Snow Paperback – 7 Apr 2005
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'An act of bravery... A vital book.' --Daily Telegraph
'Profound and frequently brilliant... Illuminate[s] the confrontation between secular and extremist Islamic worlds better than any work of non-ficition I can think of.' --New Statesman
'A novel of profound relevance to the present moment.' --The Times
Snow by Orhan Pamuk is the bestselling story of a poet seeking his lost love in a remote Turkish town riven by religious conflict and cut off from the world by a blizzard.See all Product description
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I don't think a book has ever been a bigger disappointment to high initial expectations. There were so many things wrong with it I don't really know where to start but I'll try.
I think perhaps I was expecting something along the lines of "The Kite Runner" by Kahled Hosseini which describes a young boy's experiences growing up in Afghanistan. That book gave an insight into the history, culture, religion and politics of Afghanistan as part of a work of fiction and I was hoping for Snow to do the same with Turkey. The main reason The Kite Runner worked for me as a novel though was that it had an exciting page turning plot and engaging characters who the reader cared about. Needless to say, Snow didn't.
That's not to say that Snow doesn't have an eventful plot - suicides, assassinations, Islamic terrorists, a military coup, beatings, torture, politics, religion, love, sex - all these take place over a short period of about 3 days in an isolated town cut off from everywhere else by a snowstorm. The problem is though, the characters in the book are so uninteresting and/or irritating and/or one dimensional, I felt that I didn't really care about anything that happened to any of them. I say characters, although the majority of them aren't really "characters" at all. They seem more like mouth pieces whose only reason for existence is to spout or represent some particular political or religious view point.
The Amazon book description starts off saying "Part political thriller, part absurdist farce, part love story", and I think another of the book's problems is that it tries to be too many different things and fails at all of them. Yes the content is political but to be a thriller a book needs to have a plot that keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next. For some strange reason though the author has decided to give away all the important events before they happen, either by introducing himself into the story 4 years later or by having newspaper articles printed in advance of events! This all seemed completely unnecessary and ruined any potentially exciting bits.
As for being a farce there were passages where it felt like it was trying to be funny or satirical. In some places it reminded me a bit of a (very) poor imitation of Catch 22. But then it would jump to something more serious, poetic or philosophical and because of the writing style (possibly due to the translation) it wasn't always clear which bits were supposed to be humorous and which not!
Finally the love story... Our "hero", who I've not yet introduced, is called Ka and he visits the Turkish town of Kars which I've since learnt means "snow" in Turkish. (Its no wonder the author won a Nobel prize with a clever play on words like that! If he keeps it up he might even get a job writing headlines for The Sun someday...) Anyway, Ka is a grown man but reminded me more of a whiny, teenage "Emo". Despite all the suicides, massacres and revolutions going on around him, his main focus during his stay in Kars is to try and get his end away with the beautiful Ipek who he's always had a crush on and is recently divorced. And oh yes, she is beautiful, we're reminded of her beauty every time she's in a scene and every man who meets her (including the author himself) falls immediately in love and wants to whisk her away to start a happier life somewhere else. We also learn that back in Frankfurt Ka has an extensive porn collection featuring an actress who bears a remarkable resemblance to Ipek, so he obviously has very deep feelings for her and isn't creepy in any way. Unfortunately for Ka, Ipek still has secret feelings for bad-boy Islamic terrorist "Blue" who is currently dating Kadife, the feisty younger sister of Ipek and leader of the "Headscarf Girls Gang".
To cope with his frustration over Ipek, Ka spends most of his time writing poems, scuttling off to pen his latest masterpiece every time he's inspired by one of the numerous events going on around him. He writes a total of 19 during his 3 day stay and even goes to the trouble of carefully placing them on the various axis of a snowflake diagram which appears in the text of the novel (the snow theme again, get it?). All very interesting I suppose for those readers with a literary bent. Well it would be, except for the fact that we never get to read a single word of Ka's poems because they all get conveniently lost!
I could go on. About the endless references to the snow (its white and cold and beautiful, get over it), the daft questions about "what it means to be an atheist", the bizarre "Islamic science fiction story", but I feel like I've said enough.
There was the odd line here and there that was vaguely interesting, so I've given it 2 stars rather than 1, but I found most of it to be drivel. Perhaps I'm missing something though and it really is as good as other people seem to think?
In places the prose is brilliantly inventive. There is a whole chapter comprising a taped final conversation between a murderer and his victim (it's chilling, because you know how it will end). The alternations between the present day and four years previously work very well. A powerful subplot revolving around a book of lost poetry reflects the mood of the whole novel wonderfully. The reviewer who describes this as "Dostoevsky without a plot" is not so far off the mark, but Pamuk doesn't aim for the richness of characterisation Dostoevsky specialised in. He's more in the business of evocative, symbolic description. His settings are as alive as his characters, if not more so.
Pamuk's cities are achingly beautiful, but they're also creepy, claustrophobic and waiting to knife you in the back. Stepping into a Pamuk novel is at the same time like looking over a glorious panorama and like looking under your bed. In Snow, Kars is brought to life with the skill a Pamuk fan would expect. My only caveat is that it's not as compelling as The Black Book, a stunning evocation of 1980s Istanbul. If you want a full idea of what this sensational novelist is capable of, try The Black Book.
One underlying theme of the book was that the protagonist Ka is living in exile in Germany (a situation many Turkish intellectuals & political activists found themselves in, following the 1980 coup d'etat in Turkey) in a small state-subsidied apartment, a lonely outsider in a foreign culture. All this alienation and need to belong are, I feel, behind his thought that it would be a good idea to marry a girl he has fancied back when they were both little, and even his rapproachment with the religious groups.
The whole thing is a nod to feelings of isolation reported by the poor, uneducated, "rural" Turks who went as factory workers to Europe decades ago, and whose descendants still import brides from Turkey. The book seems to be saying that those of us who are better educated, who consider ourselves above our "rural" countrymen, are still the same down inside, with the same cultural longings.
Another theme is the play on names. All Turkish names and surnames mean something, and most are words that are still commonly used in everyday language - Rock, Fire, War, Peace, Rain, Water, etc are all given names in Turkey. The two female characters in the book are Ipek ("Silk") and Kadife ("Velvet"), for example.
Going back to the play on words - KARS is the name of the city, 'Snow' is 'KAR' in Turkish, and KA is the name of the main character. What might not be so obvious to the foreign reader is that no Turk would be called "Ka" - it is too short, and above all, it does not mean anything. Author could be trying to show that the protagonist has lost all meaning, cultural relevance as well as the "meaning" of every Turk's name. He is set apart from the culture he longs for, even in his name. The whole wordplay of "Kars > Kar > Ka" not only links the place, the blanket of snow that isolates the city from the world, and the protagonist, but also seems to be pointing towards a diminishing effect, a reduction to absurdity.
One last thing I would like to mention: "Mavi" ("Blue") is not a name in Turkish. It is a code name, with heavy reference to "Yesil" ("Green") - the code name used by a Turkish ex-cop, ex-MIT (Turkish CIA) assassin used by the state in 1990s for illegal executions.
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