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Snow in Turkey?  And for three days, non stop?  Who from the lands outside the greater Middle East would imagine it? And yet, Orhan Pamuk makes it so in his 2004 novel, Snow, set in Kars, a small city in far NE Turkey.

And, in fact, snow is not unusual in this high-plains city, but when it comes down for three days, cloaking the events depicted in the novel from the outside world, yet symbolizing a time outside of time, a parallel world that yet is Turkey today, it is something unto itself.  We have, as it were, a small Turkish snow-globe, in which conversations of belief and non-belief in God take place,  a falling in love,  a return of a poetic gift, but also murders, suicides, state and religious brutality, a search for a lost love and a loss of that love; a departing train.

The snow is at once real, persisting from beginning to end of the action, and symbolic,  a place of wonder and beauty, a promise of childhood innocence, and its opposite, the obscuring cloak cast over poverty and misery and death.  It hides a mini revolt from the outside world, and the bodies from the people of Kars.

“Everything… lost, erased beneath the snow.”  Sometimes the snow seems like “the end of the world,” or “As he watched the snowflakes hover in the air it seemed as if time had stopped”  At other times, as Ka, the protagonist says in a conversation with an old acquaintance:  “If  I were an author and Ka were a character in a book, I’d say ‘Snow reminds Ka of God!” but I’m not sure it would be accurate.  What brings me close to God is the silence of snow.”  Or perhaps, each snowflake, in its six-sidedness, is a map of any individual’s character.

Ka has returned to Istanbul for his mother’s funeral, after 12 years of exile in Frankfurt.  After a few days and a conversation with an old friend  he decides to go by bus to the distant city of Kars where, as a newly credentialed “journalist,” and some vague interest in the upcoming municipal elections there, and the spate of suicides by young women he also hopes to find a beautiful and recently divorced friend of his university years, Ipek.

The arc of the story begins with Ka interviewing families of the suicide-girls, and meeting Ipek for an awkward reunion and interest-declaration in a tea house.  Just as they find some relational thread in the recent deaths of their mothers, they witness the assassination at a table next to them, of  the director of the Institute for Education.  They flee.   The story now begins to accelerate and lift.  He meets her ex-husband, an old acquaintance from leftist student days, now the head of the local “moderate” Islamic party, and mayoral candidate in the elections about to be held.  The police arrive and interrogate them both about the murder.  Muhtar, as an Islamist with a presumed antagonism to the secular professor, gets a beating.  Ka, as a witness, is asked to look over the mug-shots of all the usual suspects, and the bloody face of Muhtar.   Wandering the streets after being released a young man approaches Ka and guides him to  meet Blue, a mysterious Islamic terrorist, or teacher.

That evening, as predicted in the local newspaper, Ka appears on stage, to recite his poem, Snow, his first poem in years, and which he didn’t have hours before the predicted appearance.   The play proceeds, a revival of a 1920s favorite as Ataturk was moving Turkey from obscurantist Islam to Enlightenment secularism.  Tonight, however, the boys from the local Islamic high school have appeared to jeer and shout down the blasphemy.  Removing a headscarf as an act of patriotism (then) is a sin (now.)  On the stage, soldiers come out to protect the heroine from the religious mobs, and, Look Out!  The Guns are Loaded!

Real shots are fired.  People die.  It’s all televised, but only in Kars.

Ka’s new young acquaintance, Necip,  aspiring to be the first Muslim science fiction writer, is shot through the eye.  The theatrically instigated counter-counter revolt begins to take place.  The director, a minor megaloman, along with friends in the local police force, wants to reassert, in the face of rising Muslim piety, the secular values of the Ataturk revolution, or simply burst from his theatrical identities of Great Men into becoming one himself.

All along, in his impossibly crowded days, Ka pursues of his love of Ipek, and fights off his attraction to her younger sister, Kadife, said to be the leader of the local head-scarf girls, those protesting the rule of the state, and enforced in the schools, against wearing head-scarves.  He meets with Blue twice, once prodded  by a pistol in Kadife’s hand and discovers that both women have been his lover.

