A Week in Books

Deadline-chasing rentamouths assumed that Zadie Smith had trashed her own backyard instead of thinking she had been stitched up
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The Independent Culture

One sign of a mature, argumentative democracy is that it expects its bright young talents to carp at their own culture. So when Zadie Smith seems in a US interview to call England a "disgusting" place, nearly every deadline-chasing rentamouth assumes that she has done so - rather than suspect that snide and sleazy New York magazine has stitched her up. Which it did. Anyway, if the writer had trashed her own backyard, she would merely have upheld the great tradition of reverse nationalism among the British intelligentsia that George Orwell wryly noted 60 years ago. The pundits should be - patriotically - proud of that tradition, and pay more heed instead to a country where an author may face up to three years in jail for the "public denigration" of national identity.

The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk - by any standards, a giant of world literature - is due to answer that charge in an Istanbul court on 16 December. Prosecutors have deemed that an interview given by the author of Snow and My Name is Red in Switzerland, in which he said that " 30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed" in Turkey and that "nobody but me dares to talk about it", contravenes article 301/1 of the Turkish penal code. Under this provision, any such "denigration" of the nation carries an extra punishment (a third more) if published abroad.

As plenty of eminent voices have already said, the case against Pamuk is an outrage and an absurdity. It should be dropped at once, as should a similar, less reported charge against the Armenian-descended editor, Hrant Dink. If these prosecutions go ahead, they will cast another long shadow over the accession talks that Turkey begins with the European Union on 3 October.

At the same time, it would be folly to join the anti-Turkish stampede that Pamuk's case seems to have triggered in western Europe. On Turkey's hard road to freedom, this may be more blip than backlash. Almost everything in the state Atatürk carved out of the Ottoman wreckage remains up for grabs. A fine new book by the BBC's Chris Morris, The New Turkey (Granta, £17.99), gives an expert and colourful overview of this ferment. By pursuing Pamuk and Dink now, the secular-nationalist old guard have shown their teeth - but liberal forces also have both bark and bite.

Look at the Armenian massacres of 1915, the last and deepest of national taboos. The Turkish novelist Elif Shafak (whose The Flea Palace was shortlisted, along with Pamuk's Snow, for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) tells me that Pamuk's plight "has left Turkey's open-minded intellectuals in a very difficult position". They will defend him to the hilt against the legal onslaught. Yet his claim to solitary courage in speaking out on the Armenians has belittled all the silence-breaking work done by many others.

"There are journalists, columnists, activists in Turkey who have been voicing this issue for years now," says Shafak, "but they are far less known in the West." She points out that "1915 is being opened to discussion in Turkey like never before," even to the extent of media apologies to the Armenians. Then, this May, a conference on Armenian history that 700 delegates had signed up to attend in Istanbul was postponed at the last minute after threats from the justice minister. Next Friday, the delayed congress will go ahead.

Shafak reports that, remarkably, the Turkish foreign minister has offered to make an opening speech. It seems that the battle between genuine pluralism and policed debate runs right up to the cabinet table. Under-informed literati must not take Pamuk's case - stupid and sickening as it is - as conclusive proof. As Shafak says, "We need a network. Otherwise, when and if we focus so much on individuals, either to vilify or to glorify them, Turkish democracy does not benefit".

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