College Quarterly
Winter 2008 - Volume 11 Number 1
Reviews Snow
Pamuk, Orhan; M. Freely (Trans.)
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Reviewed by John Hoben

The latest English translation of Snow by Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk is a compelling read as the novel delves into the convoluted worlds of art, politics, and the perennial human yearning for love and truth. Pamuk offers a means of encountering questions about our views of the Islamic world, the West—and their many hybrids—in a way which is both lyrical and philosophically engaging.

Snow relates the experiences of the expatriate poet-journalist Ka, who returns to visit the provincial Turkish city of Kars to seek inspiration, a lost love and to investigate a recent rash of suicides by young Muslim women, ostensibly due to a headscarf ban in secular state schools. Known as the “head scarf girls”, these women are placed at the heart of a clash between a secular authoritarianism and radical Islam.

Inspired by the beauty of the snow-covered city, Ka soon discovers that Ipek still lives in Kars and has recently divorced her older, wealthy husband. However, as Ka draws closer to his lost love they are caught up in Kars’ tumultuous political culture as they witness the murder of the former director of the local Institute of Education by a Muslim radical.

Events take on an additional unexpected turn when Ka is asked to read a poem in the National Theatre and subsequently, during the performance of an anti-Islamic play, My Fatherland or My Head Scarf, there is a massacre of Islamists which inaugurates a secularist totalitarian coup. In the junta’s aftermath, as personal and political tensions heighten, Ka discovers that Ipek’s sister Kadife is the “leader” of the headscarf girls and the lover of the fundamentalists’ leader: a shadowy, mysterious, yet childlike figure named Blue. Partly due to his unique status as a Westernized Turk and literary “celebrity”, the leaders of Kars’ main opposition groups, including Blue, agree to have Ka broker a written statement in response to the coup for a Frankfurt paper.

The novel’s myriad conflicts come to a head, once again at the National Theatre, during a performance of Thomas Kyd’s A Spanish Tragedy. Despite her reluctance, in order to secure the release of Blue, Kadife removes her headscarf before shooting the character played by Sunay Zaim, a central figure in the coup. Surprisingly, the gun used as a prop is loaded with live ammunition, resulting in Zaim’s death. Yet, despite her efforts, we soon learn of Blue’s murder by his captors. Overcome with emotion, Ipek decides not to return to Frankfurt with Ka. The forlorn poet subsequently spends the next four years in Germany before eventually being assassinated, most likely, according to the narrator, for divulging the hiding place of Blue. The novel ends as the narrator (the fictional double of Pamuk) retraces the final years of Ka’s life, ending in a meeting with Ipek to revisit the events retold in the novel itself.

In a sometimes fractured but breathtakingly beautiful work, then, Pamuk leaves us with a number of lingering ironies: the unworldly poet becomes implicated in a murder plot resulting in the death of a childlike fundamentalist; the supposed leader of the head scarf girls, Kadife, makes a profound political statement, by acceding to the demands of the secularists, but only to save her fundamentalist lover; and, this same act of mock “submission” also causes the death of secularist organizer Sunay Zaim. Moreover, to compound this nuanced texture of interlocking ironies, in the closing pages of the book Fazil—a young boy from Kars’ main religious school—cautions Pamuk’s double and his “audience” regarding the precariousness of simple truths:

Afraid to look too long into his wife’s beautiful eyes, I turned back to Fazil and asked him whether he knew now what he might want to say to my readers if ever I was to write a book set in Kars ….

“I did think of something, but you may not like 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 in that way what he reads in a novel” I said.

“Oh yes, they do” 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 sympathize with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I’ve just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds.”

I promised him I would put what he’d said into my novel.

Here Pamuk is hinting that, while imagination and dialogue can help us to encounter alterity, reflexivity, in life as well as in art, has its place. As a novel which takes up the complex themes of memory and longing, Snow reminds us that there are no utopias, only a revolutionary desire which must be tempered by compassion. In part, Pamuk’s text is premised upon the assumption that an historical amnesia grounded in lassitude or apathy is a moral as well as a political failing. While Snow does incorporate many postcolonial insights about the nature of alterity and power, then, in many respects it reminds us that the contradictions and messiness of lived-in-experience cannot be reductively abstracted away.

More generally, however, such a provocative work enables us to extend our existential horizons into a space beyond the confines of a regimented authoritarian austerity. From a pedagogical perspective Snow demonstrates how border-crossing intellectual work can trouble preconceptions though an aesthetic pedagogy which uses the power of the imagination as an educational and moral catalyst. In this vein, Pamuk suggests that the senseless violence and hatred inaugurated by contemporary cultural crusades is a result of attempts by western secularists and Muslim radicals alike to impose alien values and obscure the politics of the personal with the indignity of violence.

Indeed, as we confront the threat of Terror, we remain in desperate need of such revolutionary insights as our cultures have become governed by an increasingly xenophobic, authoritarian Zeitgeist. Disturbingly, fear has obliterated the interaction essential to a sense of collective identity as the War on Terror has become a way of refashioning not only the world, but our own subjectivities as history is given a radical new pathological origin in the intense hatred and anger felt by Westerners in the wake of 9/11. Accordingly, we must recognize that an engaged freedom requires an assertive critical imagination. Somehow, Pamuk reminds us, we must reclaim the knowledge that our own lives require as much artistry and passion as any work of fiction; for, in the end, the memory that inscribes the story of how we came to history is always—inescapably—our own.


John Hoben is a lawyer and a published poet living in St. John's, Newfoundland. He is currently completing graduate work in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University. He can be reached at jlhoben_@hotmail.com.

Reviews

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