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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Book Reviews


Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Maureen Freely. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004, 448 pages, $26.

Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf
With the Olympics and all, we’re a little late here at getting to Turkey and Orhan Pamuk. So I saw several reviews of his Snow before reading it. In Pamuk’s fifth novel to appear in English, the reviews said, a blizzard isolates the far eastern Turkish town of Kars, populated by radical Islamists, religious and secular Kurds, Atatürk nationalists, old Marxists, and other political groups. The leader of a touring theater company uses the snowbound isolation to stage a mini-coup that temporarily unites the left and the right against the Islamists and creates unexpected factional fracturing.

Finally, I thought, the Pamuk novel I’ve been waiting for, having waded through his postmodern and indirect allegories of politics in his native land, including My Name Is Red (see my review in, “Militant Modernism,” January 1, 2002). That novel received the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and, along with Pamuk’s rising reputation in the West, seemed to embolden him to be as explicitly political in Snow as he has been in his life by defending Salman Rushdie, selling a Kurdish newspaper on the streets of Istanbul, and refusing a state award.

Whetted by a casual reading of the reviews, I was a bit uneasy when I found that Snow’s protagonist is a forty-two-year-old Turkish poet who goes by the name of Ka. Like Pamuk, Ka grew up in a well-off Istanbul family, was more interested as a student in modern literature than contemporary politics, and lived for some years outside Turkey (in Ka’s case, as an accidental refugee in Frankfurt, exiled for an article he didn’t even write). Soon after arriving in Kars, the long-blocked Ka has poems—ultimately, 19—come to him fully formed from the snowy air. Whatever Ka is doing when a poem arrives, he stops and writes it down. The sometimes comic interruptions don’t seem worth the trouble. Pamuk includes a fragment of only one poem, but it is not nearly as inspired as Ka or the book’s narrator believes.

Late in Snow we learn that this narrator is a novelist named Orhan, who, more than four years after Ka’s visit to Kars, also goes to the town as he attempts to reconstruct his friend Ka’s life. Residents of Kars ask to be in Orhan’s “novel.” Readers about Kars are as confused as its residents about the ontological status of fiction: what we thought all along was a nearly omniscient literary biography within the novel Snow may be Orhan’s fiction within Pamuk’s fiction. That’s to say: Pamuk can’t resist spinning his book’s political materials within the Borges vortex, creating dizzying art about artists and art that doesn’t exist.

Ka ostensibly travels to Kars to investigate a series of suicides by young women in the town. But not long after he arrives, his attention shifts to the ravishing Ipek, a recently divorced woman he knew years before in Istanbul. Ka almost immediately asks her to return to Frankfurt with him, and much—too much—of the novel depicts his adolescent mewling, teenager yearning, and eventual seduction of Ipek. She questions why he so suddenly and violently falls in love with her. Readers will wonder the same thing. The reason becomes obvious when Ka is embroiled in multiple political plots leading away from the coup. Pamuk needs to give this pedestrian poet, depressed nostalgist, despairing God-seeker, and deeply silly person reason to live, to escape the city, so at the center of this political book is an artificial, unconvincing love story. It is doubled at the end, when Orhan visits Kars and also becomes infatuated with Ipek.

Why so much art and artifice surrounding and pervading deadly politics? I wish I knew for sure. Even the coup plays with artifice. Its leader—the traveling dramatist Sunay Zaim, former communist, former admirer of Atatürk—puts on a show in which soldiers on stage pretend to be part of the play but actually shoot young Islamists in the audience. Representatives of the secret police and military throw in with Sunay, and for a few days this mad artist rules Kars. Just before the roads to town are finally opened, Sunay puts on another performance in which he tricks a young Muslim woman into shooting—and killing—him on stage.

A student of Brechtian theory, Sunay likes to employ alienation effects that supposedly make the audience more thoughtful about what it’s viewing. Pamuk in his novel follows Sunay’s lead on stage, but Pamuk’s disorienting oscillation between artifice and realism, between the comedy of literally staging a coup and guns shooting real bullets, seems as self-destructive as Sunay’s. Or maybe not self-destructive but self-assertive: “This is my book; I do what I want.” What gets sacrificed is an earnest and nuanced treatment of the social issues that initially seemed to interest Pamuk.

