Orhan Pamuk, Snow

One of my rules of reading is that when I have finished a book I go back and read the first chapter (or so) and any epigraphs the author may have included. These can often provide a real clue to meaning. This rule certainly applies to my latest read, Snow, by Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk.


Snow, in fact, has no less than four epigraphs:

  • lines from Robert Browning’s “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” describing the paradoxical nature of things: “the honest thief, the tender murderer,/the superstitious atheist”;
  • a quote from Stendhal’s The charterhouse of Parma which warns about the ugliness of “politics in a literary work”;
  • a quote from Dostoevsky’s Notebooks for the Brothers Karamazov which suggests ideals like the European Enlightenment are “more important than people”; and
  • Joseph Conrad’s statement in Under Western eyes that “The Westerner in me was discomposed”.

These four epigraphs pretty well sum up the concerns of the book. What about the title? The second chapter begins with:

Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars, it no long promised innocence.

Here then is the first paradox: snow is pure but not innocent, and it covers dirt, mud and darkness. Already, you can see that this book is going to be ironic. Just how ironic though is a matter for contention but my suspicion is that its very foundation is ironic, as it grapples with what it means to be an artist in a political society, with how one is to live in a conflicted nation. The plot centres on a coup – a coup which is variously called a military coup and a theatrical coup! In fact, it is a coup by a theatrical group that is supported by the military! Art and politics could hardly be more entwined.

Kars Photo: Jean & Nathalie @ flickr (Creative Commons licence)

Kars Photo: Jean & Nathalie @ flickr (Creative Commons licence)

Snow though is not an easy read. It is my third Pamuk, but only the second one I have completed. I loved his memoir-cum-history Istanbul but could not, hard as I tried, finish My name is red.

What then is it about? The main action covers three days in the life of Ka, a Turkish poet recently returned from 12 years exile in Germany, who comes to Kars (in far east Turkey) ostensibly to write about the suicide epidemic among young women, but whose secondary (or perhaps primary!) reason is to fall in love with an old school-friend, Ipek. Soon after he arrives, however, the coup occurs and Ka is, rather unwillingly, caught up in the intrigue between the competing interests: the secularists, the Islamic fundamentalists, and the Kurdish nationalists. This sets the stage for exploring the art-politics nexus. Ka says to Sunay, the leader of the coup AND of the theatrical troupe that comes into town:

I know that you staged the coup not just for the sake of politics but also as a thing of beauty and in the name of art … you know only too well that a play in which Kadife bares her head for all of Kars to see will be no mere artistic triumph; it will also have profound political consequences.

Here then is one evocation of the second epigraph. The third and fourth epigraphs refer to the running conflict in the book between European/Western values and Turkish/Eastern values. There is very much a sense that the people of Kars feel condescended to by European culture, but as a teen-ager says at one point, “We are not stupid! We’re just poor”. The people of Kars do not understand Western notions of individualism, and they see Western ideas of secularism and atheism as equating with immorality. Ka, as a Westernised Turk, acts as an uncomfortable, to him, bridge between the two worlds.

The core of the book is Ka. He is a sad and highly conflicted individual who, in his youth, had used words to argue that people should act for “the common good” but now finds himself using them to further his own happiness. Once politically active, “he now knew that the greatest happiness in life was to embrace a beautiful, intelligent woman and sit in a corner writing poetry”. The irony is that, for all his attempts to achieve this, he ends up with neither and dies four years after the coup a sad and lonely man.

The novel is interesting, stylistically and structurally. It is essentially a third person story about Ka but is told by a first person narrator, Ka’s friend, the novelist Orhan(!). This metafictional narrative technique, by adding another layer to the “conversation”, rather deepens the “artist in society” and art/politics themes of the book. Much of the story is foreshadowed: we learn of Ka’s death in Chapter 29, though the book has 44 chapters. The tone of the book is imbued with huzun, that very particular Turkish sense of melancholy that Pamuk explores beautifully in his book Istanbul. And, while it is about a coup and has a body count of 29, there are some very funny scenes, one being the political meeting at which the competing rebels prepare a statement about their beliefs for the Western Press. Anyone who has attended a political meeting will feel at home here!

