Orhan Pamuk, the talented Turkish novelist, brings his native country to life again after the runaway literary success of My Name is Red. Examining modern Turkish society from various facets, Pamuk’s latest, Snow, couldn’t be more different from Red which was a fascinating tale of chicanery and murder set in an Islamist kingdom of the 1500’s. Yet there are the essential Pamuk touches — the layered plots and the deep introspection that are the driving force behind his work - again featured beautifully in Snow.
Central to the action is the poet Ka, who by his own admission might be the intelligentsia in Turkey but is a “worthless nobody” in his adopted country, Germany. After his mother’s death, Ka returns to Turkey to the remote snow-bound city of Kars bordering Armenia. “If the world he knew in Istanbul was no longer to be found, his journey to Kars can be seen as an attempt to step outside the boundaries of his middle-class childhood, to venture at long last into the other world beyond,” the narrator, Ka’s friend, incidentally named Orhan, explains. Ka has another reason to visit: his long-held love for Ipek, a woman who is now engaged to Mukhtar, the leader of the local Islamist party running for mayoral election in the city.
What starts off as a tentative nostalgic embrace and possibly a brief flirtation becomes something of greater import when Ka learns that many young girls in town are killing themselves over the decision to ban head scarves out of public schools and colleges. When Ka noses around trying to piece the puzzle together, his life becomes infinitely more complicated when Ipek and Ka witness a crucial political murder in a local teahouse. In a place where even the news is decided well in advance by the local newspaper editor, Ka is slowly forced to state his position over and over again to the local police, to the army, and even to a terrorist, Blue: is he an atheist merely come down to preach to the rest or is he more attuned to local sympathies, including ones embracing religion wholeheartedly.
Snow is not entirely plot-driven — many of the characters indulge in deep soul-searching quite often. Ideas about atheism and extremism, even religious succor are explored; one can see Pamuk trying to grapple with these questions almost as much as any of us. An argument between two characters in the novel goes like this:
“In a brutal country like ours where human life is cheap, it’s stupid to destroy yourself for the sake of your beliefs. Beliefs, high ideals — only people living in rich countries can enjoy such luxuries."In a recent interview in Publishers Weekly, Pamuk stated that one of the driving forces for Snow (translated by Maureen Freely), was to show all people, secularists or terrorists, as human beings first. “It is a challenge and a duty of literature to understand why someone ends up being what we or the Western world calls an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist,” Pamuk says, “It is a challenge and a duty of literature to understand the passions of anyone, to try to enter the spirits of people, which various taboos forbid us to understand.” Pamuk is wise enough to admit that nobody can really understand it all. “It would be a political mistake,” he says. Yet it is to his credit that he has beautifully fulfilled this “duty.”
“Actually, it’s the other way around,” the respondent says, “In a poor country, the only consolation people can have is the one that comes from their beliefs.”
The literary world has already been buzzing about a potential Nobel Prize for Pamuk, and his latest will only add to an already impressive portfolio. His formidable talent shines through in a novel that is yet another winner from one of the world’s best contemporary literary minds.