Review by Verkin Kasapoglu Arioba
Orhan Pamuk stands unique among Turkish writers as he continues to garner attention by the western media. An essay of his was recently published in the March 7, 2005 issue of The New Yorker. Three of his books, The White Castle, My Name Is Red and Snow are now available in English. His reputation as a writer grew with his detailed and colorful novel of Ottoman history called My Name Is Red, which won international acclaim. In Snow, Pamuk brings his pen from Turkey's rich past up to present time, examining more current events in a novel combining politico-religious turmoil, farce and romance.
The story opens with the hero, 'Ka', on a winter bus to the eastern city of Kars, near the Georgian border. He is a poet and self-proclaimed atheist who has spent the last 12 years living in Germany and has only returned to attend his mother's funeral. In Istanbul, he is convinced by friends to take a trip to Kars to write about the upcoming municipal elections and the reports of recent suicides by girls refusing to take off their headscarves to attend school. Tension mounts early on as the bus makes its way through a raging blizzard and passengers aid the driver in guessing where the road may be, perhaps a portent of Ka's own inner workings in trying to find his way in a part of his native land he's not experienced much of.
Ka's first order of business is to look up an enigmatic man who often publishes events before they happen in the 'Border City News.' From there, due to the recent troubles with regional terrorists, Ka is taken to register with the local police who inform him that the city is safe, but still recommend a police escort. Ka then receives a harrowing and enthralling picture of the region's poverty and hopelessness by interviewing the families of the deceased schoolgirls. Some are reluctant to talk, seeing him as the foreigner he is to their world, though he too is a Turk.
As the snow continues to fall, cutting the city and the reader off from the outside world, Ka finds he's not totally friendless in this foreign but nostalgic place. He meets an assortment of characters, from schoolboys, aging actors in a traveling troupe, and outlaws on both sides of the legal system, each trusting or not trusting, liking or disliking Ka in accordance with their own religious and political beliefs. He also meets two old friends from his university days, recently divorced from each other. Perhaps the ex-wife is the real reason he ventured out there in the first place, hoping to bring her back with him to Germany. She, Ipek, lives with her younger sister Kadife and their aging father in a dilapidated hotel he bought years before. The treatment of Ka by the people he meets typify the positions many Turks have of the west, as these relationships wind through the maze of political opinions heard in Turkey. Just like a scientist isolates an element for closer inspection, Pamuk isolates this eastern outpost with a blizzard and puts it under his literary microscope to display the properties of a place in turmoil.
It's beyond arguing Pamuk's ability to uniquely write intricate tales; he can and has for years. He's ambitious as well, but this novel introduces the question for many Turkish readers of what exactly those ambitions are. Pamuk seems to be writing for a different audience these days. Of course Snow is 'just' a novel, but its subject material of current eastern Turkish society is neatly dissected and simplified, served up on a platter for an all too eager western literary audience hungry for anything not their own, an audience who often hides a supremacist outlook behind comments like, "I'm not racist, I've read Arundhati Roy," or the latest writer from the developing world celebrated in the west. Currently it's Orhan Pamuk, while next year it will be a one-eyed poet from Botswana. They line their bookshelves with selections from 'less-developed' countries, discussing problems of all but forgotten parts of the world from their newly renovated lofts, expressing compassion for the plight of brown peoples everywhere. Pamuk looks to be today's pet project.
The danger in Snow lies with its material being such a hot topic in the west, which Pamuk addresses on the last page. Pamuk delivers just what they want to hear, the struggles between the oppressed and the oppressor, the place where all demarcations of right and wrong get blurred, set in a village made famous by an audience in part because they didn't know where it was yesterday. But Pamuk's characters aren't forgettable as they each cast a different spell on Ka, forcing him into a disorienting reconsideration of his own beliefs. From schoolboys to bureaucrats all actively drive the story along, often echoing the strangeness of politics in our own 'non-fiction' world. An aging actor ends up carrying out a coup, which brings back memories of a certain Hollywood actor, who started out costarring with a monkey and ended up in the Whitehouse, conducting his own covert operations and coup in the form of Iran-contra and Grenada.
The story also reveals how men and women generally deal with absolute hopelessness. Utterly hopeless men more often pick up guns and shoot each other. Women usually kill only themselves. It takes strength to commit a murder, even the self-inflicted kind, and the women in the book are accurate symbols of the amount of hopelessness many women in today's world must feel. But Pamuk goes too far and reveals himself to be an outsider looking into aspects of his country he doesn't know. Nowhere is this more evident than with Kadife, who stands up and addresses a clandestine meeting of men during the dark days of the coup, displaying much less timidity than the others gathered.
Pamuk's dissection of an issue he neatly divides into these sometimes too-simplified characters reveals him to be the privileged outsider he is. His world is one in which the vast majority of Turks experience only on TV, if at all. This book hints that he doesn't know their world either. Perhaps it's his guilt coming through at the end of the work when Fazil, a young Kurdish friend of Ka's, is asked if he has anything to say to the people who will read the book. The young man starts by saying, "I'd like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away." The narrator then replies that people don't literally believe what they read in novels. Fazil, after providing Pamuk's escape clause, and though a young villager who's seen nothing of the world, then displays a more far-seeing wisdom than his more cosmopolitan compatriot. He emphatically states, "Oh, yes they do… if only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathize with the way we are and even love us." Or maybe this latest book by a good writer is a giant joke aimed back at the western literary establishment and the punch line is that same last statement above by Fazil. We may never know.