All this said, the book is a challenge to grasp: there are a lot of characters, comings-and-goings, and ideas to track. Just why Ka is the way he is, just what did happen to him in the end, and just what Orhan is saying about art and politics are hard to pin down. I love the way the book is underpinned by paradox and irony – and yet at times the meaning can be a little tricky to discern. What is clear though is that Ka has found living by his political beliefs deeply unsatisfying but, ironically, is unable to bring about a situation in which he can live “happily” any other way.

Kadife, the leader of the headscarf girls, says (fairly early in the book):

…do not assume from this that our religion leaves no room for discussion. I will say that I am not prepared to discuss my faith with an atheist, or even a secularist. I beg your pardon.

Oh dear! Some reviewers call it a brave book. With its fearless exploration of the tensions in modern Turkey, it certainly feels that way. I am very glad that I put in the effort to read it.

11 thoughts on “Orhan Pamuk, Snow

  1. Snow is a wonderful book — thanks for the review. I had forgotten Ka was only in Kars for three days, somehow I thought it was a week or more. One of my favorite things about the opening of the book are the lines, “If he hadn’t been so tired, if he’d paid a bit more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realized that he was traveling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen at the start that he was setting out on a journey that would change his life forever and chosen to turn back. But the thought didn’t even cross his mind.” — for me starting to read Snow (my introduction to Pamuk) was like Ka starting on that journey.

  2. Thanks Modesto Kid…I could have written a lot more (such as about all the paired and parallel characters). It’s sometimes hard to know when to stop isn’t it? You are right about the opening. It’s powerful and beautiful. I love all the snow description. Have you read any other Pamuk since reading this one?

  3. Yep, I was travelling straight into a blizzard — after I finished Snow I read My Name Is Red, The White Castle, The New Life (could not finish this one or make much sense of what I read), Other Colors. Meaning to read Istanbul but I have not got to it yet — I’m looking forward to The Museum of Innocence which I think is coming out in October. If you’re interested to read what I’ve written about Pamuk’s books, this link will take you to the beginning, there’s quite a bit there: http://www.readin.com/blog/?k=book:author:pamuk&o=a

  4. Well done. As you will have seen I had trouble with My Name is Red but I do plan to try it again. I loved Istanbul. I had a quick look at your site and see you grappled with Elizabeth Costello! I’ve read that too – it’s another good challenge to get your head around. Have you read his Diary of a bad year? I liked it a bit more than EC. I do like Coetzee. Anyhow will check out your stuff on Pamuk (though I tend to try to avoid reading too much on books I haven’t yet read for fear they will sway me. I’m one of those people who doesn’t read newspaper review sections!!)

  5. Disgrace was my first, then EC, and then Diary of a bad year. I do want to read Michael K sometime. Disgrace is a book you don’t forget easily – very spare compared to Pamuk!

    You know I really don’t know what it was about My name is red. My brother, who is as big a reader as I felt exactly the same as I did and put it down. I think it felt a bit convoluted, if that makes sense, but it was 2-3 years ago so the memory has faded somewhat.

    Ah, just thought, are you in Modesto California? My second time in the US I lived in Yorba Linda, Orange County.

  6. Ah, that’s a change. My first time in the USA was in the East, well South! In Northern Virginia. Beautiful really, but as far as the US goes I think the southwest has my heart! BTW I really liked that article on Snow by Seyhan that you linked to.

  7. Whisperinggums, I really liked the review on Snow. Thanks!

    BTW The picture of Kars reminded me, I was there last year and stayed in the same room Orhan Pamuk stayed in as he was doing his research there. Great place, quite different from the cities around it due to the strong Russian influence. I wrote about the trip in my blog, but unfortunately for you, in Turkish (http://sarapci.com/kars/).

    The locals were quite upset with Pamuk because he used the city as a microcosm of all the troubles of modern Turkey; they believed they did not have any problems with the veil and definetely no such suicides of young women.

    Modesto Kid: I wasn’t aware of your stuff on Pamuk, will check it now 🙂

  8. Thanks so much sarapci for commenting. It’s great when a post you’ve written a while ago pops up again. How exciting to have stayed in the same room? It like following literary history when I travel. I can imagine locals not being very happy with the novel. Pamuk is a brave writer I think and well deserving of his Nobel Prize.

    Snow is on my Top Ten for the year and I plan to read his next book next year. I wish I could read your blog on it….but I did have a look at your blog and see your English entries. Very impressive.

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