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Tale from Nobel laureate Pamuk takes on Turkish coup

By Andrea Burzynski

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The seaside town where Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's novel "Silent House" is set during the late 1970s has since been swallowed by the sprawl of Istanbul, but according to the author, the story's themes remain.

First published in Turkish in 1983, last week marks the first time "Silent House" has been made available in English. The English version (translated by Robert Finn) was released in the United States by Knopf.

"There's one side of me saying that ... so much has happened, but then when you read this novel you realize that the essential conflicts are still staying the same," Pamuk, currently a humanities professor in Columbia University's writing department, told Reuters in an interview.

Pamuk now divides his time between New York and Istanbul, but "Silent House," set on the eve of Turkey's 1980 military coup, was his second novel.

It centers on three grandchildren who visit their widowed grandmother in a resort town outside Istanbul, and details how the family's dynamics are affected by the country's political tensions. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character.

Pamuk, 60, said that Turkey's long struggle to find balance between its cultural and religious traditions and modern ideals shaped by the West can result in personal conflicts as well as political ones.

The book's characters include a young bikini-wearing leftist, a high school student who simultaneously resents and tries to fit in with his wealthy schoolmates while dreaming of a future in the United States, and a disaffected misfit who joins a nationalist gang. Despite their family ties, the characters' differences cause irreparable conflicts as they fall victim to their own ideals.

According to Pamuk, traditions and ideals can sometimes be impossible to reconcile, and can create deep contradictions within individuals as well as within societies.

"The world is not black and white," he said. "Even if a person wants change completely, he's a victim to the things he wants to change. We should show these things with tenderness rather than making easy, cheap moral judgments about the characters."

Honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and the author of more than eight novels including "Snow" and "The Black Book" that have long been available in English, Pamuk believes that part of his job is to try to understand those who hold different political beliefs, and shed light on their motivations.

"For me, writing novels is about understanding people who are not like us, understanding the other," he said. "Every novelist should write about people before we disagree, and try to force ourselves into their shoes."

For Pamuk, this includes anti-Western radicals.

"Here, we have a radical nationalist with anti-Western sentiment, and yes, I also try to understand him," he said, referring to Hasan, the nationalist gang member in his book.

"Understanding doesn't mean approval. It's more interesting to write about especially politically people who have anti-Western resentment."

Rival Turkish militants are no longer shooting one another in the streets as they did in the late 1970s, and Pamuk attributes the relative peace to his country's economic growth. Still, he said that old political rivalries are still present.

"The only difference in Turkey in the last 30 years is immense economic growth, and that sense of frustration disappeared," he said. "On the other hand, political problems in the book are still the same kind of political problems we are struggling with."

Pamuk said that winning the Nobel Prize has made him "a more responsible person," but even as he takes on issues of politics and national identity, he tries to keep a sense of humor for the sake of his writing.

"I always struggle to keep the irresponsible child in me alive, because for me fiction is only possible if you can keep the child in you alive," he said.

(Reporting by Andrea Burzynski; editing by Jill Serjeant and Matthew Lewis)

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