BOOK REVIEW: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

SnowSnow by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


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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BOOK REVIEW: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

The Naive and the Sentimental NovelistThe Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist is Orhan Pamuk’s theory of the novel, and is based on a series of lectures given by the Turkish Nobel Laureate in 2009. It’s a brief work, consisting of less than 200 pages written across six chapters plus an epilogue. Pamuk explores just a handful of concepts, but he elaborates on each with examples from literature. Having said that, Pamuk has the novelist’s gift for strategic ambiguity, and there are some ideas–such as the “secret center of the novel”–for which the author leaves much for the reader to interpret.

In the first chapter, Pamuk explores what occurs in the mind of a reader as they consume a novel. He proposes nine mental activities that one engages in over the course of reading a novel. These activities range from the essence of reading, such as observing scene and narrative arc, to less essential acts such as self-congratulatory narcissism. A central theme is the novel as a visual medium in that the mind converts words into images and those images are what are experienced in reading. The final action is search for the novel’s “secret center,” an important element of Pamuk’s theory and the topic of the book’s final chapter.

The title subjects are also introduced in the first chapter, i.e. naïve and sentimental novelists. Pamuk borrows this concept from Schiller, who used it to describe poets. The naïve novelist writes spontaneously and with confidence that he or she is capturing reality in the work. The sentimental novelist is much more uneasy about the degree that his work will convey something true. While an oversimplification, this idea corresponds somewhat to the much more commonly known division of writers into outliners and non-outliners, i.e. some writers can’t get started until they’ve done extensive research and outlining, but others begin with—at most—a vague outline in their heads and let the words stream from deep within.

The second chapter discusses the reader’s inability to accept that the novel is complete fiction—and, conversely, what truths a novelist reveals in the process of writing a purely fictitious work. (It should be noted that while Pamuk refers throughout to the “novel,” he’s really referring to the “literary novel.” Much of what he has to say isn’t relevant for either commercial or genre fiction.) Pamuk points out that it’s not just gullible yokels who believe that what he’s writing is autobiographical. Sophisticated readers who work in the publishing industry have been known to think he is living the life of one of his characters. On the other hand, when an avid reader suggested that they knew Pamuk so well because they had read all his books, he found himself being embarrassed. This embarrassment wasn’t because he felt they had learned any details of his life, but that they had developed a psychological insight.

The next chapter is on character, plot, and time. As one would expect, character is the most important and substantially addressed topic. I say that not because it’s listed first, but because we are talking about literary fiction—a medium in which character is of the utmost importance and plotting is loose to optional. However, the portion of the chapter that I found most interesting was the question of time in novel. Time stretches, compresses, and can bounce non-linearly in a novel. The protagonist’s time is on display in the novel, and that can be done artfully or not.

The fourth chapter is the one that most deeply delves into the topic of novel as a visual media, one which is more closely related to painting that to the media to which the novel is more frequently compared. Here he divides novelists not into the naïve and the sentimental, but into visual versus verbal writers. Pamuk suggests that the novel is a series of frozen moments as opposed to a continuous running of time—and thus its connection to paintings. Of course, Pamuk was a painter before being a novelist, and thus may be more prone to see that connection than most

The penultimate chapter is a comparison of novels to museums. No two things might seem farther apart at first blush, but a museum is a themed collection of artifacts that hopefully serve to tell a story—story here being used not as fiction but as a narrative that could contain fact, fiction, or mythology. This discussion really continues on the theme of the visual aspect of the novel. It suggests that those artifacts that are seen or manipulated in a novel convey a great deal of what the author wants to get across and help to create a more real fictional world. Pamuk elaborates on the connection by using three points to connect museums and novels that are all related by pride.

The final chapter elucidates the “center” of the novel. This is a concept that Pamuk has written around since the beginning of the book without providing a clear conceptualization. The first line of the last chapter defines the center as: “…a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined.” The idea of a center, we are told, separates literary fiction from genre / commercial fiction. Readers and authors of genre fiction may find themselves becoming miffed with Pamuk for saying that such works either don’t have a center or have one that’s painfully easily found. He does make explicit exceptions for works by Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem, and one would expect that works of speculative fiction by the likes of Vonnegut, Murakami, and LeGuin would meet his approval as well. However, the presence of a tight story arc—one of the factors that makes work salable—is part of the reason genre fiction tends to have a readily discovered center. For Pamuk, the name of the game is writing a work that has a center that isn’t easily discovered, but neither is so deeply hidden as to remain forever beyond the grasp of most readers. He suggests the novel should be a puzzle, which is solved to reveal the center.

The epilogue includes some autobiographical insight and elaboration on what Pamuk was attempting to convey in this work.

I’d recommend this book for writers as well as serious readers of novels. Obviously, it’s well-written, but beyond that it offers insights that make the reader do some of the work—just what Pamuk proposes a novelist should do.

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