All Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk ever wanted to do was write fiction. He never wanted to be the center of a geopolitical storm -- and yet he is. Here's a timeline of how it happened:
February 2005 -- Pamuk is charged by the Turkish government with the equivalent of sedition for talking, in an interview with a Swiss newspaper, about the 1915 Turkish genocide of the Armenians (the second greatest of the 20th century after the Holocaust) and the battles with the Kurds in current Turkey.
"Thirty-thousand Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in those lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it," he said.
The uproar in the international literary world is unanimous. Those condemning the government of Turkey -- the keystone of Bush's Middle East policy because of our bases for the Iraq War -- are a who's who of literary titans: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Gunter Grass, Jose Saramago.
January 2006 -- Charges are dropped. Often cited is Turkey's desire to be a member of the European Economic Union, where body-slamming dissident writers -- especially for what they say in Swiss interviews -- is not exactly held with favor.
October 2006 -- Pamuk wins the Nobel Prize for literature. In his earlier New Yorker review of Pamuk's 2004 novel "Snow," perennial Nobel candidate John Updike virtually nominated Pamuk for the Nobel and predicted the moves against him at home: "We should not forget that in Turkey, insofar as it partakes of the Islamic world's present war of censorious fanaticism against free speech and truth-telling, to write with honest complexity about such matters as head scarves and religious belief takes courage. Pamuk, relatively young as he is at the age of 54, qualifies as that country's most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize, and the near-assassination of Turkey's last winner must cross his mind."
Sept. 24, 2007 -- "Other Colors," a book of essays by Pamuk, is published in America.
Oct. 10, 2007 -- It becomes clear that, as usual, a great writer was the canary in the coal mine. On this day, a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives votes to recognize and condemn Armenian genocide by the Turks as Pamuk discussed and many Western nations have done. Turkey recalls its Ambassador to America.
The final note has yet to happen. Lobbyists lobby and arms are twisted -- left arms, right arms, all possible arms. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asks that the resolution be withdrawn. The House backs off a bit.
Just as the fatwa against Salman Rushdie may have been an early tremor of what happened on 9/1 1, Pamuk's troubles foreshadowed what could yet turn out to be massive tension between the United States and its strongest Mideast ally.
>His part of the world
Pamuk, on the phone during an appearance in Portland, Ore., is adamant about the thing any reader of his novels would know instantly: "I'm a writer. I write fiction. My books are not about explaining my part of the world to the other part of the world. My books, in fact, are about life."
"I'm a Turk" though, he says, and "for me, it's a Turkish issue, an issue of human rights and free speech. That's the point I care about. For me it's an issue of free speech to be able to talk about that in Turkey. It's a moral issue, rather than an international political problem."
While Pamuk will teach at Columbia in the fall and live in the United States with his family, as he has for some years, his brother is still in Turkey. While he says he has no fear about his brother's welfare for anything he might say, he knows that if he went back home he would have to be accompanied by an "armed guard."
"Turkey is not a country like totalitarian Russia or China where I'd say something and they'd twist the arm of my brother, that's wrong."
The man on the phone is, in fact, clearly uncomfortable in the role of explaining his part of the world to ours but as a dissident apostle of free speech, he is certainly willing. But when the subjects later turn to literature, himself and movies, he is warmer and much wittier -- even funny.
One immense problem, he sees, is the Western media. And "what they don't understand is that in a country like Iran, there are so many secular people. Or in a country like Russia, that there are people who don't believe in what the government does. There are people who are entirely in disagreement with their governments. ... I think that representation of these people is missing in European and American media."
"The anger and resentment that is felt against the United States or the West in general is not based on religion. It is not embedded in Islam or, in fact, any other religion but should perhaps be explained and analyzed in relation to other sentimentals than Islam. ... Misrepresentation, poverty, being on the margins, being provincial, not being included in the global decision-making process, made these people feel strong resentment and anger. ... Religion is used and abused by a minority which is manipulating nationalist and loyalist sentiment -- for politics."
The worldly Nobel laureate and practiced analyst on the phone, he says with endearing self-deprecation, is far from the original writer.
Back when he was previously a visiting writer at the famous writing school at the University of Iowa, "I locked myself in my room and began writing 'Black Book.' I was not very social. I was 32. This was the first time I was out of Turkey in so many years. I was also socially shy -- not like I am today. Each night there was a dinner invitation. And THAT would upset me -- meeting so many people. I was very asocial in Iowa. (Pause). But I wrote very well."
Though he loves and knows movies, he is not like one of his literary idols -- William Faulkner -- tempted to write for the movies.
"Even after he won the Nobel Prize, he was writing scripts for money ... He went to Hollywood and wrote that kitsch Hollywood Egyptian film ['Land of the Pharaohs' starring Jack Hawkins and Joan Collins]. I don't want to do that.
"Do I need to do that? I never understood why Faulkner did it. Probably because Nobel money was not big enough then."
The laugh on the other end of the phone is a huge, runaway guffaw.