A closing night play is staged, a re-creation of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, re-written to culminate as Kadife, now on stage, strips off her head-scarf, in return for the release of Blue from military detention.  One of the most memorable images of the novel is how her hair-baring is as titillating, to our western eyes, as a full frontal exposure behind swirling gauze.  Kadife, carrying out the script, shoots the director, and once again  –the gun is loaded.


So what do we have here?  A promising mystery, a thriller, set in the tension zone of Islam and Secularity; a story of love pursued across the years, and found — and then lost; a story  in which discussions of God are at the center of the narrative.  Chapters such as:

Are You an Atheist, a Nonbeliever who does not want to kill himself?, or Do They Have a Different God in Europe?

The theological questions aren’t answered but the incredulity of the locals and the hard packed soil of belief gets a good turning over.

Yet somehow, for all its promise, Snow doesn’t quite work out.  The  mysteries, the human fascination with hope and it’s success or failure, or even our new knowledge of life in small city in Turkey, doesn’t exert a steady pull.

In part,  an authorial decision made by Pamuk interrupts.  The narrator is not Ka himself, nor an omniscient author, but a good friend of Ka’s, who has come back to Kars, four years after Ka’s own visit and recent death by murder in Frankfurt.  He has come, ostensibly, to find the manuscript of poems, titled “Snow,” which Ka wrote in a paroxysm of renewed poetic power during the three days in Kars but had never published.  It is during this visit that “Orhan” the narrator, decides to write the book “Snow” which we are reading.

Yet “Orhan” seems to have his own quasi omniscience, explained by “detailed journals” which Ka left.  So he is able to make the three days, four years earlier, come alive  — the love making, the self-doubt, the long conversations, the hidden feelings.  But since we the readers now have a “writer” in mind, who could not have known the inner workings of his characters, when the become visible there is a disruption in our immersion in these lives.   “Wait!  How could ‘Orhan’ have known what Ipek was thinking then?”  Even a prolific journal keeper could not have kept the richness of detail, or known the thoughts of those he meets for an hour or two.  If the story had been told by the voice which knows all we would have accepted such knowledge; it has been commonplace since Stendhal that the narrator knows the sorrows and silliness of every character; we expect it, depend on it even.  But when the novel is written by an personage in that novel, referring to himself as “I”, the suspension of disbelief is constantly punctured.

And why?  Why is “Orhan” needed?  Why does the actual Orhan Pamuk need a fictional Orhan to tell Ka’s story, to reprise his journey, to fall in love with Ipek,  and, like Ka,  fail?  Except to twice make the point that the exile cannot go home?  The Turkish woman cannot be taken from Turkey and still be that which has drawn him to her in his imagination.

And why, when the poems that Ka is suddenly writing, after such a long drought, are so important to the telling, do we never read them?  Wonderfully suggestive reference is made to them, all nineteen as they flood him over 3 days, but we never see one.  Ka, the poet, who wrote detailed observations of the inner workings of people’s minds, and left precis of the poems, did not write even rough drafts of the poems?  Hmmmm.

There is something frustrating about all this, a failure to close, as it were — an unwillingness to come to grips with the issue at hand.  In part I suspect it is in Pamuk’s writerly nature, as with many post-moderns, to write from the consciousness that everything shifts; nothing is certain.  All text is different text to different eyes.   To create an omniscient narrator is already to deceive.  So a narrator who doesn’t know all is needed.  To add to the confession of the impossibility of knowing, we have shape-shifting, and doubling.  As in his White Castle, where a Turk and a Venetian slowly become each other over the years, we have Orhan Pamuk, the author, creating an Orhan as a character who writes a book called Snow, about a character, Ka, who has written a book called Snow  and who already represents Pamuk

Ka loved Turgenev, and his elegant novels, and like the Russian writer Ka too had tired of his own country’s never-ending troubles and come to despise its backwardness, only to find himself gazing back with love and longing after a move to Europe. [and Refers to Pamuk]


We have Ka the character, in Kars the city, caught in Ka which is snow, which is the title and the reality: Ka in kar in Kars in the novel Kar.

