Snow by Orhan Pamuk

I just finished Pamuk’s Snow. There was something magical about starting it during the huge snowfall that fell on Chicago. It pulled me into the story in a very tangible way, watching both the literal and symbolic layers accumulate around me.

The story sets itself at a kind of cross-roads, not an invigorating or revitalizing cross-roads, but one of ambivalence and passivity, ambiguity and indecision. The story is of a Turkish poet, Ka, who has been living in exile in Germany for the past 12 years. He has returned to Turkey for his mother’s funeral and decides to go to Kars where he ostensibly will write about the rash of suicides that the Head Scarf Girls are committing. These are young women who are being forced to remove their head scarves in order to attend school. The real reason for Ka’s visit to Kars, however, is that he has heard that an old flame, Ipek, has recently divorced and he wants her to come back to Germany with him as his wife.

Because of the snowstorm, Ka is stuck in Kars for three days where the microcosmic forces mirror the larger identity crisis in Turkey, a literal cross-roads between west and east. There are old socialists and ex-communists, Islamic fundamentalists, secularists, westernized and exiled Turks, the army, and Kurdish nationalists. Kars itself is on the border with Armenia and shares a dubious connection to the first genocide of the 20th century. Ka plays with all these forces, in response to a small coup in the city, only in order to win Ipek’s love. He mediates between and with these factions, never really taking sides, and makes his only real decision at the very end of the book, which negates all his careful persuading and cajoling throughout the last half of the novel, a decision which ultimately drives Ipek, and the reader, away from him.

As a westerner reading this novel, I found myself swept up in the haunting and despondent layered world of Kars: the superficial quiet covering roiling and intense tiers of historical, philosophical, religious, and political sensibilities. This evocative mood is further encouraged by the mysterious narrator, who the reader realizes halfway through the book is Orhan Pamuk himself, piecing together the fragments of Ka’s life through the fragments of Ka’s writings.

But Ka is not a very compelling character. One does not really feel for him or for his desire to find happiness. In fact the little feeling one does have for the character is slowly eaten away as the narrator/author becomes a more real character in the story. Once the narrator becomes more identifiable, our feelings for Ka become more distanced and we wonder what has made Ka so fascinating to the author in the first place. This parallels the tensions in the story between the political and religious factions and the sometimes almost surreal developments in the story. The inability for the reader to make real sense of these events in Kars over the three days, leaves the reader with the same despairing sense and inability to comprehend. The contradictions and hypocrisies of the characters and the events leaves the reader intrigued, but numb.

The women in this story are strong but iconic. Ka’s pursuance of Ipek is driven by her beauty, which may have ultimately persuaded him to make his fateful decision at the end, based on an empty notion of jealousy and male prerogative, as opposed to really comprehending gender identity and potential for relationship. In the larger story, the Head Scarf Girls are also iconic. The issue of their committing suicide is talked about by everyone so much that it renders the dilemma nonsensical.

Ka asks himself numerous questions throughout this novel: Can he really find happiness? Does he believe in God? Is he wedded to Europe or to Turkey? Is there any possible middle-ground in between?— which he never fully answers, just as Turkey is unable to answer these questions for herself.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2006 was awarded to Orhan Pamuk “who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures (Nobel).” The melancholic ambivalence of this cross-roads in Snow is palpable. The answer that there is no answer, only lots of voices, accompanied with occasional and irrational violence, makes this read and the dilemma of Turkey poignantly transparent.

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