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.
(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS)
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.
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.