Snow by Orhan Pamuk

The most important thing today is not to pray or fast but to protect the Islamic faith. -- Ayatollah Khomeini

Well, then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent. Because the European Enlightenment is more important than people. -- Fyodor Dostoevsky

Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters. – Stendhal

The Westerner in me was discomposed. -- Joseph Conrad

For it is by reading novels, stories and myths that we come to understand the ideas that govern the world in which we live; it is fiction that gives us access to the truths kept veiled and hidden by our families, our schools, and our society; it is the art of the novel that allows us to ask who we really are. -- Orhan Pamuk

I like Snow most of all Pamuk's books. -- Alissa

Ka, a Turkish poet exiled for many years in Germany, takes a trip to Kars, in Turkish occupied Kurdistan, ostensibly as a journalist for the left-wing periodical Republican to investigate a plague of suicides and to cover the local elections.

Ka has another reason for being in Kars, to meet Ipek, recently divorced, the love of his student days.

Kars is a border town close to the Armenian border. For hundreds of years it has been fought over by warring empires. For a brief period during the 1920s after the First World War it was independent. It experienced a period of liberalism. Now it suffers under Turkish occupation and the rise of political Islam. Women, as everywhere under Islam, are suffering oppression.

Ka arrives in Kars in the the middle of a snowstorm. No sooner does Ka arrive, than the town is cut off, the roads blocked by snow.

Girls have been committing suicide in nearby Batman, now the problem has spread to Kars.

All the girls, bar the one who refused to obey the headscarf edict, have been very badly treated by their families. Sadly the lot for girls in a backward Muslim community.

The 'headscarf girls', egged on by Islamists, are demanding the right to wear a headscarf.

The headscarf girls are seen in 'modern' Turkey as misguided souls who fight for the right to wear the symbol of religious oppression.

As Ka wanders around the town, the shadow, the spectre, of the PKK (The Kurdish separatist movement) is everywhere. Everywhere he goes, Ka is followed by the hated secret police. Informers are everywhere.

Ka is a poet. Once he sets foot in Kars, the poems flow. For reasons that become apparent, the poems do not appear in the novel.

The only poetry that is reproduced, are a few lines from 'Bishop Blougram's Apology' by Robert Browning:

Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist.
There is also a reference to the epic poem 'Kubla Khan' by Coleridge, and how it was written and the end was lost.

Coleridge had taken opium in the guise of medicine. The poem came to him whist in an opium stupor. When he came to, he could remember the poem word for word, and carefully wrote it down as though it was being dictated to him. Then a man from Porlock knocked on the door to collect a debt. Coleridge dealt with the man, then to his horror, found he could not remember the remainder of the poem, just a few word fragments, the general gist of how it went.

This is the fear that drives Ka, the man from Porlock. He has spent years in exile in Germany, unable to write, then on his return to Kars, the words flow, as though they are being dictated to him, from where, he does not know, maybe God. He hastily writes them down, fearful that the man from Porlock will interrupt the flow before he has set the words down on paper.

The Islamists are poised to take control in the local elections. The local military take advantage of the fact that Kars is cut off by snow and mount a coup and seize control of Kars.

Life imitating art, the coup is initiated and masterminded from the stage during a rowdy production at the National Theatre, the proceedings broadcast live on the local TV network, the first time the network has ever carried a live broadcast.

Karl Marx said, "Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." The farce is repeated with the theatre coup, this coupe de theatre as it is called by Serdar Bey the proprietor of the Border City Gazette, the local newspaper.

Is the theatre coup performance art? Ka appears to think so in a conversation with Sunay Bey, the director of the touring theatre group, the man who staged the coup:

I know that you stage this coup not just for the sake of politics but also as a thing of beauty and in the name of art. Just to look at his career is to see that Sunay Bey's every political move has been for the sake of art ... you know only too well that a play in which Kadife [leader of the 'headscarf girls' and younger sister of Ipek] bares her head for all in Kars to see will be no mere artistic triumph; it will also have profound political consequences.

Orhan Pamuk has written a strange, surreal novel with episodes of very dark humour. At times strongly reminiscent of Franz Kafka, also of Paul Auster, especially The New York Trilogy – a writer, this time a poet, searching for answers, self-referential. The style has strong echoes of Edgar Allan Poe.

In the opening pages Orhan Pamuk paints a very depressing picture. The setting could be 19th Century Russia. It is as though the words flow from the pen of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Ka though is an optimist, like Santiago in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, he is prepared to take risks to achieve what he sees as his destiny. Santiago wants to find treasure, Ka to find happiness with Ipek with who he is hopelessly in love.

Orhan Pamuk poses the same questions and dilemmas as he does in My Name in Red, the conflict between East and West, between Islam and secularism. To do so in a novel set in the past you may get away with. To do so in a novel set in the present day, even worse, set in Turkish occupied Kurdistan, is to be asking for trouble, and trouble is what he got.

