BOOK REVIEW: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

SnowSnow by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Written by the Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, Snow is one of the most effectively atmospheric novels I’ve ever read and is as riveting a story as I’ve read in quite some time. The protagonist is Ka, an erudite – if young – poet and writer who is given a journalistic assignment in Kars, a small city in the far eastern portion of Turkey — near the border with Armenia. The assignment is to write about an epidemic of cases of high school girls committing suicide over headscarf policies, and it is amid this climate of hostility between Atatürk-style secular pro-Western reformists and the militantly anti-secular Islamists that this story plays out — and from which it draws its tension. [To further complicate matters, there are also Kurdish separatists who don’t agree with either of the others’ causes, but would like to have autonomy in their own nation. However, these are more a garnish to the story than a primary flavor.]

Ka’s arrival in Kars is followed by an extended period of snowfall which cuts the city off, setting the stage for the conflicting parties to commence feuding. An Islamist murders a bureaucrat, and an actor-cum-reformist political powerhouse stages a controversial play that results in troops firing into the audience at agitated Islamist high school boys. Throughout this period trapped in Kars, Ka is repeatedly sucked into the middle of the conflict. The reformists see him as a potentially powerful ally as he has the communicative reach of a famous poet. Being a scholarly (and modern) young man who’s been living in Germany, in the heart of the West, Ka is seen as a natural comrade. The Islamists quietly despise Ka, but also see him as one who can give them voice. When I say “quietly despise” I mean they clearly have disdain for him because he an atheist [or so they all assume] and they, furthermore, assume that he believes he is better than them. However, on a personal level they find Ka to be personable, likable, and respectful. As it happens, Ka is prone to a kind of mystical experience while in Kars. Poems flood his mind with unprecedented ease. He is amid the bliss of falling in love. It’s not clear whether his waffling on the question of the existence of god is the result of the inhabitants of Kars wearing off on him, if it’s the atmosphere of pristine snowy beauty, if it’s the joy of being madly in love, or some combination of the above. [A side question touched upon throughout the book is what spurs creativity? Is it misery? Is it happiness? Is it some combination of the two, rightly timed? Is it neither?]

Despite the description of Ka as being a young man throughout the book, in the first half of the book I pictured him as a middle-aged / older man. He seems so wise and well-reasoned, and people seem to seek him out for his opinion (granted, this has a lot to do with his fame.) However, when he finally receives some indication of reciprocation from the girl that he’s obsessed with, he immediately turns into a fifteen-year-old lovelorn boy. From that point onward, Ka succumbs to petty jealousy and becomes smotheringly needy. This will be Ka’s downfall — though not immediately. At first, this change seems to be almost flattering to the girl, turning her feelings from those of an acquaintance to those of a tentative lover. I must say, the most discordant part of this book is Ka’s transformation, but it does set up an intriguing chain of possibilities — and Ka wouldn’t be the first person to be transformed into a crazy person by way of a love affair.

The book’s approach to storytelling is quite interesting as well. It’s written as though the author, himself, is telling Ka’s story — not as a dispassionate witness but a secondary participant. Throughout most of the book this is not noticeable, and the telling comes across as run-of-the-mill third person narration, but in the latter third of the book it becomes quite prominent because of what I think of as literary fourth wall breaking, using shifts to first person narration to let the reader know that the author is actively in the story. [In plays and movies, the 4th wall break is when an actor turns to the audience and talks to them, in effect acknowledging that he or she knows they are in a movie.] The reason for these perspective shifts is that in the last part of the book, the author is trying to piece together what happened during Ka’s last hours in Kars.

If one is the type of reader who likes all outstanding plot questions tied up with a nice bow, one may find the ending a little bit trying. The author employs what I call “strategic ambiguity,” leaving certain facts unknown so that the reader is forced to draw his or her own conclusion [or to live with the lack of a conclusion.] I enjoy this approach as it gives me a little more to chew over as a reader, and, also, because it more reasonably captures the state of the real world, in which perfect certainty is a rarity. However, I do realize this tactic irritates some readers.

I was spellbound by this story. It was engrossing both on the level of the protagonist as an individual, but also offered great insight into the societal level conflict in the region. If you’re looking for a great novel, and not put off by religious-secular conflict being at the heart of a story, I’d highly recommend Snow.

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