Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Cold Turkey
Snow is a novel by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was originally published in 2002, under the Turkish title of Kar. The novel’s protagonist is a Turkish poet named Ka (a pseudonym composed of his initials) who is relatively famous in his homeland. For the past twelve years, he has been living as a political exile in Berlin. Upon returning to his native land, he journeys to Kars, a smaller city on the eastern edge of Turkey. Ostensibly, he is there working as a journalist to report on the political situation in this remote provincial district, and in particular to follow up on reports of young Muslim women who have committed suicide after being persecuted by the secular government for wearing head scarves. Ka’s real reason for venturing to Kars, however, is in hopes of reuniting with a beautiful woman friend from his college days and winning her love.

Soon after arriving in Kars, however, Ka can’t help but get involved in local politics, as representatives of various factions, drawn by his literary reputation, seek him out to share their views and ascertain his political and religious loyalties. The political landscape in Kars is a complex patchwork of conflicting sects from all shades of the political spectrum, and the police and military employ torture and beatings to subdue dissent. The entire novel takes place over the course of just a few days, during which time snow falls heavily on Kars, providing inspiration for Ka’s poetry but also shutting down all roads into and out of the city. During this period of enforced isolation, a Turkish Republican launches a coup to overthrow the Kars government and installs a conservative regime even more antagonistic to the city’s Islamists, leftists, and Kurds.

This novel is fascinating for what it reveals about Turkey, a nation that most western readers likely know little about. Snow is at its most authentic and compelling when it is discussing politics and social conditions. What’s less successful is the drama of the characters’ lives. Despite the violence, poverty, and unrest all around him, Ka strolls the streets with the boundless optimism of a love-struck Romeo. He exists in a fantasy world where perfect strangers spill their innermost hopes and dreams to him upon first meeting and perfect poems conveniently materialize out of some spiritual ether. This is the kind of fanciful world that authors love and literary critics gush over, but it doesn’t ring true to the world we live in. Up until the last few chapters, Pamuk chronicles Ka’s escapades with a touch of humor that clashes with the shootings and beatings taking place. This disconnect in tone is likely intentional on Pamuk’s part, but to this reader it felt off.

The novel is narrated by Pamuk, who occasionally breaks into the narrative with his first-person perspective, portraying himself as a writer investigating the life of Ka and attempting to track down the missing poems Ka wrote while in Kars. Since the poems are lost, the book is constantly discussing verses that the reader never gets to read, which makes it awfully hard to find them interesting. The reading experience would have been much more satisfying had the poems been found and included in the book, à la Doctor Zhivago.

Snow is certainly worth reading but not quite the masterpiece I expected, given the accolades it has received. It broadened my knowledge of and interest in Turkey, and Pamuk proves himself an intriguing author whose body of work deserves further investigation.
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