Friday, October 31, 2014

A Man Fit to Play Atatürk: Orhan Pamuk's "Snow"

Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow (originally published in Turkey as Kar in 2002), is a strangely quiet, subdued and distant book. This despite the fact that it is filled with strong emotions from all points of the compass and almost unrelenting violence. All of that emotion and violence seems to be wrapped in snow, which falls endlessly during the narrative, hiding things, hindering motion, deadening sound. The novel's setting--the city of Kars, in Anatolia ("Kars" is very close to the Turkish word for "snow")--is caught in a heavy winter storm, the roads leading to anywhere else are all closed, and Pamuk's protagonist, a poet who goes by the name Ka, wanders through this snowy and dark decaying city, unsure where he's going while the city is caught in a very localized military coup. The military (and the local police and the state secret police and several powerful individuals) are attempting to break the rising influence of political Islam in Kars in the wake of a series of suicides committed by young Muslim college students who have been ordered to remove their head scarves or be expelled from school. These students are called the suicide girls, and they are either victims, heroes, or sinners, depending on who is speaking. The secular government has plastered the city with posters reading "Suicide is a sin," ironically invoking the commandments of the same Allah they officially ignore. Ka is in Kars with press credentials from a major Istanbul newspaper, on assignment to write about the local elections and the suicide girls. The news stories are an excuse for Ka, who has traveled all the way to Turkey from his self-imposed exile in Germany, to come to Kars and pitch extremely clumsy woo to I˙pek, a woman he's loved at a distance since their university days.

That's the premise of Snow: a minor poet who's lost contact with his muse returns to his homeland to find a wife, and a violent revolution he neither understands nor cares about threatens to interfere with his romance. Ka is mostly unaware that his own life is increasingly in danger as he refuses to take a side in the politics. He is concentrating on two other things: the favorable reception he's getting from the beautiful I˙pek, and the poems that keep coming to him in finished form, which he is constantly writing down in a notebook he carries everywhere. For Ka, at least on the surface, things are going well. Meanwhile, students, young unemployed men, entire families and shopkeepers are being rounded up and brutally tortured and executed by the provisional military government. Ka does his best to look away from the violence and the politics, concentrating instead on the underlying humanity of both the perpetrators and the victims.

And it's that choice on the part of Pamuk, to look away from the reality of the violence and the countless instances of individual suffering, that makes Snow such a distant book. Pamuk places layer after layer of insulation between the reader and the emotions of the story, so that it almost seems as if nothing is happening except a constant snowfall. I'm only halfway through the novel, so I don't know if that's an intentional effect. But the violence, the high emotion, all take place for essentially anonymous groups here, "the students," "the children," "the police," etc. Pamuk does characterizations extremely well, and whenever he pauses long enough to give us an individual portrait, the characters spring to life, full-blooded and clear, and they are all delightfully real, both sinners and saints. Pamuk reserves this individual reality for just a few characters, though. Mostly, the revolution is fought among cardboard cutouts, around which Ka and the narrative dodge, trudging along through snowdrifts.

I was struck right away by how much Pamuk's writing here reminds me of the writing of a lot of Japanese novelists, by which I mean it is restrained and maintains a regular and unhurried pace:
“It looks as if the army is up to something,” said Turgut Bey. To judge from his voice he was in a foul temper, unable to decide whether this was good or bad.

The table was in disarray. Someone had stubbed out a cigarette in an orange peel—most probably it was I˙pek. Ka remembered seeing Aunt Munire, a distant young relative of his father’s, doing the same thing when he was a child, and although she had never once forgotten to say madam when speaking to Ka’s mother, everyone despised her for her bad manners.

“They’ve just announced a curfew,” said Turgut Bey. “Tell us what happened at the theater.”

“I have no interest in politics,” said Ka.

Although everyone and especially I˙pek was aware that this was another voice inside him speaking, Ka still felt sorry.

All he wanted to do now was to sit quietly and look at I˙pek, but he knew it was out of the question; the house, ablaze with revolutionary fever, made him uncomfortable. It wasn’t just the bad memories of the military takeovers during his childhood; it was the fact that everyone was talking at once. Hande had fallen asleep in the corner. Kadife went back to the television screen that Ka refused to watch, and Turgut Bey seemed at once pleased and disturbed that these were interesting times.

