Books: The Nobel's Front Runner

Once again, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is rumored to be a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The author of “Snow” and “My Name Is Red” has been here before, along with Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, the writers most frequently mentioned as his competition. But this looks like the 54-year-old Pamuk’s year (a bad year for a writer can be good for his Nobel chances—see below).

In the interest of dispelling any Orhan Who? confusion, we’re providing a crib sheet. So by the time the Nobel committee makes its announcement Oct. 12, you’ll be up to speed. Of course, the more we say and the more you prepare, the worse his chances will probably get. On the other hand, he’s someone you should know about whether he ever wins the prize or not. He’s that good.

Who is Orhan Pamuk?

Pamuk is Turkey's greatest novelist—and its most controversial. Last year he sparked a furor when he told a Swiss newspaper that "a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country [during World War I and between 1986 and 1999, respectively], and I'm the only one who dares to talk about it." In response, ultranationalist Turkish lawyers brought charges against Pamuk, accusing him of "insulting Turkishness." The charges could have landed him in jail if the case hadn't been thrown out. Even so, Pamuk received multiple death threats and was branded an "abject creature" by Hürriyet, Turkey's largest newspaper. In the process, though, he became an international hero of free speech. The European Union's enlargement commissioner called Pamuk's trial a "litmus test" of Turkey's commitment to the European values, and some of the world's top authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass , Umberto Eco and John Updike publicly backed his stand.

What's he written?

Five novels and a memoir-travel book. Most of Pamuk's writing isn't overtly political—rather, he draws on the many cultures of his native city, Istanbul, as the background to almost all of his stories. But despite his antiquarian settings, Pamuk deals with vital contemporary issues such as identity, religion and belonging. "The White Castle” (1979) explores the relationship between a 17th-century Turkish astrologer and his slave, an Italian astronomer. In “My Name is Red” (2001), the intrigues of Ottoman court calligraphers serve as background to a story that is part murder mystery and part exploration of how an artist can shape the world he depicts.

One of Pamuk's most enduring themes is the tension between the values of East and West. “Snow” (2002), his latest novel, is set in a snowbound city on the edges of contemporary Turkey—and, symbolically, on the margins of Western civilization. Its protagonist, a poet, finds himself caught in a web of conflicting ideologies, from religious extremism to totalitarianism—all the -isms that have stalked the Turkish Republic since it first emerged as a secularized, Westernized state out of the ruins of the Ottoman past a century ago.

"Snow" takes place in the 1990s in the actual Turkish city of Kars, but while the story, packed with nationalists, socialists and militant Islamists, has a superficial currency, its reality is dreamlike. Snow falls for most of the novel, isolating the town, where a poet, called Ka, has come to investigate a series of suicides by teenage Muslim girls who refuse the secular government's order to remove their headscarves. Artistically blocked for years, Ka, a Westernized sophisticate, suddenly begins to write poetry again. He falls in love so deeply that he begins to betray everything—even his own scruples—to preserve his happiness. Because he believes in nothing beyond his own desire, he is marked for tragedy.

In “Istanbul” (2005), which is both an autobiography and a brilliant portrait of modern Turkey, Pamuk uses his native city—which is located literally on the geographical dividing line between the Christian West and the Muslim East—as a metaphor for a culture that wants to look forward but can’t help simultaneously looking backward—with melancholy and a terrific sense of loss—at the glories of its past civilization. It is also a very sensual, almost street-by-street celebration of a very real place. Few writers mix ideas with the grittiness of the real world better than Pamuk, who has always identified with the outsider, the observer, the recording angel: the "imaginative exploration of the other, the enemy who resides in all our minds" is a novelist's most important function, he says.

What’s his writing like?

Here’s a sample, from “Istanbul”:

To see the city in black and white is to see it through the tarnish of history: the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world. Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease. It is resignation that nourishes Istanbul’s inward-looking soul. To see the city in black and white, to see the haze that sits over it and breathe in the melancholy its inhabitants have embraced as their common fate, you need only to fly in from a rich western city and head straight to the crowded streets; if it’s winter, every man on the Galata Bridge will be wearing the same, pale, drab, shadowy clothes. The Istanbullus of my era have shunned the vibrant reds, greens and oranges of their rich, proud ancestors; to foreign visitors, it looks as if they have done so deliberately, to make a moral point. They have not—but there is in their dense gloom a suggestion of modesty. This is how you dress in a black-and-white city, they seem to be saying; this is how you grieve for a city that has been in decline for a hundred and fifty years.

Why is he a front runner for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature?

The Nobel committee loves two things—writers who address major contemporary issues; and writers who have suffered for their art. Pamuk qualifies on both counts. But hype and court cases aside, he is undeniably a writer of world-class stature. John Updike compared Pamuk to Proust for his "dispassionate intelligence and arabesques of introspection." Margaret Atwood called “Snow” "essential reading for our times." No other writer has explored the crucial theme of the post-9/11 generation—the conflict between the Islamic world and the West—so lyrically, or with such sensitivity.