We may have our own views about Orhan Pamuk’s novels, but there can be no doubt that Pamuk richly deserves the prize both in literary terms and as a man with deeply-held views which he is not afraid to express regardless of the consequences.
Watching the Turkish media and political world squirm and agonise has been as joyful and magnificent as the expression on Pamuk’s face must have been upon hearing the news.
The prize was announced on the very same day that the French parliament voted to make it a criminal offence to deny the Armenian holocaust. In 1915, the dying Ottoman Empire drove its Armenian citizens into a forced migration, which caused one million or more to perish.
Turkish governments have always denied that there was a systematic attempt at ethnic cleansing, that so many Armenians died and that this was a holocaust. They admit to a figure of 300,000, claim that there was killing on both sides and that the whole incident was an unfortunate but unavoidable sideshow of the First World War.
Pamuk, whose every novel is a literary event and sells hundreds of thousands in Turkey, was prosecuted last year for simply saying to a German journalist that a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been killed in Turkey. He was neither the first nor the last writer to be prosecuted under Law 301 which makes it a crime to “insult Turkishness”, but he was the most prominent internationally. Like most of those prosecuted under 301, he was acquitted. But he also became a figure of hate for the right and most of the media.
Normally, a Turk winning an international prize (like a Turkish team winning a football game abroad) would be cause for jubilation and nationalistic frenzy. In this case, however, the right didn’t know what to do! On the extreme right, the response was “Pamuk is a traitor, he sold his country, and this is his reward”.
The more common response, expressed in one particular newspaper headline, was “I don’t know whether to be glad or sad”.
Even those who praised Pamuk and agreed that he deserved the prize for his novels couldn’t stop themselves from saying that he may not have been given it if he hadn’t spoken out about the Armenians. Prime Minister Erdogan telephoned Pamuk to congratulate him, but President Sezer pointedly did not do so.
But most amusing of all was the sight of politicians and journalists who have never said a word about any of the many anti-democratic laws in Turkey rage about the anti-democratic vote in the French parliament. Having never worried about Law 301 here, they suddenly became very concerned about the democratic rights of any French citizen who wishes to say that there was no Armenian holocaust.
In ten years time nobody will remember any of these people. Unlike Pamuk, who has already taken his place in world literary history.