Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

‘The Devil can cite scripture for his own purpose’ as we know, whenever complex contradictions in holy books are unearthed. George W. Bush, in Istanbul in June of 2005 was caught quoting IMPAC literary prize winner Orhan Pamuk, presumably to give a smattering of local flavour, akin to an “Istanbul, you rock”. Pamuk, after the publication of Snow may well be viewed as the devil, by Bush, and by both the western looking elites that look forward to a Turkey integrated into the European Union, and by Political Islamisists who brook no examination of life, love and (whisper it) sex, outside of strictly regulated rules. Pamuk, in Snow, an openly political novel, will be dissapoint many polemicists, but thrill many readers, as he examines the contradictions and complexities in a small Turkish town covered in snow.

From the outset, the novel confounds expectations. A Turkish poet(who writes poems throughout the book, whose titles are revealed but never the words), Ka, travels to Kars, a cut off town in Anatolia, searching for love, and also to uncover the mystery surrounding a group of “suicide girls”. The girls have committed suicide over the issue of wearing the veil – or rather the issue of being forced to not wear the veil. There proceeds a serious of encounters with all the significant figures of the village, all eager to talk to the renowned poet (who in fact has achieved little fame, most of which is accorded to him due to his exile in Germany), and all set against the backdrop of both a covering of snow and the supposed clash of civilisations post 9/11.

The novel is written in short, flowing chapters, with epigraphic titles such as The dinner conversation turns to love, head scarves, and suicide or The first and last conversation between the murderer and his victim, but is never lecturing or pedantic. To understand what side the author is on is impossible, because more than once he shows that quite simply there are no comprehensible sides, only people caught up in passions, politics, and combinations.

Margaret Atwood, writing in the New York Times, succinctly put the novel in a tradition of Male Labirynth novels, with Dostoyevsky (from whom one of the novel’s four epigraph’s is taken), Borges, and Kafka, where the hapless narrator is sent journeying around the town on ridiculous errands, doubling back continuously upon himself. At every turn, when you think you’ve gotten the measure of a character, it seems they do something to contradict you – keeping to Tolstoy’s rule, as quoted by Pamuk, “If the character is too bad, make him good”. Kars is populated by aetheists who fear they’re beginning to find God; believers who fear losing their faith; journalists who make up the news, believing that things often happen because they’ve been written about.

The result is a serious of encounters that can almost be read on their own, as set pieces, such as the magnificently told meeting between the local director of the Institute of education, and his religiously motivated assasin. Taken together they build a complex picture, much as each snowflake contributes to the blizzard covering Kars.

Snow itself becomes almost a character in the novel, making constant appearances in the characters’ perspective. It’s a plot device, the blizzard cutting the town off from the outside world and allowing a secular coup to proceed; it’s seen by some figures in the book as a wondrous proof of God’s existence; it’s a poetic inspiration to Ka, who writes his first poem in years in Kars, entitled snow; there’s a scientific definition of the snowflake, quoted at length; and, intriguingly, there’s a diagram, drawn by Ka, and referenced repeatedly, that outlines a six sided snowflake with its axes representing reason, imagination and memory, all of which meet in the centre, the poet’s self.

Despite the multifold arguments going on, and the complex layering, this novel is an easier read than Pamuk’s previous novel My name is red, which seemed to shift narrators so wilfully that it was constantly in danger of making the reader seasick. Snow has one narrator, who emerges briefly in the story, called “Orhan”, a friend of the poet Ka. It, simply as ever, adds another layer of complexity on to the story. Is the narrator to be taken as the author himself? Is it to add a biographical realism to the book? Is it to draw attention to flawed assumptions about the narrative voice? Arguments you’re invited to think about, if you wish, but not to the point of interfering with the narrative.

Pamuk has written a beautiful, and simple, political novel without a whiff of polemic. Keep your ears peeled in the upcoming debates about Turkey’s integration in to the European Union, for opportunists politicians on either side of the debate quoting it, and rest assured that they’re doing so out of context, as this is a novel that defies reduction to one simple message.

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