Orhan Pamuk


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 16, 2004)

"I am proud of the part of me that isn't European. I'm proud of the things in me that the Europeans find childish, cruel, and primitive. If the Europeans are beautiful, I want to be ugly; if they're intelligent, I prefer to be stupid; if they're modern let me stay pure."

The rich story-telling tradition of the Middle East enlivens Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's novel about the residents of Kars, a town in the remote northeast corner of Turkey, as Kerim Alakusoglu, known as Ka, returns after many years to investigate a spate of suicides by young women forbidden to wear headscarves in school. Arriving during a blizzard, he feels as if it is "snowing at the end of the world," and when the city is closed to all traffic for three days, "The desolation and remoteness…hit him with such force that he felt God inside him."

Though Kars, which comes from the Turkish word for "snow," was once a crossroads for trading between Turkey, Soviet Georgia, Armenia, and Iran, all of which are within a few miles of the town, it is now "the poorest and most overlooked corner of Turkey." All the conflicting political and religious tensions of the country are seen here, its residents representing a melting pot of historical influences—socialism and communism, atheism, political secularism, ethnic nationalism (especially the Kurds), and the most rapidly growing movement, Islamist fundamentalism.

Ka, who grew up in Istanbul in a middle-class family, has lived in Frankfurt for the past twelve years and has returned to Turkey only briefly for his mother's funeral. A poet who has been unable to write anything for the past four years, he learns that Ipek, the woman he has always loved, is now single again and living in Kars. Traveling there ostensibly to interview the families of the "headscarf girls," he secretly hopes to reconnect with Ipek and make her his wife. As Ka becomes reacquainted with Ipek, he also meets people from the most influential groups in Ka. Ipek's father, Turgut Bey, is an old communist and atheist, now running the decrepit Snow Palace Hotel, and her sister, the lover of an Islamist militant named Blue, is one of the leaders of the headscarf girls. Ipek's ex-husband, formerly non-religious, is now running for mayor as an Islamist. Ka's bodyguards/government investigators tail him everywhere, and the army/police force is a constant presence, but this atmosphere, remarkably, inspires Ka's creativity, and for the first time in years, he is able to write poetry.

As Ka investigates the girls' suicides, he is most astonished by their "desperate speed." Girls and women go about their ordinary lives, and suddenly, without warning, kill themselves. While some officials blame western media for publicizing the suicides, therefore encouraging more girls to kill themselves, the Department of Religious Affairs has plastered the city with "Suicide is Blasphemy" posters, and local Islamists have railed against it. Still the suicides continue, a local official informing Ka that "If unhappiness were a genuine reason for suicide, half the women of Turkey would be killing themselves."

Other life and death issues come to the fore when Ka witnesses the coffeeshop shooting of the Director of Education, the man who has, on orders from the government, banned the "headscarf girls" from the school campus. The assailant is a young member of the Freedom Fighters for Islamic Justice, and Ka soon meets and comes to know others associated with the movement and the leader responsible for it. The Director has been wearing a tape-recorder, and the reasoned dialogue with which he attempts to communicate with his assailant, and the assailant's sane, but completely irrational, responses are stunning to a western reader.

Soon afterward, a military coup begins at the National Theater, which is packed to hear Ka read a poem and to see a traveling theatrical troupe perform a modern version of the "headscarf girls" story within the framework of an ancient play. Soldiers burst into the theater, shoot randomly into the audience, which thinks the shots are part of the show, kill a number of people, then round up "dangerous" citizens. Over the next two days, many others are sought, arrested, tortured, and killed, including some of the people Ka has interviewed and visited. Ultimately, as the three-day blizzard ends and Ka readies to leave Kars, Ipek must choose whether to go with him to Frankfurt or to stay in Kars with her family, a decision that is by no means clear-cut.

Fascinating and articulate in its depiction of almost inexplicable contradictions, Snow is not a western novel and does not adhere to western conventions of plot and character. The execution of the Director of Education, the army coup, and the follow-up are told, not as exciting plot elements, but as vehicles for exploring the many conflicting philosophical and political movements which compete for the hearts and minds of the poor population of Kars. An Islamist student explains the fundamental religious question to Ka: "If there is no God and no heaven, how do you explain all the suffering of the poor?…What are we for here for…if it's all for nothing?"

Different characters here find many different answers to these interconnected questions and just as many explanations for the underlying problems. As author Pamuk presents their various points of view, the reader finds the novel exploring broad philosophical and intellectual issues almost never tackled in western fiction, in addition to more specific issues related to poverty, modernization, technology, religious doubt, and freedom. The plot is exciting enough to keep a reader who is interested in politics, religion, and philosophy fully and enthusiastically occupied, but readers hoping primarily for an exciting story will find the pace slow as Pamuk explores his themes. The characters are intriguing, but they are more representative of types than of individualism, which is not a value of the society.

Published in Turkey and Europe before September 11, the novel has an ominous prescience to it, and as the events in Kars unfold, western readers will find much to ponder as Pamuk recreates the environment in which extremist movements take root and flourish. As one leftist warns Ka, "No one who's even slightly westernized can breathe free in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than intellectuals who think they're better than everyone else and look down on other people….When we go the way of Iran, do you really think anyone is going to remember how a porridge-hearted liberal like you shed a few tears for the boys from the religious high school [who were arrested]? When that day comes, they'll kill you just for being a little westernized…"

Many-leveled, beautifully wrought, and complex in its themes, this is a novel which thoughtful western readers will want to explore, a haunting novel rich with insights which should not be ignored. Packed with ironies, black humor, and enough symbols to keep a symbol-hunter busy for days, the novel draws attention to rapidly rising fundamentalist movements and some of the reasons they seek our destruction. (Translated by Maureen Freely.)

  • Amazon readers rating: from 146 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Snow at RandomHouse.com

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About the Author:

Orhan PamukOrhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952 and has spent all his life there, except three years in New York City. After attending the architecture program in Istanbul Technical University for three years, he finished the Institute of Journalism at the Istanbul University. He started writing at the age of 22.

Success didn't come at once and he had to rely on his father for financial help. Early naturalistic novels gave way to more postmodern, tricky works, and his breakthrough came in 1994 when his fourth novel, New Life, became a bestseller. A high profile figure at home, he has been denounced for his support for Kurdish political rights.

He is now the author of seven novels and the recipient of major Turkish and international literary awards. He is one of Europe's most prominent novelists, and his work has been translated into twenty-six languages. My Name is Red won the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2006 was awarded to Orhan Pamuk, "who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures."

He lives in Istanbul, Turkey.

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