Friday, October 13, 2006


It's good to hear that the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Orhan Pamuk. He's a fine writer, and I can recommend both Snow and Istanbul. The award was accompanied by some grumbling in Turkey, but Pamuk is a writer whose work can sometimes make the reader uncomfortable, and that is, in this case, a very good thing.

There is something to be said about translatable authors and their audiences. Imre Kertész was awarded the prize while I was living in Budapest, and I was initially shocked by the cool response from Hungarians to the selection. I had thought that there would be near-universal pride in the country's first Nobel laureate in literature, but instead the reaction was very mixed. There were a lot of petty jealousies in play, and one often heard: "yes, it was time for a Hungarian to win, but why this one?" There was also a mixture of near- and full-blown anti-semitism at play. But the truth was, that very few Hungarians realized that Kertész was one of the few major Hungarian writers who work could be translated both out of the Hungarian language and the often parochial concerns of Hungarian literary culture for a wider, not-exclusively Hungarian, public. He is, paradoxically, perhaps not a major Hungarian writer, but certainly a writer of international stature who happened to write in Hungarian.

The reaction in Turkey now to that country's first winner in literature appears to be similar to or even stronger than that in Hungary. Pamuk has been willing to talk and write truthfully about topics that are highly sensitive in his country, and the consequences have been serious. But even with his critical eye, Pamuk is always a writer for whom pride, wonder, and joy in his home, Istanbul, is central to his work. He has a special role in guiding westerners through his culture, and Istanbul in particular, and we are all aware of the danger, when such guidance is not available.

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