Last week the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. A political decision? I would hope so. It's silly to think of literature divorced from the world around it. Literary prizes aren't good for much except as marketing boosts for publishers. If they can be used to highlight a worthy writer and important political issue or two, then they're less useless to the rest of us.
Pamuk's literary credentials happen to warrant every prize he gets. He's not one of those Nobel laureates only six people have read. He's Turkey's most popular (and controversial) writer, and one of the world's most translated and read authors of that disappearing curiosity known as quality literature. But Pamuk's writings draw their force from his experience as a man torn between the traditional pull of his ancestral East and the rational push of the West -- and his ability, through his novels, to turn that experience into an inquiry that illuminates a central problem of our time: How can East and West converse without going at each others' throats? Or, as one of Pamuk's characters put it in "Snow," one of his greater novels: "Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?"
It's a matter of time before the throat-cutters start running after writers who take on those questions. It wasn't that long ago that the Ayatollah Khomeini put a sentence of death on Salman Rushdie for writing "The Satanic Verses," a novel where Rushdie takes a few inventive liberties with irreverent verses the prophet Muhammad may have toyed with. Khomeini's sentence in 1988 turned out to be the opening shot in a war on free expression that has been spreading since, and well beyond the Islamic world's regressive regimes. It's a wonder Pamuk escaped the zealots so long. But they're on to him.
In a February 2005 interview with a German-language newspaper, Pamuk reminded his audience that while the world's attention was focused elsewhere during World War I, Turkey got busy exterminating Armenians in the eastern reaches of what was left of its Ottoman empire. Specifically, Pamuk said, "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these areas, and nobody dares to speak about it." In Turkey -- a country that only pretends to be democratic yet hopes to join the European Union -- it's illegal to speak of the mass killings, let alone speak of them as genocide. Pamuk never used the word genocide in his interview. A Turkish court indicted him anyway -- on charges of "insulting Turkish identity."
"What am I to make of a country that insists that the Turks, unlike their Western neighbors, are a compassionate people, incapable of genocide, while nationalist political groups are pelting me with death threats?" Pamuk asked last December on the eve of his trial. His books were being publicly burned in Turkey. "What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk worldwide?"
Yet the "logic" is not -- as Pamuk claimed in that New Yorker piece -- restricted to eastern nations reacting to western influences. The day Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature last week, the French National Assembly (the equivalent of America's House of Representatives) passed a law making it a crime to deny that the Armenian genocide took place. Several European nations, Britain among them, have outlawed public or published denials of the Holocaust. It isn't to agree with the deniers to disagree with such laws. But prohibiting discussion -- no matter how vile the premise -- doesn't salvage truth. It impedes it while legitimizing those it seeks to silence. We saw this earlier this year during the controversy over the Muhammad cartoons. What should have been a debate about Islam's identity (and obvious contemporary contradictions) turned into a movement, shamelessly led by western democracies, to appease Islamic populations by endorsing the censors.
Slandering liberty is a 21st century habit of nations fearful of their own shadows. The slander takes different shapes in different countries, but the disease is universal (in the United States, just think of those "free speech zones" that have become routine at presidential events, or of the increasing number of controversial individuals whose lectures on university campuses are being violently disrupted or canceled outright). The result is the same: Free expression is constrained or prohibited, ending discussion at discussion's starting point. Pamuk has been making that point since his indictment. The charges against him were dropped in January on a vague technicality. The indictment against free expression worldwide lives on unobstructed but for a few voices no prize could amplify enough.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his personal Web site at www.pierretristam.com
© 2006 News-Journal Corporation