Snow by Orhan Pamuk: Book Review

The story takes place in the city of Kars, which exists in the northeastern part of Turkey.

Kars is now believed to be the poorest and most ignored part of Türkiye. Ka, a poet, has been in exile for 12 years but returns to Istanbul for his mother’s funeral. Posing as a journalist, Ka heads to Kars, a city in decline, also to investigate the wave of suicides among schoolgirls who are forbidden to wear their headscarves. Bogged down by a blizzard, Ka witnesses violent clashes between Kurdish separatists, political Islamists and secular government officials. He is there in town to interview the “veiled girls” who have attempted suicide.

The central theme of the book is powerfully reflected in these words of the character Fazil: “We will spend the rest of our days here arguing about what kind of scarf women should wrap around their heads, and no one will care one bit, as we are eaten up by our own petty and idiotic fights.”

The most intriguing part of the book comes when a military coup takes place at the National Theater while a play about girls in headscarves is being performed. The soldiers open fire on the public who mistakes the real shots for a part of the game. At one point, the novel seems to be a love story between Ka and Ipek set in troubled times, and on another level, it is a gateway to the struggle between religion and politics.

Ka, is a nomadic figure. He has denounced the traditional faith of his childhood — the idealistic left-wing politics of his youth, after becoming cynical about how the authoritarian and violent state kills the idealism of the young. Following his withdrawal from politics to art, in Germany, Ka reduces himself to an isolated figure and finds himself misunderstood by the locals. He has also stopped writing poems for a while. Somehow, he takes on a newspaper assignment to delve into the reasons behind the ban on “headscarf girls” at school.

All the characters in the novel seek stability within Turkey’s delicate and wavering identity, though he usually evades them. All of them are beset by internal and external anxieties. Pamuk, at this point, argues that politics and psychology are inseparable aspects of any society.

The situation of the Turkish people is further complicated after the assault on the National Theater that leaves many students of the Islamic secondary school dead.

The soldiers’ leader on the occasion is Z Demirkol, a former communist whose presence shows that he has been entrusted with the protection of a secular state as Islamists win the hearts of the poor, oppressed and dispossessed sections of society. State forces believe that Blue, a wanted Islamist terrorist, is involved in the destabilization of the city.

And yet, of course, it is this solemn boy, whose name is Fazil, and his best friend, Necip, who is shot dead before he can publish his science fiction, and the girls they love, who are expelled from school for refusing to remove their headscarves: it is these passionate, talkative, pious young men, as pure of heart as they are self-righteous, who monopolize our attention. In the northern city of Kars, near the Armenian border, God is real to them even if he is not real to secular intellectual and blocked poet Ka—the old friend Pamuk whom this book is supposed to be writing about—who has come by bus from Istanbul in a blizzard to investigate a suicide epidemic.

Yes, a poet named Ka in a city called Kars. And kar means “snow” in Turkish. But having returned for his mother’s funeral after twelve years in exile in Germany after the 1980 military coup, Ka is truly searching for love, roots, meaning and his muse. Snow is not just an inner silence that reminds you of God; it also makes you feel at home in the world. So what if these believing students accuse you of atheism? And what if the newspaper reports his behavior a day in advance, and one night at the theater he becomes Marat / Sade, and the beautiful Ipek will not go to Frankfurt with him?

Suddenly, he returns to writing poems. In fact, the poems seem to take over or occlude it, like a stroke or a seizure. He must immediately retire to a tea house. Meanwhile, the prisoners are tortured in red and yellow rooms. A minister of education is assassinated by a mad fundamentalist. A newly arrived terrorist from Bosnia trains disgruntled students. The Party of God can win the municipal elections.

And so, when snow separates Kars from the rest of the country, the army, the police and a very Brechtian repertory theater company stage a coup, a parody of 1980, which gives new meaning to the politics of the city.

Ka witnesses the murder of a local school principal (for advocating the hijab ban) by a young Islamist in a cafe. The main antagonist of the novel is not “Blue”, but the brutal and doubtful character Z.Demirkol.

