Orhan Pamuk – Snow (2004) Trans. Maureen Freely. London, Faber and Faber.
It seems somehow appropriate that as the weather warms here in Melbourne and the air is filled with a childhood sweetness of blossom, that I should have sat down to read Pamuk’s icy novel set in a snowbound town in the Turkish borderlands. It took me more than two weeks to read, despite my being on term break, and I found the experience by turns baffling, enchanting, and troubling. The entire time I had the feeling that I was missing something crucial—a sense that the novel was legible to Turkish readers and those familiar with Turkish politics in a way that was completely escaping me, despite the beautiful translation by Maureen Freely.
I was prompted to read it when a colleague gave me a passage from the novel as a classroom activity for Paper 1 in the IB. I was struck by the beauty and stillness of Pamuk’s prose, but also the menace and unease that he manages to convey nonetheless. My students responded with great thoughtfulness to the passage and it triggered a wide-ranging discussion about the role of religion in people’s lives and the lives of nations. Pamuk’s intensely symbolic writing style caught their interest – and mine.
The story follows Ka, a poet from Istanbul, who travels to the remote town of Kars to report on the local elections and the spate of suicides by young women. He has returned to Turkey after a long period of political exile, during which time he has been living in Frankfurt, Germany. His return is triggered by the death of his mother, and this loss permeates the novel, although it is rarely mentioned. He is sent to Kars by an old friend who is now an editor at a liberal, Westernised newspaper in Istanbul, and at first he conducts himself as a journalist would. He interviews the families of the ‘suicide girls’. He visits the local police chief and the prime candidate for Mayor in the municipal elections, an old friend and rival from Ka’s university days. Muhtar is now running with the local Islamist political party and has seemingly abandoned the liberal politics he once shared with Ka in their youth. An added complexity is that Muhtar is now separated from his wife Ipek, whom Ka remembers as very beautiful from their days as scholars. It soon becomes apparent that Ka’s ulterior motive for coming to Kars is that he knew of the couple’s separation and hoped to win Ipek’s heart and convince her to marry him and return with him to Germany, where he is ailing in a sterile loneliness.
Pamuk, by subtle turns, draws his poet-protagonist deeper into the political and personal intrigues of the local people. Kars is populated by plainclothes policemen, spys, informers, Kurdish separatists, state-sponsored terrorists, mystics, ardently religious youths, a fugitive terrorist called Blue, and a vast, nameless class of unemployed, with no hope of advancement. As he tries to navigate his way to Ipek’s heart, Ka finds himself involved in the criss-crossing loyalties and grudges that characterise the secret political life of the town. As the novel progresses, I was overcome with dread for Ka’s safety as his naivety and the fact that he is in over his head becomes increasingly apparent.
One of the stars of the novel is the landscape and climate of Kars. The tone of the novel is hushed, even muffled at times, to suggest the profound isolation of the borderland town as it is cut off from the rest of the world by snowfalls. This sets the scene for the brutality that flourishes once there is no hope of intervention from the outside. It also gives the novel an ironically religious air, as the secular poet stumbles around the town and its intrigues, captivated by the beauty of the ever-falling snow. The symbolic role of the snow is spelled out several times in the novel as Ka finds himself writing poems in quick succession that are seemingly delivered via divine inspiration after a dry spell of four years. A diagram of a six-spoke snow-flake in the novel’s text acts as a key for the narrator’s interpretation of Ka’s sudden poetic flourishing and the meaning of the now-missing poems he wrote while in Kars. The snow and each snowflake rest at the heart of the novel and serve as both guide and guard to its central mystery, its melancholic solitude: “It was, in short, a snowflake that mapped out the spiritual course of every person who had ever lived. … Ka’s three notebooks recording his thoughts about the poems he wrote in Kars are, for the most part, attempts to discover the significance of that geometry, but it should be clear by now that he was also trying to decipher the meaning of his own life” (383). The narrator is searching for this lost trace of his friend, the notebook containing the poems themselves, to which he only has the gloss. The snow and the missing poems cast a silence over the novel, despite the action and noise of the political violence in the town. They also perhaps hint at the solitude of writers, intensely observant of the world around them, but cut off from the reality shared by others, instead listening for the voice of their muse.
It is this aloof personality that gets Ka in trouble, and also complicates the otherwise sympathetic portrayal of his role. He is obsessed with trying to achieve ‘happiness’ with Ipek, a happiness which consists of escaping back to Germany “in one piece”. Pamuk shows that such dreams of a private bliss are impossible in the world of his characters, and are perhaps wilfully blind to the social privations that drive political violence. He shows Ka walking past walls riddled with bullet holes thinking only of Ipek, or watching impassively as youths are dragged from their homes by plainclothes police, never to be seen again. We sympathise with Ka’s longings for a private happiness, but I was also struck by his emotional disengagement from the injustices around him.
Pamuk is just as relentless and unflinching in his portrayal of political activists and Islamist campaigners – slogans and bullying characterise scenes between Ka and Blue and in all conversations with those with Westernised views. To increase the sense of unreality, Pamuk portrays a miniature coup staged by a theatre troupe in which all factions deliver their lines with the hammy theatricality of provincial actors. In Pamuk’s novel, the revolution is televised: in grainy black and white from a live performance in the theatre in town – and replayed endlessly. Hegel is quoted and Pamuk clearly references the Marxist idea that revolutions repeat themselves – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. The novel’s development adds layers of irony to this play-within-a-novel: the Islamists want the local women to cover themselves with headscarves, yet are obsessed with their beauty; the local newspaper publishes news before it happens; and the secular state tortures the boys from the local religious high school.
There was a great deal under the surface of this novel that I am sure I missed, but reading it was thought-provoking. Oddly, the overtly political focus seems to be a pretext for considering the role of the artist in both secular and religious states. In both, Ka is homeless and exiled. His position is impossible – suspected of being a spy for the West in Kars and shunned, Ka is outside his language in Germany, cut off from the inspiration for his poems. The missing poetry notebook begs a question – is there is world where the poet is heard?