Possible minor spoilers below!
I was blissfully unaware of Orhan Pamuk’s existence until he won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Being shallow and weak-willed, I went out and picked up Snow, his latest novel, the next day (I’ve no idea if Snow is his best or not).
Having only recently finished Snow, I am unable to talk about it with the sort of fullness I’d like. Part of this has to do with the fact that I haven’t fully digested it yet, but mostly it is because Snow is not the sort of novel that reveals its secrets in a single read.
The novel’s premise is that Ka, a Turkish poet exiled to Germany, returns to a small Turkish town called Kars just in time for the entire city to get buried in a blizzard, cut off from everything, for two days. During this time, he manages to fall in love with an old friend, Ipek, and also get caught up in a minor revolution.
Pamuk was chosen for the Nobel largely because of his ability to highlight conflict of every sort, and if there’s conflict anywhere, it’s in Turkey: though Islam is the predominant religion, the nation is officially secular after Atatürk—the first president of the Republic of Turkey—effectively Westernized it… kind of like Peter the Great and Russia. The plot of Snow centers around the conflict between Kars’ secular government and many “atheist” citizens and its fundamentalist Muslim citizens. Prior to Ka’s arrival, there had been a rash of suicides by young Muslim women, either because they were “unhappy” or ostensibly because of the other controversy in Kars pertaining to expulsion from school of any girls who wore head scarves to class. There are conflicts on every level—the physical conflict of the armed revolution, the spiritual conflict of the secular and the religious, the cultural conflict of Turkey’s simultaneous Middle Eastern and European natures, the intellectual conflict of European intellectuals (Ka, the poet, is perceived as one) and the entrenched traditional modes of religious learning, the economic conflict of the unemployed and destitute residents of Ka, the personal conflict of best friends, the romantic conflict of the love-smitten—I could go on, but you get the idea.
One of the interesting things to me was the manner of narration: one does not realize it until midway through the book, but Snow is actually a frame narrative of “Orhan” the novelist from Istanbul1, who is compiling a biography of sorts of Ka, who is murdered in Frankfurt, after the action of the book has taken place. This frame narrative only exists in occasional asides by “Orhan” and sometimes entire chapters dedicated to “Orhan’s” search for Ka’s notebook of poetry. Most of the novel is about Ka’s experience as he attempts to convince Ipek to return to Germany with him, all the while attempting to play both sides of the conflict. Importantly, I noticed that certain plot devices of the inner narrative were also present in the outer narrative—the characters of Necip and Fazil, two religious boys whose relationship is literally the stuff of science fiction, have a great deal in common with Ka and his biographer friend “Orhan”: lovers of the same women, and each seems to inhabit the other after death2.
I didn’t like Ka: he was a truly annoying person, because he himself was like Turkey, divided between the atheistic and the devout, the poetic and the pragmatic, the European and the Turkish. His own eventual disillusion, abandonment, and death may be a clear indication of Pamuk’s diagnosis of his divided nation. But what began almost entirely as a snapshot of snowy Kars through the eyes of a poet became a bloody game of intrigue, betrayal, and lies. The very character of the novel seemed to change on me, which was both unexpected and bewildering.
I should also note that I wasn’t impressed with the style of writing. However, because I read a mere translation and not the original text, I cannot say with any certainty whether I find Pamuk’s writing ability to be decidedly average, or whether there is a distinct loss of quality that accompanied that change from Turkish to English. It was “poetic,” to be sure, but in a shoe-gazing way that detracted from its poignancy.
Translation isn’t the only thing which makes reading “foreign” literature difficult. I’m glad that Snow is my 52nd book—thus fulfilling my “contractual” obligation to the meme—because it really highlights what the spirit of 52 Books in 52 Weeks is: a chance to expand and challenge myself. Reading a book about Turkishness is hard because I know nothing about Turkishness. I have to stop and realize how I react to Pamuk’s descriptions of fundamentalist Muslims. When they are intractable and violent, do I nod my head in agreement? When they aren’t, do I think that they must have been westernized, and this explains their good behavior? How do my preconceptions as an American semi-intellectual compare to those of a native Turkish intellectual?
Snow hardly stands as one of my favorite books, but I’m immensely glad that I read it, because it’s the sort of work that needs to read by Americans who have little, if any, understanding of foreign culture. Despite the resulting opinions about the work, it’s clear that it stands on its own, and its author’s recent Nobel prize makes a lot more sense.