With Kars temporarily snowbound and unaccounted for, the repressive forces seize the opportunity to crush the Islamists with searing brutality. Demirkol’s puppet is former theatrical star Sunay Zaim (famous for his Ataturk resemblance), whose performance of the play My Homeland or My Headscarf in the city’s main theater becomes the pretext for a bloody crackdown, with soldiers killing religious high school boys in the audience who have come in support of the “veiled girls”.

The great life metaphor of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is embedded in the title, and the main themes of the novel are related to it. Ka, like Kafka’s K, is a witness to, or rarely a catalyst for, events in the city, rather than a clear protagonist. He discovers love, proof, and motivation in Kars: all the city’s deepest hopes and fears are thrown adrift as snow (Turkish for “kar”) blocks all entrances and exits.

Ka, untethered by any traditional faith, having denounced his youthful political idealism and deprived of a poetic vision, finds himself in the riot of snowy Kars, reflects on the themes of religion and atheism, authoritarianism and freedom, aesthetics and politics, love and duty. Rediscovering the poetic sparkle, nineteen poems are “dictated” to Ka during his stay, which he tries to recount through the use of a snowflake diagram, in the years after those three absolutely tense days in the city.

His poems convey a compound individuality, irreducible to simple labels, based on the axis of logic, imagination and memory in his snowflake diagram. Snow thus becomes a double metaphor: it represents both confinement and freedom and, through Ka’s oscillation between these two poles, this duplicity signifies the dramatic tension between personality and politics.

However, it is Ka’s seemingly vague fickleness that raises doubts among many in Kars, when, after being drawn into the city’s political crisis, a local newspaper accuses him of being a spy. He doesn’t tend to side with anyone, so every group views him with suspicion. Although his poetic art is reduced to mere political propaganda.

Ka is also belittled for his naivety in dissenting and protesting against state violence.

As one reviewer has wisely observed, every character has a double in Pamuk’s writing. Ka’s “double” is Sunay, who organizes a “postmodern” military coup in Kars, who dedicates his “art” to the service of the state, leading to the imprisonment, torture and murder of Kurds and Islamists in the city.

Sunay embraces politics as the zenith of her art, to serve the motherland, while Ka wittily embraces its inconsistencies but does her best to escape its practical consequences. Above all, this escape is an attempt to shed unwanted labels of being a Europhile, a naive liberal, an Islamist sympathizer, a spy and informant, etc., all things that, in the end, he is accused of by his stance of not siding with anyone, but instead devoting his life to art and love. In the tumultuous arena of politics, art simply becomes escapism and thus provides our solutions and finds no vindication in the blood and repression of Kars.

What puts Snow on the pedestal is his unfathomable observation. No one escapes – the old left, the Islamists, the brutal secular state – not even Ka and bourgeois liberal intellectualism remain unscathed. The manuscript containing Ka’s nineteen poems disappears, vanishing like a decomposed snowflake, and Orhan, who has come to write about Ka’s life, discovers that the poet was generally unpopular and suspect.

What sets Pamuk apart from his other contemporaries is his refusal to play by the rules and his willingness to engage with the experiences that are realistically enlivened and narrated in his book. There are episodes in this novel, such as the conversation in a coffee shop between the director of the educational institute and his killer about the state’s ban on headscarves, that shed light on the conflict between the secular and extremist Islamic worlds better than any non-fiction work.

As Pamuk’s translator Maureen Freely points out, Snow’s only real heroes are the long-suffering Kars people who simply survive the rhetoric and machinations of middle-class, secular or religious, European or Turkish elites, and the conceits they make in their claims about the “silent majority.” This leaves us with a book that no one anywhere in the grand rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations” would feel comfortable with. This book does not advocate slogans or caucuses, and it is this significant lack of advocacy that makes Snow such a fascinating and interesting novel. It simply transcends the polemical discourse of our time and should always be treated that way.

Intriguing and consistent in its depiction of inexplicable contradictions, Snow is not a Western novel, therefore it does not adhere to Western conventions of plot and characters. The assassination of the Director of Education, the army coup, and the follow-up are not told as essential elements of the exhilarating plot, but rather as vehicles for investigating deep-seated conflicts arising from opposing philosophical and political movements attempting to win the hearts and minds of the poor people of Kars. An Islamist student explains to Ka the fundamental religious question: “If there is no God and no heaven, how do you explain all the suffering of the poor?… Why are we here… if everything is for nothing?”

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