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Culture

Turkish Writer Picks up German Peace Prize

Turkey's best-selling novelist Orhan Pamuk has been awarded the German Book Trade's Peace Prize, reflecting a growing awareness that many of the issues preoccupying Turkey these days have a profound global resonance.

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A literary ambassador for Turkey

Just one week after demonstrations took place in Berlin against the German parliament's resolution in memory of the massacre of Armenians by Turks in 1915, Germany has awarded one of its most prestigious cultural prizes to Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, an outspoken critic of his country's inability to own up to its often harrowing history.

Born in 1952, Pamuk grew up among Turkey's secular upper classes. After spending several years in New York, he was given a mixed reception when he returned to Istanbul, the city where he was born. The country's Islamic intellectuals accused him of exploiting religious and historical themes to pander to Western tastes. Still, however progressive and pro-European he may be, his support of Turkey's westward development is far from unconditional.

Istanbul (Türkei): Ein Straßenhändler mit Bildern im Basar-Viertel, von Istanbul, aufgenommen am 02.09.2003. (BRL489-191103)

Admirers see his work as a rejection of a recent intellectual tradition that aspires to be western by ignoring the past. "If you try to repress memories, something always comes back," Pamuk once said in an interview with Time magazine. "I'm what comes back."

A love-hate relationship

According to the selection board that chose Pamuk, in novels such as "Snow" (2002), "he follows the historical traces of the West in the East and of the East in the West in a way no other writer does."

He enjoys both commercial success and critical acclaim in his home country. His 1990 novel "Kara Kitap" is widely seen as one of the most controversial and popular readings in Turkish literature.

But despite his phenomenal popularity, Turkey itself has a love-hate relationship with Pamuk. Nationalist groups angry at his criticism of Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish minority want to see his books removed from public libraries.

And while many welcome the attention he brings Turkey as its literary ambassador, others envy his international stature. "There is a lot of jealousy that Orhan Pamuk has been translated into so many languages," said one anonymous source in an interview in the Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Yavus Baydar from the newspaper Sabah has described the award as "very significant for freedom of speech in Turkey." He knows what he's talking about. Earlier this year, he asked Pamuk to write an article for Sabah about South Korea. After it was published, he was bombarded with outraged readers' mail, accusing him of having given a voce to a "traitor."

A relevant writer

Susan Sontag

The prize jury's decision continues a tradition of honoring writers whose works have a topical significance. In 2003, US essayist Susan Sontag (photo) received the award for her reflections on the fragile state of post 9/11 trans-Atlantic relations. A year later, the selection of Hungarian novelist Peter Esterhazy came shortly after the EU's eastwards enlargement. In 2005, the choice of Pamuk serves as a reminder of just how much Turkey and Turkish issues factor into Germany's political and cultural debate.

"My novel ("Snow") is about the inner conflicts of modern Turks," he told Die Zeit in April. "It's about the contradictions between Islam and modernism and the desire to be integrated into Europe -- and the simultaneous fear."

In 1998, Ankara wanted to present him with Turkey's highest cultural accolade, the title of state artist. He rejected the honor. "For years I have been criticizing the state for putting authors in jail, for only trying to solve the Kurdish problem by force, and for its narrow-minded nationalism," said Pamuk. "I don't know why they tried to give me the prize."

This time, though, Pamuk will be accepting his award -- at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.

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