Snow - Orhan Pamuk

I have always been curious about Turkey. Several articles in the New Yorker about the role played by the military that is surprisingly secular and has been since the 1st world war have ignited my curiosity. The military has, on more than one occasion established a secular rule by overthrowing elected governments that seem to relent to the Islamists. The idea of a military doing the "right" thing, as would seem to an outsider, has always been quite fascinating to me. Turkey, in this strangely, sometimes of often forced, secular way has always stuck out in the otherwise oppressing world of mullahs and shieks. Unlike other Islamic countries, Turkey has insisted on modernism, based on the guidelines laid down by the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It has applied modernism by any means at the state's disposal. The women in Turkey are forbidden by law to wear head-scarves or burqas in public places and universities. (Incidentally, however, the trend seems to have given way, disappointingly for some, to an openly religious society following the general rightist shift in world socio-politics.)

Orhan Pamuk's (who recently won the Nobel prize for literature) "Snow" is the tale of Ka (the protagonist) who has spent several years in Frankfurt, in the season of Kar (aka Snow) goes to the city of Kars (in north-eastern Turkey bordering Russia) to report on the several suicides committed by the "head-scarf girls" and to meet his old lover Ipek in the hope of reviving the old romantic flame.

Snow is not an easy book to read or like. Contrary to its name, it is heavy, not because it is overly philosophical but because it is too less so. It is fluffy and yet leaden: which might also describe some of what Ka sees in Kars. A society torn between fanatical secularism proposed by the State and Islamic radicalism proposed by cultural roots. This is essentially what Mr. Pamuk has been trying to explore all his life. He is the classic immigrant who can see the provincialism of his original homeland and sneer at it but cannot help but reject the modernism of his new home either. It is the classic dilemma that defines immigration in general and brings about the middle-path that ends up changing societies: more to which people migrate than from where they migrate.

Unfortunately for us, Snow is pretentious and repetitive. It's overuse of 'Snow' as a metaphor for pretty much everything (love, distance, beauty, cover-up, joy, sadness, commonness, difference, you name it) is cloying and makes it impossible to plow ahead. It's overuse of the word 'Snow' not just as a metaphor but for itself every other sentence is also jarring. It starts to hurt.

Snow's style is literary with heavy influence from others before who explored the east or mid-east from Western eyes. Dostoevsky and Conrad come to mind immediately (but they do almost all the time) and one could see hints of Prince Mishkin and even glimpses of Raskonikov in Ka. However, as an outside but not necessarily a wild thought, Ka (following the the inclusive pattern of naming his prime characters: Kars - city, Kar -snow, Ka - the hero) might actually be at heart closer to Kafka's K than anyone else. His utter dislocation, albeit fueled by differing cultural views rather than just a general sense of being lost amidst the oppressing social structure, is basically an emotion personified by Joseph K (The Trial, The Castle). While K does not understand the world around him and generally doesn't make an attempt, Ka seems to make too much effort and then seems to give up to easily. He is essentially a coward once-to-often guised as a skeptic.

Snow is full of characters, alas only some of them interesting. Ka's love Ipek is a rather boring character though the final propulsion to the novel and its fulcrum is essentially provided by her indiscretion. In contrast, Kadife, Ipek's younger sister is feisty and far more elegant. However, the real force of the novel is two contrasting philosophies presented by the all-powerful stage actor Sunay Zaim (a shadow of Atatürk's) and the equally charming but enigmatic Blue, a fundamentalist who really is the only force that keeps the pages together. Pamuk never allows them to be face to face and he uses Ka as a sort of interpreter between the two presenting and digesting their ideas without being really touched by any. While Blue is the motor of the book, it is the young Islamist Najib who provides its soul and Pamuk clearly wanting to make a statement kills him early on (this is not a spoiler -- Pamuk tells you this upfront sort of laying down the foundation of his covert pessimism.)

I struggled through the almost 500 page book. I really did. There were many times, specially about half-way through, I saw no reason to move on because I thought I knew what was going to happen. However, Pamuk has some tricks up his sleeves, he pulls the right kind of gargoyle out at the right time and kept me going.

I wasn't utterly disappointed at the end. Books to me are a mirror into another life that I could never have or know about. The fantasy of Snow is the type where the fact that it is is often more important than the fact that it isn't fantastic.