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Blizzard of ideas
Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

Earlier this summer, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Turkish government’s decision to ban head scarves in schools. The decision, a victory for the state, is unlikely to put an end to the controversy.

One need only pick up Orhan Pamuk’s mournful new novel, Snow, to understand how divisive an issue this is in Turkey. Set between 1999 and 2001, Pamuk’s tale revolves around the suicides of three teenage Islamic girls. Islamic clerics blame the deaths on the government because it punished the girls for wearing head scarves. Secularists argue that the girls were just depressed and did what teenagers sometimes do.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, and that’s what the novel’s protagonist, a Turkish poet named Ka, goes looking for when he travels to the remote border village of Kars. His trip echoes a journey made to Kars in 1829 by the Russian poet Pushkin, and as it turns out, Ka is as out of touch with Turks as his Russian counterpart was. He’s distracted by an unrequited crush on a woman he knows — barely — from his youth. As a former exile born to money in Istanbul, he’s also desperately aware of his outsider status in this provincial town.

Reading Snow can be a disjointed experience, since your attention and Ka’s are so often at odds. As feelings ratchet upward toward a revolution, Ka drifts through town in a somnolent haze, dazzled by a heavy snowstorm. As the flakes drift down, muffling gunshots across town, Ka wanders into tearooms to jot down poems before they dissolve like snowflakes on his jacket sleeve. Maintaining distance is his forte. He witnesses the assassination of a government minister and the death of a sweet young radical. Neither stops him from writing his poetry.

Ka doesn’t remain entirely disengaged, however. In fact, watching this gentle (if self-absorbed) artist get involved is one of the book’s great dramas. Knowing that he must maintain at least the pretense of journalism to remain in Kars, he interviews the families of the head-scarf girls, as they are called. He talks to the boys who became infatuated with them, and the Islamic leaders inflamed by their deaths. With the help of a philosophical young boy, he visits a dashingly mysterious Islamic fundamentalist named Blue. Like many other characters in this book, Blue wants there to be an Islamic Turkey — and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Snow is a talky book, and the sections in which Ka interviews radicals are its most loquacious. Pamuk’s characters do not so much state opinions as tell stories. These strange, slightly skewed tales proliferate in Snow and then nest in one another like Russian matryoshka dolls. The book has two climaxes; both take place at theaters during the production of political plays.

Like the country it unfolds in, Snow is full of competing narratives — stories of sacrifice, martyrdom, and revenge. You carom off into one of these alternate story lines for five to eight pages only to return — like someone stepping foggily from a time machine — to the central story of Ka’s transforming consciousness. And then there’s the snow, which keeps drifting down, conjuring up his childhood memories.

This is Pamuk’s fifth book to be translated into English, and it is also his fifth translator. Maureen Freely seems to have spun the finest weave from his prose, and that is important in a book that so frequently takes a break from the action to describe the melancholy of falling snow.

Alternating between the snowstorm’s hush and the philosophical conversations, which are reminiscent of Dostoyevsky, Snow proves a gripping read. And a timely one too. Pamuk has claimed in interviews that he is not a political writer, but he will have difficulty defending that position with Snow, which dramatizes many of the issues facing the Middle East today. To a certain degree, the book dramatizes his own situation. Its underlying drama of a writer struggling to remain apolitical is all but occluded by the blizzard of various "topical" narratives. To non-Turks, Pamuk’s books are a window into Turkish culture. It would be nice to have the pleasure of reading Snow not simply as the political novel it is but as a work of art. But then one is drawn back to one of Pamuk’s epigraphs, from Stendhal: "Politics in a literary work are a pistol shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore."

Orhan Pamuk reads this Tuesday, October 12, at 5 p.m. in the Malkin Penthouse of the Littauer Building at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, 79 JFK Street in Harvard Square. The reading is free and open to the public; call (617) 661-1515.

Issue Date: October 8 - 14, 2004
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