For a while Ka sat next to I˙pek and held her hand; he asked her without success to come up to his room. When it became too painful to keep his distance, he went upstairs alone and hung his coat with great care on the hook behind the door. There was a familiar smell of wood in his room. As he lit the small lamp at the head of the bed, a wave of sleep passed over him; he could barely keep his eyes open; he felt himself floating, as if the whole room, the whole hotel, were floating with him. This is why the new poem, which he jotted down in his notebook line by line as it came to him, portrayed the bed, the hotel in which he lay, and the snowy city of Kars as a single divine unity.

The title he gave this poem was “The Night of the Revolution.” It began with his childhood memories of other coups, when the whole family would wake up to sit around the radio, listening to military marches; it went on to describe the holiday meals they’d had together. This was why he would later decide this poem was not about a coup at all.
This relaxed pace, this careful laying out of one event after another, is the way of the whole narrative (at least the first half of it). The descriptions of poems run all through the story, though none of the poems are actually quoted.

I should also mention that this book owes a good deal to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Devils, which I luckily read this summer so I can recognize the similarity between these two tales of political madness in rural cities. Pamuk, deep in the middle of the book, is beginning to turn his incidents of political madness into parody. There is also the ongoing question of religious faith in Snow that runs through The Devils, though it is the wavering faith of Ka on display here, rather than that of one of the instigators of the political violence.


  1. Pamuk has been nothing but trouble for me. I've read three of his novels, including this one. On the surface, they are just the kind of thing I like. In practice, frustrating. I had not and have not read The Devils - that connection makes sense.

    Maybe you will be able to figure out the poem crystal. Maybe it is a giant red herring.

    I read Snow when it came out in English, in 2004. I had just been to Turkey, although nowhere near Kars or the eastern border, but I remember reading about it in the Lonely Planet guide. Wonderful place to visit, it said, but do not under any circumstance plan to go there in the winter - you will be trapped by the snow and your vacation will be ruined.

    1. I don't know why I am such a dope, but I am such a dope. At about page 300 of Snow, it occurred to me that the primary literary touchstone of the novel is of course Kafka's The Castle. There are many similarities (the protagonist K in The Caslte and Ka in Snow, Ka's murder beneath a neon sign that reads simply "K" (that was the giveaway, I sadly confess), the remote village with a high castle on a bluff, the endless snow snow snow, the protagonist's bumbling about to learn who in the town is in control of what, the ruins of European empire strewn all about, etc). I might write more about that. The protagonist of The Castle is a land surveyor, representing science and rationality, and the post-religious European future.

  2. Apropos of nothing (and with a tip of the hat to Dostoyevsky for my opening phrase), I would note that I am fascinated by the ways non-European and non-English literature is becoming more "accessible" and "fashionable." Even in academia, the so-called "canon" is being torn apart by intrusions from previously marginalized parts of the globe. However, my fascination is tempered by the knowledge that it takes several generations before we know which writers and which works remain worthwhile. So, with that thrown out just for the helluvit, I remain skeptical about all "intruders." Newness and difference and singularity do not add up to literary quality. Literary quality requires more. In your view, does Snow make the grade or not? AR(Tom) seems to think that Pamuk ain't quite ready for prime time. But perhaps I am not reading the words correctly. Given my mindset these days, that could be possible. As I said, this is apropos of nothing.

    1. Well, I don't know. I don't care about the state of the canon, really. It can look after itself the way it's always done. And I'm sure Orhan Pamuk is doing just fine without it, too. Snow is a good book. I never said otherwise.

    2. I would say that Pamuk has defeated me several times. I am not yet ready to assign blame, although I have a guess (me).

      Pamuk is by no means non-European. He is a dyed to the bone child of Istanbul. His books are European, too.

    3. I do not think of Turkey as part of Europe. I guess I am geographically illiterate.

    4. I'm not sure non-European literature is "intruding" on the Western canon. But I'll bet when American authors started to be widely read in Europe, people in Europe made similar complaints about the barbarians at the gates.

    5. To canon purists -- not me (well, not quite) -- all outsiders (new voices) are intruders. You know, I am not the Luddite that some of my comments might lead you to believe. I am, however, too often too eager to stir the pot of controversy by throwing provocations out there in hopes of reading interesting reactions. I guess that is an irksome fault. I should remain silent more often. BTW, my own blogging will resume with an important return to an important project. I might not have room in my life for Pamuk, but I must return to Flannery O'Connor. She summons, and I will obey.

    6. Oh, I know your wicked ways, Tim. That's why I didn't rise to the bait the way I could have.

      I saw that about O'Connor on your blog. I re-read all of her fiction just last year, so I'll be interested to see what you come up with.

    7. Yes I am wicked. Thus I am drawn like a moth to flame by O'Connor's fiction. And we know the moth' s fate. Stay tuned.