When Ka gets out of Ipek’s and Sunay’s orbits and actually investigates the town he visited as a youth—interviewing the friends and relatives of the young suicides, describing the architecture of the old Russian- and Armenian-influenced buildings, talking to teenage Islamic radicals, entering a Kurdish sheikh’s parlor against his better judgment, observing the impoverished desolation of the provinces—readers will feel the complexity of politics in eastern Turkey. Religious Kurds resent the atheist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in the mountains. Religious Turks distrust religious Kurds. Secular Turks suspect that Islamist Turks and Kurds are uniting. Just about everyone in Kars resents Istanbul, and many in Kars are deeply ambivalent toward Europe. Ka represents both western regions. But this is not enough for Pamuk. Ka also has to represent poetry and passion, poorly as it turns out.

Ka also has to participate in plots. Or so Pamuk seems to believe because, on Ka’s first day in Kars, he just happens to witness the teahouse murder of an education official. Ka then appears onstage to recite a poem before Sunay unleashes his killers. Ipek’s sister, Kadife, is romantically involved with an Islamist terrorist named Blue, so Ka is pressed into service as a go-between. He wonders if the editor of the town newspaper wants him dead. After only four days in the “prison” of Kars, Ka has reason to fear just about everyone. Even fueled by constant raki and testosterone, Ka has difficulty keeping up with the plots Pamuk imposes upon him. Closed artistic space—like that in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya or Camus’s The Plague—can have symbolic power, but the compacted time of Snow is just too short to do its materials the justice, the subtle elaboration, promised by the first hundred or so pages. Once again, artifice—in the form of manic plottedness—trumps representation.

Although Ka and Orhan offer the snowflake as a symbol of the “mysterious uniqueness” (p. 376) of each human, the characters who voice political positions tend to blend into one another. Sunay repeats himself on stage, and Pamuk does so in this book. We get the same arguments—between faith and atheism, the headscarf and the bared head, Islam and Europe, political commitment and personal happiness—placed in different mouths. As if Snow were one of Sunay’s lengthy extravaganzas, the arguments seem rehearsed over and over, in case someone comes in late or skips out for a smoke. This same kind of redundancy overfilled My Name Is Red, a maximal novel about miniaturists. Early allusions to nineteenth-century Russian novels in Snow imply that it will be expansive and large-minded, but it becomes impacted, redundant, and tedious.

Orhan can “reconstruct” Ka’s life in the kind of detail we have in Snow mostly because Ka kept voluminous notebooks. Unfortunately, the one containing his poems, which he planned to publish as Snow, was lost. Ka did, however, describe the “grand design” (p. 263) of the collection, which corresponded to a six-pointed snowflake. Maybe a second or sixth reading of this novel would find it as intricate as the nonexistent collection or Ulysses, but until then it’s the book’s edges and margins—rather than its central concerns or characters—that reward. Not the long dialogues about love between Ka and Ipek, but Ka’s conversation with a youth who wants to write Islamic science fiction. Not the lengthy arguments about ideology between Ka and Blue, but Ka’s observations of the horse-drawn carriages in Kars. Not Sunay’s monologues on Brecht, but Ka’s description of Sunay’s partner, the old belly dancer Funda Eser.

A love-soaked literary man gets involved in political terror and garrulously repeats himself. This sentence also describes another recent novel by a well-known writer, Mortals by Norman Rush. There’s something distressingly self-pitying about novels like these. Of course sensitive love and delicate art will probably be crushed by power politics. But if one is going to write a political novel, why not concentrate on the passions and disappointments and histories of the impoverished victims rather than on the naive littérateurs who drop into a violent setting? Orhan the narrator says he’s working on a book entitled The Museum of Innocence, but Pamuk the author is more like an emperor than a caretaker, the Emperor of Ice Cream. He creates a frozen confection that pleases for a time, becomes sickly sweet rather than burning cold, and then melts away.

I hope Pamuk hasn’t endangered himself with a novel that I find maddeningly evasive but that a Muslim reader might find murderously maddening. Late in the book, Orhan comments on Rushdie and describes lesser-known, possibly fictional writers victimized by fundamentalist violence in Turkey. Snow gives just about every imaginable political and religious position its say and displays some sympathy for all. This juggling act is performed by an artist (Ka) within an artist (Orhan) within a novel, a form that Orhan says on the last page “no one believes in.” I didn’t much believe in Snow because it is too literary. But I can imagine a reader who believes it to be too literal. Although I don’t admire this book, I do admire Pamuk’s courage in writing it and in continuing to live in Turkey.

Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing On, was published last year by, which will release The Liquidators this winter.
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