile in Frankfurt, Germany. As the narrative unfolds, Ka turns out to be as alienated from Europe as he is from the down-and-out citizens of Kars.

Pamuk's dark story found particular resonance in Germany, which has Europe's largest Turkish minority, composed mostly of Muslim workers from the same Anatolian hinterland that Pamuk writes about in Snow. A large majority of Germans see Turkey as a society of headscarves and honor killings and have little sense of the country's own secular elite. The admission of Turkey to the European Union, some fear, would transform Germany's Muslim minority into an uncontrolled "parallel society." When Pamuk made his controversial statements to the Swiss news magazine, German conservatives saw him as an intellectual ally. Along with the new Christian Democrat chancellor, Angela Merkel, many Germans favor a "special partnership" between Turkey and the European Union, rather than full membership

But Pamuk never saw the tensions between Turkey and Europe as a simple opposition between the West and Islam. Far more to the point, as Snow so penetratingly shows, are the tensions within Turkish society between religion and secularism, militarism and democracy, and the failure of the ruling class in Ankara and Istanbul to convince rural Turks that Europe was anything more than a land of godless intellectuals that happens to have jobs for poor workers. For Pamuk, there is no better way than EU membership to overcome these problems.

Notwithstanding the trial, the conservative German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has expressed disappointment that Pamuk hasn't lived up to his billing as a dissident. Last summer, a critic for the paper asked, "Just what exactly does he really stand for?" More recently, a series of articles suggested that Pamuk might be "backing down" from his earlier comments about the Armenian genocide. (In fact, Pamuk merely pointed out well-known historical facts about casualties; he never used the word "genocide.")

So, in the end, Turkey's greatest writer has offended both Turkish hard-liners and German conservatives for failing to make his allegiances clear. But it is arguably Pamuk's mixed message—that Turkey desperately wants and needs Europe even as it thumbs its nose at fundamental European notions of justice and truth—that will prove most accurate in hindsight. Under the current regime, Turkey has become both more democratic and more comfortable with its Muslim heritage; during Ramadan last fall, the major public debate was about whether Muslims could break the fast with sex.

But the changes have happened too quickly, and under too much pressure from Brussels, for Turkish society to be really at ease with it all. And the most painful part of that transition, as postwar Europe itself has shown, may be coming to terms with history. There is surely some irony in that fact that you can now be prosecuted in Europe for denying a genocide and prosecuted in Turkey for asserting that a genocide took place. For a country that has long created fictions out of its own past, it is all the more fitting then, that it is a novelist who starts the dialogue about what really happened.