Bill curates: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Sometimes I think I am well read and sometimes I come upon a post like this and realize just how far I have to go. Pamuk, I discover, is a famous Turkish novelist and the winner of the 2006 Nobel prize.


My original post titled: “Orhan Pamuk, Snow”

Book coverOne 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.

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 epigraph 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.

Orhan Pamuk
Translated by Maureen Freely
London: Faber & Faber, 2005 (orig. Turkish ed. 2002)
ISBN: 0571218318


I know what Bill means. I too keep stumbling across authors I should know but have never heard of. I would like to read more Pamuk, including The museum of innocence which is on my TBR. Meanwhile, though, my heart really belongs to his mesmerising memoir, Istanbul. I’d love to read it again.

Have any of you read Pamuk? If so we’d love to hear what you think about his writing.

37 thoughts on “Bill curates: Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

  1. Obviously I haven’t read any Pamuk, but I did enjoy reading about Snow as I attempted to see how significant they – the book and the author – were.
    In passing, without looking it up again Kar is a Turkish word for snow (and is the name in Turkish of the book), so the town and the protagonist are both called ‘Snow’.

  2. I’ve read six of Pamuk’s novels, including Snow, but that was before I started my blog so I’m pleased to revisit the book through Bill Curates. Because, (and I have no idea how this could have happened since I read Sue’s blog religiously) I never saw the original review!

    • Six, that’s impressive Lisa. I’ve only read Snow and Istanbul. I started My name is red, but just couldn’t get into it! Shock! Horror! For you I know, as you love miniatures as I recollect! I would like to try it again one Day.

      My reading group did The museum of innocence a few years ago, but I was travelling at the time, and unable to fit it into my travelling schedule.

      (My original Snow post was very early in my blogging career.)

  3. Sigh. I’m going to have to stop reading this blog. I spend all my time adding to my TBR pile, and no time actually reading anything on it!

    • Oh yes, do, Rose.

      And I look forward to what you say about My name is red. It is one of the few books that I have started and not finished, but it may have just been my mood at the time, because the next two books of his that I read I loved.

      • I’m approximately one third of the way in and am only just starting to feel connected to the story. The first section has taken a lot of concentration so not surprised to hear you put the book aside previously, although in the right mood I think you would like it.

        • I think you are probably right Rose, given I enjoyed two other books of his. I seem to feel that I was really busy and distracted at the time. I still have it with the bookmark in situ, but I suspect I will have to start again one day.

  4. This was a great review.

    Going back and reading epigraphs after finishing a book is a really good idea. I sometimes do it but I am now going to try to do it consistently. I am always trying to extract meaning from what I read.

  5. I have three Pamuks still not read – I recently found A Red-Haired Woman at the local 2nd hand book shop – I haven’t found his book Istanbul, that does sound worth a look. I haven’t started any of them, I seem to be going through an Australian Lit phase! I also have My Name is Red and A Strangeness in My Mind. Oh dear I’m going to have to get reading..

    Found a copy of I for Isobel by Witting at the local 2nd hand book store today! Hurrah!

    Now I’m going to have to get started on the Pamuk books I can see – what to do – so many books, not enough time!

    • Oh good re Witting Sue. The reason I haven’t read more Pamuk in recent years is because my Australian emphasis has become stronger since blogging. I had been focusing on Australian writers (particularly women) before then, but it’s become even more since blogging. I’d like more balance, in future.

      Do keep looking out for Istanbul. It’s a writer’s memoir that you can read and enjoy without really having read much of the writer because it is so much about the city. And it’s beautiful (the book I mean.)

      • Hi Sue, I do like Irish and Canadian writers – if you enjoy a good family saga, Mary Lawson (Canada) wrote three lovely books fairly late in life – Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge, & Road Ends, are all superb. Have you read Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (Irish) – superb book. I also love Wallace Stegner (USA) (Remembering Laughter, The Angle of Repose. You may know all these but just in case…

        • I LOVE Wallace Stegner. Angle of repose has one of my all time favourite quotes (which probably says more about me than about the work), and I’ve reviewed Crossing to safety on my blog. I don’t know those others you’ve mentioned though, albeit I like Irish and Canadian writing.

        • Hi Sue, there’s no reply button under your comments back to me – yes Crossing to Safety is also wonderful! Do try Mary Lawson, she only had time to write three books and they are wonderful family sagas – I gave a copy of each to a friend of mine and she loved them. Reading in the Dark is one of the most gorgeous books ever, do try and find it – I think I got mine from Ebay.

          Do tell me what is your favourite quote from Angle of Repose – isn’t it a wonderful book!

        • Thanks Sue. Yes, the REPLY button only lasts for about 3 rounds. It’s a WordPress default. I think you can change it but the indentation becomes so narrow that the comments become very long and thin.

          My favourite quote from A of R is this: “Civilizations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations.” I think it can apply to marriages and all sorts of other relationships too. I like its positive energy.

        • Just did a quick check Sue – plenty of Mary Lawson’s books on Ebay Australia (start with Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, the two best) and also the Seamus Deane – do read it, based on his early life in Ireland it’s not a long read – and wait until you get to the maths class episode!

      • Sue, have you read Wallace Stegner’s letter to his mother, written when he was aged 80 – it’s in his book Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs but it’s also available to read online, it’s called “Letter, much too late” and I hope this link works:

        If not just Google the title of the letter and it will come up. It will make you cry, and it makes me cry, but it’s the most beautiful letter to his mother, written as an old man – the love he had for her shines through every sentence. If you can’t bear to read it now, keep it for some time in the future. I know things have been hard for you lately with losing you Mum. Thinking of you, Sue.

  6. I haven’t read this author either, and like yourself, I consider myself very well read, considering my advanced years; I’ve had more time to read than most. But of course I’m always coming across writers I’ve never heard of. So many books, and how much time . . .

  7. I’ve been meaning to read Snow for ages, so I put it on my 20 Books of Summer list this year so will be getting around to it soon. My husband really liked it.

  8. Off-topic Sue, but another good Canadian novel is Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay about a woman working as a late night radio announcer in far north Canada (which Elizabeth Hay did). Worth reading if just for the description of the canoe trip into the far north, which Hay also did. I have her book A Student of Weather too, but haven’t read it yet.
    Read Mary Lawson first though! (Sorry I’m off topic here!)

  9. Orham Pamuk was on the ABC news tonight Sue, about the Hagia Sophia. I haven’t seen him before, he was outspoken about how much he opposed the conversion to a mosque.

    • Oh was he, Sue? Maybe he’ll be on the 7pm news too. He is outspoken. If you check his Wikipedia entry I’m sure you’ll read about his arrest for expressing “anti-Turkish” opinions. There was quite an international furore at the time about freedom of expression.

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