Orhan Pamuk’s Snow

The novel opens when Ka, a Turkish poet living in exile in Germany, returns to Istanbul for his mother’s funeral. While there, he is hired by a newspaper to write a piece about a string of mysterious suicides in the remote city of Kars. In a resurgence of religious devotion, schoolgirls in Kars have been wearing headscarves, in defiance of laws drafted under Ataturk. Rather than give up the scarves to attend school, the girls have been killing themselves.

Ka’s real reason for accepting the assignment, however, is the recently divorced Ipek, an old flame from his college days, who’s moved to the city with her father and sister, where they manage the Snow Palace Hotel. After Ka’s arrival, a snow storm seals the city from the rest of the world for three days. Still, Ka gets to work on his assignment; he visits the bereaved families, asks questions, and runs into the usual troubles with the police.

Soon, though, Ka is distracted from his interviews by a cast of characters, each bent on giving their two cents: Ipek’s sister Kadife, who’s considered the leader of the covered girls; Blue, a terrifying yet seductive religious fundamentalist; Serdar Bey, a journalist who writes news before they happen; Funda Eser and Sunay Zaim, a couple of thespians who’ve been staging Jacobin plays for years; Necip, a religious teenager who’s working on an ‘Islamic sci-fi novel;’ a few communists, a couple of Army officers, and even a character named Orhan, who appears in the first couple of pages of the novel to tell us he’s narrating and reappears again at the end.

Things take a turn for the worse when the school headmaster is murdered by an Islamist. In retaliation, an Army coup is staged, quite literally, during a performance of an Ataturk-era play called ‘My Fatherland or My Scarf,’ when officers on stage fire shots at the crowd. Dozens of students are arrested and imprisoned, some of them tortured.

Pamuk does a wonderful job of filling out all the actors in this struggle between the religious and the secular, the traditional and the modern. Early on, one character describes how the Islamists go from door to door, paying house visits, offering help and services, winning people’s trust, and, in the process, asking for votes. Another says that the scarf is a symbol of nothing but backwardness, and the sooner it is eradicated the better for Turkey.

But the dilemma the country finds itself in, Pamuk seems to suggest, is at least partly due to what happened to its storytelling. When Ka visits Blue, the Islamic fundamentalist tells him a wonderful story from Firdevsi’s Shehname, and concludes it by saying:

Once upon a time, millions of people knew it by heart–from Tabriz to Istanbul, from Bosnia to Trabzon–and when they recalled it they found the meaning of their lives. The story spoke to them in just the same way that Oedipus’ murder of his father and Macbeth’s obsession with power and death speak to people throughout the Western world. But now, because we’ve fallen under the spell of the West, we’ve forgotten our own stories.

And the author also manages to capture the ironical consequences of this struggle: Kadife, the leader of the ultra-religious covered girls, is carrying on a torrid love affair with none other than the fundamentalist Blue.

Despite everything it has to commend it, Snow is ultimately not a satisfying novel. The girls who’ve committed suicides are all but forgotten after the first third of the book, only to be brought up again in the last ten pages. Ka is a maddeningly uncentered character, weak and whiny. Ipek, who is set up to play a major role in Ka’s life, is nothing more than an object of desire, repeatedly described as ‘beautiful.’ The plot meanders and entire scenes feel repetitive. Quite a few characters, men and women, threaten to kill themselves over the actions or sayings of someone else. Get a grip, I wanted to say. Even the writing, which was so poetic in My Name Is Red, is uneven in Snow, with occasionally luminous passages followed by bland ones. The translation seems adept although it, too, occasionally stumbles: a Koranic Sura (An-Nisa’) is erroneously referred to as a verse. An eye of Fatma is mistakenly called an ‘evil eye’ (the talisman protects from the evil eye.) While Snow tackles timely and important issues, I wanted more from it than what it delivered.