From the opening pages we have a highly political novel. Orhan Pamuk describes Snow as his first and only political novel. An absolute no-no, in Turkey, where being a journalist, an academic, a trade unionist, a human rights activist, is a very hazardous occupation. To be a Kurd is even worse. Human rights in Turkey are non-existent.

The state fears the Kurds, the people fear the state, but everyone fears the Islamists.

Orhan Pamuk exposes what secular Turkey fears most, that Turkey will turn into an Islamist state, like neighbouring Iran, run by Islamist fundamentalists. He also highlights a dilemma, that secularist liberals are rendered safe from blood-thirsty Islamist fanatics by the army.

No one who's even slightly Westernised can breathe freely in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than the intellectuals who think they're better than everyone else and look down on the people – if it weren't for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them and their painted women, chopping them all into little pieces.

For writing a political novel Orhan Pamuk earnt the wrath of the Islamists and the Nationalists. For his outspoken comments on the Kurds and the Armenians, he was persecuted by the state. He was eventually forced to flee Turkey.

The background to the novel is snow. Wherever Ka looks he sees snowflakes. It is snow that has cut off Kars and made the theatre coup possible.

Like each individual life, snowflakes are unique, no one like another, each shaped by mysterious and existential forces.

Ka wrote nineteen poems whilst in Kars. Each he associated with a point on a snowflake. The last he wrote was 'The Place Where the World Ends'. It was a snowflake that inspired 'I, Ka', which he located at the centre of the snowflake. He wanted twenty poems to turn them into a book, a book that was to be called Snow. 'The Place Where God Does Not Exist', the poem he read on stage at the National Theatre, from where the coup was mounted, he never wrote in his little green notebook.

We learn from our narrator, that Ka never wrote poetry again. On his return to Germany, he spent the rest of his short life reflecting on the meaning of his poetry. On reflection, he was also trying to decipher the meaning of his own existence. And by the time he was writing these thoughts, he was convinced that every life was like a snowflake, all alike when viewed from afar, but each unique when viewed close up.

His poems, which he wrote in his little green notebook, were never published. On his death, the little green notebook was never found.

Our narrator, a life long friend of Ka, writes Snow, in an attempt to ascribe meaning to the life of Ka.

Our narrator goes by the name of Orhan, author of The Black Book.

In the opening pages, we learn he is going to tell us about the life of Ka. Snow opens with the journey Ka takes by bus to Kars.

The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him, 'the silence of snow'.

Ka seeks happiness, but even when he is at his happiest, he feels the pain of unhappiness, racked by the fear that he will have to suffer for the happiness in order to create balance.

A strange, somewhat surreal novel. Very existential. A very powerful novel.

Snow is also a tragic love story.

Snow would make an excellent radio drama.

Synchronicity: The background to Snow is snow. Not just that Kars is cut off by snow, or that it covers the streets, but that in every scene, snow is falling. Ka is inspired by the snow to write his first poem, appropriately entitled 'Snow'. Whilst I was reading Snow, I looked out and saw it was snowing, the only time it snowed that winter! It was Easter, the last cold spell before winter turned to spring. Speaking with Muhtar, ex-husband of Ipek and now one of the Islamists, Ka says, "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."

Synchronicity: A couple of days after I had finished Snow, I picked up a copy of Arabian Nights, selected tales from A Thousand and One Nights. I was reminded of Edgar Allan Poe whilst I was reading Snow. Edgar Allan Poe wrote 'The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade', a further adventure of Sinbad the Sailor, the eighth and final voyage. As I was part way through Snow (it was still snowing outside), my lovely friend Alissa sent me a text to say that Snow was her favourite Pamuk book and that she had just started reading A Thousand and One Nights. On the same day, shortly thereafter, I found a very pleasant girl with a copy of The Witch of Portobello in her hands. She was contemplating whether or not to buy it. I told her it was a very good book, and she should buy it, which she did. We then had a very long and interesting discussion about Paulo Coelho and his books. I recommended that she also read Snow and my Name is Red, and promised her a copy of Name is Red. Towards the end of Snow we learn the narrator is a friend of Ka, an author by the name of Orhan, author of The Black Book. The following day I picked up a copy of The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk.

Copies of Snow have been registered as BookCrossing books.

BookCrossing books are released into the wild and their progress checked on the Internet via a unique BookCrossing ID (BCID).

For my lovely friend Alissa who loves Orhan Pamuk and said I would like Snow (her favourite book by Orhan Pamuk), and for my lovely friend Iva who I think would like it too.
Books Worth Reading ~ Orhan Pamuk
(c) Keith Parkins 2008 -- March 2008 rev 1