Orhan Pamuk's "Snow": Between Confinement and Freedom

Orhan Pamuk is not only the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2006), but his difficult novels are widely read in his home country of Turkey for perhaps two reasons: they take the pulse of the country’s concerns and they attempt to do this by rescuing literary narrative from the grip of politics. Pamuk’s seventh novel Snow is his first work set in contemporary Turkey, and it is arguably the most insightful fictional commentary on the post-9/11 world that has been written so far, precisely because it does not mention the attacks at all, but contextualises the underlying issues brilliantly.

The plot revolves around the return to Turkey, after twelve years, of an exiled poet, Ka, for his mother’s funeral. He is a rootless figure. Never inspired by the traditional faith of his childhood, Ka has abandoned the idealistic leftist politics of his youth, seeing only how the authoritarian, violent state smashed young people’s idealism. Notwithstanding his retreat from politics to art, in Germany, Ka becomes an isolated figure, who is misunderstood or ignored by the locals, who has lost his muse, and has stopped writing poems. Once in Turkey, he takes up a journalistic assignment to discover why the “headscarf girls”, banned from the local schools in the dilapidated border town of Kars, have taken to committing suicide. (He also has another purpose: to hook up romantically with an old friend, Ipek.)

Once Ka gets to Kars, a bigger story develops, as the town turns in on itself when three days of heavy snow isolate it. All the divisions and tensions between old disillusioned leftists, Kemalists, the military, the virtually omnipresent intelligence services (the “MIT”), the press, the Sufis, Kurds, Armenians and the Islamists are there, and they are about to boil over into violence. But, unlike in Istanbul, where everyone lives separately in “tribes”, in Kars everyone stills knows and mixes with each other, and these divisions get played out within families. And it is worth pointing out that none of main protagonists come across as cardboard cut-out caricatures either.

The forces of the state believe that a wanted Islamist terrorist named “Blue” is behind the religious agitation in the city. The Islamists are poised to win the municipal elections. Ka witnesses the assassination of a local school head (for upholding the ban on hijabs) by a young Islamist in a cafe. The Islamist violence and terror is real enough, but it pales into insignificance beside the manipulation and torture of the intelligence services, and the even more brutal and open violence of the military and the police force. The chief villain in Snow is not “Blue”, but the murky and sadistic figure of Z. Demirkol, head of the local intelligence service, whose runs MIT in Kars with the efficiency of the former East Germany’s Stasi. Everybody suspects somebody else, and there is no such thing as a private meeting.

With Kars temporarily snowbound and unaccountable, the forces of repression take their chance to smash the Islamists with searing brutality. Demirkol’s puppet is the has-been theatrical star, Sunay Zaim (famed for his resemblance to Ataturk), whose performance of the play My Fatherland or My Headscarf at the city’s main theatre becomes the pretext for bloody suppression, with soldiers killing the religious high-school kids in the audience who have come in support of the “headscarf girls”.

The great central metaphor in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is embedded in the title, and the novel’s deeper themes are connected with it. Ka, like Kafka’s K, is either a witness to events, or occasionally a catalyst for them, rather than a protagonist. He finds love, trauma and inspiration in Kars: all of the town’s profoundest hopes and fears surface violently when snow (in Turkish, “kar”) blocks all ways in and out. Ka, having no traditional faith, having abandoned his youthful political idealism and bereft of poetic inspiration, finds, in the tumult of snowbound Kars, his muse — in the antinomies of religion and atheism, authoritarianism and freedom, aesthetics and politics, love and duty. Finding inspiration, nineteen poems are “dictated” to Ka during his short stay, which he attempts to map through the use of a snowflake diagram, in the years after those three strife-filled days in the town. His poems narrate a complex individuality, irreducible to mere labels, aligned on the axes of logic, imagination and memory in his snowflake diagram. Snow is thus a double metaphor: it stands for both confinement and freedom, and, through Ka’s alternation between these two poles, this doubleness is played out as the dramatic tension between personhood and politics.

Yet it is Ka’s seemingly ambiguous, cipher-like indecisiveness that does much to cause distrust among many in Kars, when, after getting dragged into the town’s political crisis, a local paper accuses him of being a spy. He doesn’t want to take sides, and thus reduce his art to political propaganda. His newfound “faith”, expressed through his rebirth as a poet, is not enough:

“Before I got here, I hadn’t written a poem in years,” he [Ka] said. “But since coming to Kars, all the roads on which poetry travels here have reopened. I attribute this to the love of God I’ve felt here.”

“I don’t want to destroy your illusions, but your love of God comes out of Western romantic novels,” said Blue. “In a place like this, if you worship God as a European, you’re bound to be a laughingstock. Then you cannot even believe you believe. You don’t belong to this country; you’re not even a Turk anymore. First try to be like everyone else, then try to believe in God.”

Ka is similarly berated for his naivety in protesting state violence: it is merely a European vice, an idealistic liberal pretence. Sunay berates him on this score:

“No one who’s even slightly Westernised can breathe freely in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs this protection more than intellectuals who think they are better than everyone else and look down on the people – if it weren’t for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them and their painted women, chopping them all into little pieces. But what do these upstarts do in return? They cling to their little European ways and turn up their affected little noses at the very soldiers who guarantee their freedom.”

As one reviewer has astutely noted, everyone has a double in Pamuk’s writing. Ka’s “double” is Sunay, who stages a “postmodern” military coup in Kars, who puts his “art” in the service of the state, instigating the imprisonment, torture or killing of Kurds and Islamists in the town. Sunay embraces politics as the culmination of his art, to serve the fatherland, while Ka embraces its contradictions creatively but runs from its practical consequences. Most of all, this running away is a refusal to be labelled as a Europhile, a naive liberal, an Islamist sympathizer, a spy and informant, and so on — all the things he is, in the end, accused of because of his wish not to take sides, but to live for art and love. In the short-circuiting of politics, art becomes escapism, and so, offering no solutions, finds no vindication in the blood and repression of Kars.

What elevates Snow is its pitless observation. No one escapes — the old left, the Islamists, the brutal secular state — not even Ka and the bourgeois liberal intellectualism he represents, represented also by the narrator of Ka’s story in Snow, Orhan (perhaps a sly reference to Pamuk himself). The manuscript containing Ka’s nineteen poems is lost, melting away like a disintegrating snowflake, and Orhan, who has come to write about Ka’s life, finds that the poet was generally disliked and distrusted. Even Orhan gets a reprimand:

“If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I’d like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.”

“But no one believes everything they read in a novel,” I [Orhan] said.

“Oh yes, they do believe it,” he cried. “If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathise with the way we are and even love us.”

As Pamuk’s translator Maureen Freely remarks, Snow‘s only real heroes are the long suffering people of Kars who merely get by, surviving the rhetoric and machinations of middle class elites, secular or religious, European or Turkish, and the presumptions that they make in their claims over the “silent majority”. This leaves us with a book that nobody on any side of the great rhetoric about a “clash of civilisations” would feel comfortable with. This book champions no slogans or caucuses, and it is this pointed lack of advocacy is what makes Snow such a fine and subtle novel that should be heard above the polemical din that defines our times.

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