Last week Turkey's most renowned writer Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature. His name has been in the media quite often in the last year. Even those who have never read his books, will have heard his name – yes, he is the protagonist of the infamous case in which the state wanted to press charges against the written word. Pamuk wrote about the 1915 genocide against the Armenian minority in Turkey, claiming he was the only one who was never scared to bring up the taboo subject in his country. But having a troublesome relationship with certain events from its Ottoman past, the Turkish state was reluctant to call the killings of the Armenian people genocide. Thus Pamuk was accused of “insulting the Turkishness” of his home country.
Orhan Pamuk has often been criticized in Turkey for having views which are too westernized. Even though he is now based in Istanbul, he did spend some time at Colombia University in New York in 1980s. I wonder what makes a writer belong to a particular country. Is Orhan Pamuk a Turkish writer only because he writer in Turkish? And why don´t we regard him an American writer if this is where he got his ideas about freedom of expression from?
Literature has always been tied to a national identity more than other forms of art. Because it uses a national language as its medium, literature was rarely able to stay neutral and purely “artistic”. In crucial historic moments, there has always been a clash between those writers who support the state (even if only by keeping their pens idle) and those who speak out and bare the consequences of such a choice. Some writers fight for their right to write and then face political trials, some go into exile. But whatever the path a writer takes, the words they write are never apolitical.
The Pamuk case was not only about the literary representation of the Ottoman past. International attention paid to the outcome of Pamuk´s plight highlighted the political dimension of literature. Thus Turkey´s commitment to freedom of expression and respect of human rights were seriously questioned in the light of the country´s application to EU membership.
There is no doubt that the 2006 Nobel Prize went to a great writer. And forgive me, but these are my intimate musings - I wonder how healthy it is to judge literature through the prism of international politics all the time. There are writers and writers. Some may feel compelled to be politically outspoken and campaign for freedom of expression and in that course write fabulous texts. Others can produce work of equal quality and keep a very low profile. If this Prize is given for literature, my only question is if we are able to judge books purely on their literary merit. If not and if literature ends up being inextricably linked to politics and values of civil society, I fear we might risk losing this great form of artistic expression. Lastly, is truth really a prerequisite of a great piece of literature?