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Turkey's Nobel writer can't escape the political

November 10, 2006|Nahal Toosi | Associated Press

NEW YORK — In another life, Orhan Pamuk could have been an escape artist.

Spend an hour with him and you quickly wonder if he wants to be somewhere else, or even someone else. Ask him, and he'll admit that not being Orhan Pamuk is a constant fantasy.

But Pamuk has good reason to want to be himself these days. For years, he has been regarded as a novelist of exceptional talent. Now he's a Nobel Prize-winning novelist of exceptional talent.

What does that mean for a man who wrote he once believed there was another Orhan somewhere?

Mostly just relief.

"The beautiful part of this prize is that I'm pleased from now on nobody else will ask me, 'Will you get the Nobel Prize?' " Pamuk says, laughing.

The Nobel is a coda to an extraordinary decade in the 30-year career of Turkey's most famous writer -- one of steep rise in global exposure.

His works have been translated into more than 40 languages. He has traveled to more than 20 countries to promote them. Along the way, he has made his share of political statements, one of which led to a trial in Turkey on the charge of "insulting Turkishness."

In a recent interview at Columbia University, where he is a fellow, Pamuk insisted that the Nobel would not change his character or work habits, but he also expressed exhaustion with the people who comb everything he says and writes for controversy. He seemed unsure whether the Nobel would be more of a shield or a magnifying glass.

"Politics do not influence my work; politics have influenced my life, actually," he says. "In fact, I am doing my utmost to preserve my work from politics."

Pamuk is a tall, slender 54-year-old, with a slightly pudgy face, almond eyes, ill-fitting glasses and rumpled hair. He laughs loudly, isn't above wagging his finger over questions he deems objectionable and describes himself as a lover of solitude with a restless imagination.

"I have this urge to stop this life and start afresh," he says.

Pamuk was born into a wealthy family in Istanbul and defines himself as Muslim "culturally," with religion never playing much of a role in his upbringing. In his early 20s, disillusioned with his architecture studies and painting aspirations, he decided he would write. It was nearly a decade before he was published.

"Till the age of 30, my father gave me pocket money," he says.

His artistic skills have influenced his structurally complex, visually piercing novels. He counts among his inspirations Proust and Tolstoy, and says he loves philosophically and emotionally layered works such as "The Possessed" and "Anna Karenina."

His own lyrical, dreamlike stories -- often drenched in melancholy -- seek harmony in discord, but don't always find it.

In "Snow," his most overtly political novel, Pamuk writes about the plight of young Muslim girls who wished to wear headscarves in school but faced legal obstacles in secular Turkey. In the book, published in the United States in 2004, every character's point of view seems to have merit, and both secularists and Islamists in Turkey found much to like and hate. The topic was especially touchy, considering the ongoing debate in Turkey over the country's bid to join the European Union, a move Pamuk has openly supported.

The push and pull in Turkey, a country that straddles two continents and has deep religious and secular convictions, haunt Pamuk's work. Besides "Snow," his best-known novels in the United States are "The Black Book" and "My Name Is Red." Another well-received book, "Istanbul: Memories and the City," is part memoir, part history of the home city Pamuk adores.

Pamuk spends years exploring themes before an idea is transformed into a book. He plans, designing a blueprint for each section. He still writes in longhand with a fountain pen.

"One of the wonderful joys of writing novels is not the writing but fantasizing about other novels one day you will write," he says. "I have notebooks, notes, so much material about the novels I may someday write. Then, of course, you realistically know you cannot write all of these novels. But it's like fantasizing another life.... I like doing that."

He doesn't believe his best work is behind him and says the Nobel is unlikely to be a crutch.

"I'm sure that after two months when I write a page that I'm not sure about the quality, that I will be upset," he says. "I will be tormented again if I think that the sentence I'm writing is not good. No Nobel Prize -- no nothing helps that."

He hopes the Nobel, Turkey's first, will have a positive influence on other Turkish writers, but he is not convinced that it will protect him from political persecution, noting that he was already famous when he was put on trial last year.

Pamuk was charged after telling a Swiss publication that Turkey was unwilling to deal with painful parts of its history involving the massacres of Armenians during World War I, which Turkey insists was not a genocide, and the killings of many in its Kurdish population. The charge was dropped on a technicality in January.

When he won the Nobel, some countrymen said he was tapped not for his writing but for his politics.

He insists that he is merely a novelist writing about what he knows and what interests him, but that others have interpreted his works as political commentary during tensions between the West and the Muslim world.

Still, it doesn't take much to make him say something political.

"It's a conscience," says Maureen Freely, who has known Pamuk for many years and served as a translator for him. "It's something he regards as a duty he can't run away from."

Now, something else he is writing is getting unwanted attention: his Nobel acceptance speech. He is still thinking about what to say.

Perhaps when he is officially honored, Dec. 10 in Stockholm, he will wish to be somewhere else, someone else.

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