I’m sure this is interesting to some but for others it gets in the way of what might have been a gripping, relevant novel of Turkey today, or a love story washed up on the shoals of old loyalties, distance,politics, cultural, the tug of families existent against  families that might be made.

Added to this “see the magician do his tricks”  is the snow.  Pamuk makes it take on a shifting metaphoric burden, which becomes an overburden,   making it exactly what it is in the novel, obscuring,  preventin certainty, clarity.  Even as Orhan looks through Ka’s apartment in Frankfurt for the manuscript of Snow, it is, you guessed it, snowing.  After the electricity returns one night in Ipek’s family apartment, the television they had been watching is, of course, snowing.

Snow, beyond, God, beyond the end of the world, beyond innocence, or the name and content of a poem,  stands for obscurity, the inability to see.  Most importantly, in a novel that wants to grapple with the secular-religious struggle of Turkey, the snow represents the problem that nothing is solid or clear.  In a free country young women should be able to dress as they wish, but to dress as they wish is to declare themselves unfree, and in favor of making others unfree.  In a country were terrorism is real and terrible the bulwark protecting many from it is terrible and real.  Both are arbitrary, cruel and certain of their guiding saints. And neither Ka, nor Orhan, can light a torch bright enough to pierce the swirling snow.

Lost in this Ka’s indecision are the questions he set out to answer, and which we would like to know more of.  What of the suicide girls?  Most of them have killed themselves not in protest over being forced to wear head-scarves but because they have been abused, insulted and demeaned by fathers, husbands and mothers-in-law.  After the few interviews revealing this, we hear nothing about them, nor their relation to Islam or the secular authorities.

What of the municipal elections, which he was there to cover?  Who opposed Muhtar and his Prosperity Party?  Are the suicides and issue?  Who wins?  Don’t know.

What happens to the head-scarf girls and their protest against being told how to dress — a very real issue in Turkey, as in France and elsewhere.  We don’t know.

In fact, we know nothing, or next to nothing about Ka’s 4 years in Frankfurt after his return from Kar’s and his failed wooing of Ipek.  We know that he wrote letters to her, but never mailed them: we don’t know why.  We don’t know what happened to the poetic gift that returned to him, once back in Germany.

The more we think about Ka we come to view him as a man, an exile, adrift, unable to make a new life in Germany yet unable to return to Turkey.  He came back  not out of a driving nostalgia, or a hope that 12 years had changed the country he left,  but for his mother’s funeral.  In fact, even though it was his mother, we know not a thing about his love for her, his sorrow at her passing.  We have no idea what he thinks of Turkey, or the details of his loneliness in Germany. He arrives in Kars through a chance conversation with a friend and a vague recollection of a beautiful woman, hoping that falling in love will rescue him from his loneliness.

This is all the more curious because, according to the time-line of the novel, Ka left Turkey soon after the General’s coup of 1980.  His trip to Kars is 12 years later, let’s say 1992;  “Orhan” visit is 4 years after that, 1996.  There were municipal elections in Turkey in 1991, so maybe that was the year of the visit.  The early 1990s in Turkey, particularly in the east, saw particularly vicious Army vs Kurdish PKK violence: assassinations, villages burned, massacres. Yet Ka, lost in the snow, knows nothing of this…

As an editor friend of mine told me, he needed a good editor, someone to take a potentially powerful book and make it so.

Maureen Freely’s translation, in the same year as the publication,  reads excellently.  There are  no major read-bombs, Britishisms or infelicities.  She has been Pamuk’s translator for many of his novels, and as one fellow Turkish writer expressed to me, must be a saint.  Pamuk is very demanding, and reads English very well — always a problem for a translator — the non-native, authorial judgement “helping” the native speaking translator.

The reader of the Audible version is John Lee is very good, with just enough inflection and nuance to make the reading come alive, without over-doing it in a theatrical way, or worse, vocally emphasizing phrases that do not carry that sense textually.

For another review, happier than this one, see Christian Caryl in the New York Review of Books, May 12, 2005.