lunes, 20 de junio de 2011

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

When I read Snow by Orhan Pamuk a second time, I will pay more attention to its central character, nicknamed Ka. He is a poet, a Turkish émigré, fresh from Germany. He’s also a journalist and is travelling to Kars, a town in north-eastern Turkey (can the similarity of name be mere coincidence?) to investigate a series of crimes. It’s the detail of these crimes that give the book its poignancy, tension and fascination.

Girls have committed suicide. These are crimes. In Islam suicide is a sin, eternally damning. So what drove apparently happy, conventional, balanced young women to take their own lives? On the surface there are some obvious candidates for the answer. Turkey’s secular though military state requires women not to wear a scarf, while their religion demands it. Could it be this political and cultural tension that has provoked these women, out of shame, to end their lives?

My review will not be a plot-spoiler. In the case of Snow, that would also be hard, because it’s the issues and contexts that matter, not the events. Suffice it to say that while in Kars, Ka meets many people who can offer opinion and proffer hypothesis on the town’s recent history. There’s a newspaper owner who, in order to promote circulation, predicts the news. There’s an old-fashioned communist, a one-time agitator, whose current activities appear to be thoroughly questionable. There’s a travelling theatre group who will play great roles in the plot. There’s an underground Islamist on the run. He’s called Blue, surely a reference to themes raised in My Name Is Red. Political associations of colour might be naïve, but might also be a tad revealing. There’s military personnel, policemen, secret agents, an occasional murderer. There’s also snow, and enough of it to cut off the town and prevent outside knowledge of a shooting coup where interests vie for control.

And if this were not enough, there’s a hotel owner with two daughters of stunning beauty. One, İpik, was once the apple of Ka’s desire. His return promises a long-deferred bite of forbidden fruit. But then there’s politics, history, culture, religion, rules, regulations, laws, even personal preferences that can get in the way.

Snow is a complex novel whose density needs to be fully entered for a reader to share its preoccupations. It’s an intense experience, a miasma of contradictions, political, cultural, religious, the whole gamut. The only problem with Snow, in my opinion, is its central character, Ka. This is why next time I must be more careful to assess his sincerity. Unlike most poets of any worth, he writes from revelation, not from hard work, etching out a word at a time. For me, this does not seem genuine. But then, as the book unfolds, the reader realises that these are merely Orhan Pamuk’s own recollections of Ka, described from afar. Some years later, he has tracked the poet down to his apartment in Germany, soon after he has been murdered by an anonymous assassin. Now I wonder who that might have been?

As ever in Orhan Pamuk’s work, Snow is deeply enmeshed within the characteristics and contradictions of Turkish culture and society. Equally, as we would expect from Orhan Pamuk, it allows the Western reader (politically and culturally Western, not geographically) to appreciate how Western values, so rarely questioned on the inside of the argument, can be perceived as essentially imperial, colonial and perhaps oppressive. If you like your reading to provoke thought, please do read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow.

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