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Nobel Winner Searches for the Heart of Turkey

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This year's Nobel Prize for literature goes to Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. His stories are often set in Istanbul. Quote: "In the quest for the melancholic soul of Pamuk's native city," says the Swedish Academy, "he has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures." NPR's Neda Ulaby prepared this report.

Unidentified Man: (Swedish spoken) ...Orhan Pamuk.

NEDA ULABY: The announcement from the Swedish Academy this morning came as a surprise to those who believed the 54-year-old Orhan Pamuk was too young for a lifetime achievement award, or that seven books might not be enough for a prize. But nearly everyone agreed that Pamuk had a Nobel coming. He grapples, exquisitely, with the largest themes. History, culture, identity.

Mr. ORHAN PAMUK (Author): Who are we? Are we Westerners? Are we Easterners?

ULABY: That's Pamuk on NPR in 1995.

Mr. PAMUK: Are we first of all Turks or Muslims? These are the basic questions that are being asked in Turkey for last 200 years. Because there is a major civilization change that's going on here.

ULABY: Pamuk's critique of being Turkish has landed him in trouble at home. He was put on trial last year for publicly commenting about the Armenian genocide during World War I. The government charges were dropped, as they are usually, says Duke Professor Aradog Gorknar(ph). Gorknar says such trials amount to political grandstanding that attracts attention, if not understanding, in the West.

Professor ARADOG GORKNAR (Duke University): These trials are really a kind of desperate attempt by a minority in the Turkish judiciary to try to prevent Turkish accession into the EU. I think that idea gets lost a lot. I think people think that it's simply an issue of freedom of speech. It's part of a bigger picture and it's an issue of nationalism.

ULABY: Gorknar says Orhan Pamuk's novels are best sellers in Turkey. And as the writer's stature has grown internationally, his intellectual urgency has deepened. Pamuk's art, he says, conveys a worldview, or many world views.

Mr. GORKNAR: And that's what he does best as a writer. He tries to - and he succeeds in teaching the reader how to understand the other, someone who is foreign, who we think maybe is ignorant, who we think doesn't understand.

ULABY: Gorknar translated Pamuk's book, My Name is Red. It tells a story of murder in the court of a 16th century sultan. Pamuk's also well known for his novel Snow, about a suicide phenomena among young women in a contemporary Turkish town. Pamuk told NPR that writing about the Other can mean writing about anger.

Mr. PAMUK: The poorer you are, the more religiously obsessed and nationless you are. These issues are filled by the angry reactionary nationalisms that these parts of the world are facing.

ULABY: But Orhan Pamuk says repeatedly he does not write about divides between East and West. He believes there's a harmony, and that's what he seeks out in his fiction. Neda Ulaby NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.