The silence of snow

Print edition : February 11, 2005

Snow by Orhan Pamuk; Faber and Faber; pages 436, 12.99.

THE Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk is the author of seven novels. Born in Istanbul in 1952, he has continued to live there barring a three-year period outside the country. When his last novel, My Name Is Red, a compelling mythical-historical narrative, won the IMPAC Dublin Award in 2003, it was only the latest in a series of awards. Beginning in the realist tradition of storytelling, Pamuk moved to a more complex post-modern style reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My Name is Red opens, for example, with the narration of a dead man and continues to become a rich layering of many voices.

Snow, Pamuk's new novel, is set in the small Turkish town of Kars, near the Armenian border. A 42-year-old Turkish poet, now based in Frankfurt, is travelling to Kars to write an investigative report covering events that occurred recently in the town: the killing of the town's mayor, and the so-called suicide epidemic among the `headscarf girls' of this town where, at this juncture, the Islamists are almost sure of victory in the municipal elections.

The narrator tells us that his old friend, the poet, disliking his full name, has always preferred to be known by his initials, as "Ka". This narratorial voice, which appears infrequently but at more or less regular intervals throughout the narrative, is that of "an old friend of Ka's", who is also a writer, named Orhan Pamuk.

Incidentally, Snow is not the first time that Pamuk has used this strategy. One recalls that in My Name Is Red, too, there is a character called Orhan. "Orhan is not my alter ego; he is me," said Pamuk in an interview published in Random House's Borzoi Reader. "By carrying the details of my childhood into my historical novel, I hoped to give it a personal dimension. The challenge of a historical novel is not to render a perfect imitation of the past, but to relate history with something new, enrich and change it with imagination and sensuousness of personal experience."

And Snow, for all its complex and many-layered history and its preoccupation with the political, is an intensely personal narrative. Ka never married, has been living in exile in Frankfurt for 12 years, and has come to the city of his childhood and youth, Istanbul, for his mother's funeral. From there he has travelled onward to this Anatolian outpost. Another reason for his coming to this snow-covered location (and kar, incidentally, means snow) is the beautiful Ipek, daughter of the owner of the Snow Palace Hotel where Ka is staying.

Ipek was earlier married to Ka's old friend Muhtar Bey, who has now turned Islamist and is likely to win the municipal elections. Although Ipek's marriage to Muhtar has since failed and the two live separately, Muhtar has decided that he wants her back as his wife. He requests Ka to ask Ipek, on his behalf, to come back to him. Meanwhile Kadife, Ipek's strong-willed sister and the leader of the "headscarf girls", is in love with a radical Islamist killer called Blue who has gone underground in Kars.

The major part of the novel unfolds while the town is snowbound, making both access and flight impossible. At the cusp of the election victory, a coup is staged, literally, and most dramatically, from within the National Theatre. As the audience watches from within the theatre, and as the rest of Kars watches the performances of the evening unfold on their television screens, the town is taken over by a maverick stage actor, Sunay Zaim.

In very broad terms, Snow is about the road between East and West. Turkey itself, with its unique location and Ataturkian heritage, becomes the site for an exploration into the nuances and implications of such a meeting of cultures. The location of Kars, on the threshold of the road to Europe, becomes the symbol of such a gateway. The town was an important gateway to Georgia, Tabriz and the Caucasus; and being on the border between two defunct empires, the Ottoman and the Russian, it had enjoyed the protection of both armies. Its heritage included a centuries-old Armenian presence, as well as the presence of Greek, Georgian, Kurd, Circassian and other communities.

The Tsar's army, taking over the town in the late 19th century, had imposed on it the western sense of order, with five straight avenues and streets that intersected these at right angles, "something never before seen in the East". Oddly, when the modernising Turks took it over again and set out to rename the avenues, they named them after five great pashas.

We are told that in those westernising years of the city, when a theatre troupe came to perform a revolutionary play about a girl who removes her headscarf, they searched the entire city, unsuccessfully, for a black scarf to be used in the play. Today, the ex-mayor tells Ka, the streets of Kars are filled with women in headscarves. And because the modernising state has banned them from wearing their headscarves, they have begun committing suicide. Kadife says bitterly that today it requires courage not to take the headscarf off but to wear it.

And so, as Ka wanders through the streets, we see the ruins and decay of this once-grand city - the old, elegant Baltic buildings, of which the Snow Palace Hotel is one; the 1,000-year-old Armenian churches; the remnants of the Ottoman period.

Pamuk's epigraphs to this novel are from Robert Browning, Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Joseph Conrad. Dostoyevsky and Conrad are definite influences in Pamuk territory, but so is Franz Kafka, with Ka's name itself echoing Kafka's K. From Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, Pamuk takes the following statement: "Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters." And indeed, when the pistol-shots do ring out in the middle of the theatre performance, things turn ugly in snow-bound Kars.

In Snow, Pamuk returns to a more realist mode of narration, taking us through the streets and bylanes of this desolate little town. And yet the patterns of the plot are as intriguing and beautiful as those of the snowflakes that Ka watches. When the different political factions in Kars meet at the Hotel Asia (this name is significant) to draft out a statement "to the West", entitled "An Announcement to the People of Europe about the Events in Kars", Blue wants it to be addressed not to Europe but to "all humanity". They discover that no one in the room, other than Blue, has been to Europe. There is further discussion on whether the statement should be addressed to Europe, or to the West, or to all humanity. It is finally decided that it will be simply called "An Announcement". If he had just two lines to say his piece, says a passionate Kurdish teenager, he would say only this: "We're not stupid! We're just poor! And we have a right to insist on this distinction."

Ka, wrapped in his elegant and warm Frankfurt coat, becomes the living, speaking symbol not only of such an encounter between East and West, but also of the dialogue between groups within Kars. Often he literally becomes the messenger, carrying missives from one faction to the other. But it would be less than true to say that this is all that the novel is about. As a poet, Ka not only gives words to the more ineffable manifestations of these encounters, but also questions the obsessions of different sides with their respective positions. His own preoccupation, as we see, is with finding what happiness he can in this unhappy, snow-covered, beautiful world.

And so, although this is a very political novel, with long digressions into political motives and beliefs, the story does not take sides; instead, it follows Ka's lonely search for happiness. For Ka, who has not written anything for a long time when this novel opens, it is a search fraught with many dangers, the greatest danger being that of finding unhappiness instead; and yet it provides him with some of his happiest moments, as well as poem after poem.

Much of the novel is filled with silence. This silence is with us from the beginning of the narrative, after all: "The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him `the silence of the snow'." This silence of the snow is the theme that remains with us throughout the 400-odd pages of this slow, sweeping narrative. Many things are not said at all, although they are thought about, anticipated, doubted, feared, mulled over, and thus imagined over and over again. Other conversations, such as the retellings of dreams, desires, and other fevered imaginings, unfold over several pages, in cafes and tea-rooms, even as the snow drifts past silently on the streets outside.

Questions, too, fall around Ka like more snowflakes. "Was it hard for you in Germany?" asks Ipek. "Do you believe that God created snow?" asks one of the teenage boys. "Why are you so afraid of us?" asks the religious teacher. And finally, the questions posed by Blue: "Will the West, which takes its great invention, democracy, more seriously than the Word of God, come out against this coup that has brought an end to democracy in Kars? ... Can the West endure any democracy achieved by enemies who in no way resemble them?" But the hardest questions are those that Ka is forced to ask himself: What could have prevented this tragic turn of events? What is the higher power from where his poems are coming from? And what, ultimately, is the way to happiness?

Snow is a luminous and deeply affecting work.

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