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Pinter's Nobel


When Toni Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, the Swedish Academy awarding the prize was again, for roughly the 93rd time in 93 years, accused of being politically motivated.

"I can't take the criticism seriously," Morrison told Michael Specter of the New Yorker a few years later. "I know and you know that if an African-American wins it, or somebody from a Third World country wins it -- somebody who is not from America, the center of the universe -- they say it's political. 'Political' is a real word, and it has real meaning. But it is a term here that is sly and suggests something not superior. When it is used this way, it is a racist term."

And not just racist. It is also a term of contempt, a presumption of ideological righteousness the Swedish Academy somehow offends every time it makes an "inappropriate" choice. You're hearing those outcries again this year over the Nobel going to Harold Pinter, the English playwright, political activist and enthusiastic drunk. His great art isn't questioned. You'd have thought it might have stopped at that. But no. Pinter is a loud opponent of the Iraq war and American "imperialism." So the screechers on America's right-wing radios and on television's foxy shout shows, for whom literature smells of the seditious anyway, have been giving Pinter some of the treatment lately reserved for Harriet Miers and Cindy Sheehan.

All the better. For a few days every October, the Nobel gives literature its due as a global force in its own right -- a force sometimes political, sometimes social, sometimes purely esthetic, and always, by definition, subversive. The subplots of this year's prize show to what extent this is true.

I was rooting for the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk and our own Philip Roth, but Pinter winning was just as well. There's a Pamuk connection in there somewhere. In late March 1985 Pinter and Arthur Miller went to Turkey on behalf of PEN -- the international writers' association -- to speak for writers being silenced, jailed, tortured and "disappeared" by the government. Turkey was receiving $900 million a year from American taxpayers at the time, no strings attached (nooses aside). Those were the Reagan years, when human rights were about as hip as Jimmy Carter's cardigans. Pinter and Miller held a news conference in Istanbul to discuss the abuses. The conference was well attended. The Turkish press reported not a word. Pinter and Miller were invited to schmooze with American and Turkish eminences at the American Embassy. Pinter decided to use the occasion to speak of the tendency of Turkish wardens to stick electrocution rods on prisoners' genitals. He was thrown out of the embassy. Miller, in solidarity, followed.

Turkey got $1 billion in U.S. "aid" in 2003, a bribe to sway Turkey into joining the invasion of Iraq. Turkey declined engaging its military, which had been busy killing Kurds in the eastern part of the country, but it took the money. Pamuk, for his part, goes on trial in December for "insulting" Turkish identity. He told a Swiss newspaper in February that Turkey shares blame for the genocide of Armenians in 1915, a genocide that inspires elegies to amnesia in much of the world and a repressive reflex in Turkey, where it is illegal to speak ill of Turkey. Pamuk faces three years in jail if convicted, electrocution rods optional. Pamuk also blames the Turkish military for the death of 30,000 Kurds in southeast Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. President Bush is happy to quote Pamuk for a flourish in his speeches, as he did in his visit to Turkey in 2004. But he won't defend Pamuk's right to speak freely. So much for democratic ideals that interfere with alliances of convenience. Turkey is now poised to be absorbed into the European Union, which, like the American government, has yet to make a stink over the Pamuk affair. Injecting a little conscience in all this will probably be left up to Pinter again.

Meanwhile, Pinter has given up writing. He's devoting his time to political activism, much of it the reactionary broods in the United States interpret conveniently as one-dimensional anti-Americanism when it is, in fact, one-dimensional anti-Bushism (form follows substance for this Nobel laureate). "And how long will the American people stand for this treachery perpetrated by their elected president? How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching under the sign of the cross and the flag?" No, not a quote from Pinter's latest. It's from the not-so-honored Roth -- from his recent "Plot Against America," set in a fictionally fascist-friendly America of the 1940s. As Pinter might argue, only the setting, not the quote, is out of context.

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