Monday, July 22, 2013

Turmoil in Turkey — On Orhan Pamuk's Novel "Snow"

Kerim Alakysoglu (who goes by Ka), is a poet who was born in the Turkish border town of Kars but moves to Germany for a dozen years. Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow kicks off with Ka returning to his hometown of Kars. It ends several days later, when Ka flees for his life and returns to Frankfurt.

The reasons for his homecoming are complicated. There’s a romantic motivation: He’s in love with a woman named Ipek who lives in Kars, a woman he desperately wants to marry and bring back to Germany. Kars is also experiencing some socio-religious upheaval, and Ka, being a romantic poet, wants to be right in the middle of it. The Turkish government has been trying to force religious women to remove their headscarves, and Kars gains international notoriety when several local Muslim women choose to kill themselves instead of betraying their religious laws and uncovering their heads.

Ka wants to find out more about why these women are killing themselves so he can write about it… at least that’s what he says.  These suicides “would haunt him for the rest of his life. It wasn’t the elements of poverty or helplessness that Ka found so shocking. Neither was it the constant beatings to which these girls were subjected, or the insensitivity of fathers who wouldn’t even let them go outside, or the constant surveillance of jealous husbands. The thing that shocked and frightened Ka was the way these girls had killed themselves: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines.”

Kars is also stuck in the middle of a blizzard. In this novel, snow functions as both a natural complication to Ka’s trip and a deeper metaphor. The snow theme permeates the entire book. In fact, I bet Pamuk mentions snow more often than Hemingway mentions rain in A Farewell to Arms. Somewhere, a literature post-grad is writing a thesis paper dissecting Pamuk’s use of snow as a metaphor for god, fear, loneliness, alienation, etc., so I’ll move on.  

Ka isn’t in town long before he is contacted by a man who goes by “Blue.” This Blue character is a charismatic but hardcore Muslim with his hands in a few schemes. Perhaps it’s because of Ka’s masochistic tendencies, perhaps it’s because he is struggling through his own existential problems, but Ka is drawn to Blue, intrigued by him. And it turns out Blue also has a connection to Ipek, Ka’s true love. The Turkish police want Blue dead, and they want Ka’s help in finding him. It’s all quite complicated, but the author weaves these different storylines together quite well.

Despite being a self-loathing cynic, Ka is an intriguing protagonist. He is constantly wary of peace and happiness, like he sees these positive forces as dangerous to his health. Speaking about the correlation between poetry and happiness, Ka writes: “The issue is the same for all real poets. If you’ve been happy too long, you become banal. By the same token, if you’ve been unhappy for a long time, you lose your poetic powers… Happiness and poetry can only coexist for the briefest time.”

I’m also fascinated by the way Blue and other Muslims constantly accuse Ka of being an atheist. To the rag-tag group of Muslim fanatics in this novel, being an atheist is practically the worst thing a person can be. An atheist is almost subhuman. Is Ka an atheist? I’m not so sure. He’s definitely conflicted about god and the nature of the universe, and sparks fly when Ka’s skepticism crashes up against the hardline Islam portrayed by Blue and his cohorts.

The narrative voice of this novel is a puzzle in itself, and the reader learns about the nature of the narrator bit by bit over the course of the story. The narrator states quite early on: “But I don’t wish to deceive you. I’m an old friend of Ka’s, and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars.” The question then becomes: How does this friend no seemingly everything about Ka? Further on in the story, the narrator admits, “Because he would later describe his boundless ecstasy quite vividly in his notes, I know exactly how he felt at that moment…” Near the end of the book, the narrator’s connection with Ka and Ipek becomes clearer, and the pieces fall into place.

I found Pamuk’s prose overly intellectual and bland at times. He wastes a lot of words telling instead of showing, and I have trouble visualizing characters and places. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how much of this linguistic detachment is the product of the Turkish-to-English translation, or whether Pamuk is just a more reserved, physically distant writer.

But overall, Snow kept me engaged. It kept me up a few nights, too. It’s rare that I find a book like this — one that takes the personal, the romantic, the religious and the political and weaves them together so well. Pamuk pulls it off.

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