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Stendhal’s quote from “The Charterhouse of Parma” is one of four that introduces this wonderful novel from the award-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. From the very beginning we are warned that this is a political work, a book that reveals the conflict between the Western secular world, with its roots in the European Enlightenment, and traditional Turkish and Islamic society, which lies in the shadow of Europe.
Set in 1992, the story centres around Ka, a poet who has spent years living in exile in Frankfurt. His mother’s funeral has brought him back to Istanbul, and from there he travels on to the border city of Kars to report on the upcoming municipal elections, and the string of suicides that have rocked the city.
Snow is a dominant image throughout the book. It covers everything and cuts the city off from the outside world sometime after Ka’s arrival. Usually a symbol of purity and innocence, in Pamuk’s novel it also covers the extremely unpleasant events that Ka is witness to during his stay, the white of the snowy landscape contrasting strongly with the novel’s darkness. But snow is also a source of inspiration to Ka, who has not written a poem in years.
Word of Ka’s arrival in Kars travels fast. He is invited to meet various influential people, including the city’s newspaper editor, who regularly writes and prints tomorrow’s news before it happens. From this newspaper, Ka finds out that he will be reading from a new poem entitled “Snow” at a theatre event. He has no such poem but inevitably he comes to write one. In fact, after years of creative inactivity, he suddenly finds himself constantly hit by inspiration, stopping throughout the events of the novel to compose the latest poem.
The city has been suffering from a wave of suicides. Young girls have been killing themselves since the authorities banned the wearing of head scarves in schools. The suicide girls and the headscarf girls have rebelled against the voice of secular authority and been thrown out of school. This raises tensions among the boys from the religious high school, the Islamists and the secular authorities.
Ka witnesses an assassination in a pastry shop, which Pamuk conveys brilliantly through the use of a tape transcript. This killing precipitates a coup which is staged, quite literally, in a theatre, during a production. This scene, where shots are fired in the middle of a performance, points back to the Stendhal quote. Locked in by the snow, the roads impassable, the city falls under the control of an actor-manager and the military who attempt to deal with the Islamists before the roads reopen and Ankara steps in.
Although a leftist, Ka doesn’t involve himself much in political matters. Instead, he pursues Ipek, the woman he hopes to marry and take home to Frankfurt. One of the book’s themes is the moral dilemma of the pursuit of happiness in the midst of terrible events and the suffering of others. Ipek’s younger sister, Kadife, is a prominent member of the headscarf girls, and the mistress of Blue, a infamous terrorist who lives in hiding. Meeting these different characters who believe that he can in some way help them, Ka gets a picture of the state of things in Kars. He becomes embroiled in intrigue, constantly followed by the police and intelligence as he arranges to meet Blue, the local religious high school boys, the families of the suicide girls, the local leftists, a religious leader and others.
Ka himself is having a religious crisis. A secular Turk, the sudden bolts of creative inspirations, the atmosphere of the snow falling around him and the religious debates make him uncertain about his disbelief. He is a vacillating character, ultimately a weak one.
Early on, the novel seems to be particularly concerned with the issue of the suicide girls, but it opens up into a more full blown confrontation between secular Turkey and Europeanised Turks like Ka, and other groups such as the Islamic fundamentalists, the military, and the Kurdish nationalists.
“Snow” is a complicated novel, full of politics, but also very easy to read. Maureen Freely has done an excellent job on the translation, and the prose itself is wonderful, rich, even poetic at times, though Ka’s poetry never appears, it is merely described. There is a great deal of black humour going on: the theatre coup staged by the flamboyant and egotistical actor-manager, the essentially ludicrous nature of the political meetings, the newspaper editor who writes the news in advance. This is a book full of wonderful characters and discussions. There’s also intrigue, mystery and romance. And it gives voice to many issues, including women’s rights. But at its centre is the secular Turkish state which alienates many of its own people. With a foothold in Europe and another in the Muslim world, Turkey stands in a difficult position. There is more than one Turkey in this novel, but Pamuk doesn’t take a particular position on this or other issues. He merely shows us the potentially explosive nature of these conflicts by putting together a cast of extremely diverse people, in a remote city temporarily cut off from the outside world. As a result, the novel angered both westernised Turks and Islamists, and went on to become a bestseller.
Reproduced with permission
Kara Kellar Bell is a film and media graduate from the West of Scotland, with a passion for European novels, French films, silent cinema, and Brazilian music (everything from Daniela Mercury and other pop stars through to bossa nova). As a writer, she likes to have room to move around creatively, so she’s not located in one genre. She writes realism and also stories of a more fantastic nature, usually grounded to some extent in the real world. She also takes delight in writing across the sexual spectrum, and as a bisexual, considers it important to remind people that things are not always black and white, either/or, in sexuality or in gender. For a selection of Kara’s writing on the Showcase section of this site, click here
Translation: Maureen Freely
(Faber & Faber 2004)
Reviewed by: Kara Kellar Bell
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