on 21 April 2010
I am of Turkish origin and have read "Snow" in its original Turkish print. I feel that the reason why there are so many lukewarm reviews for this book is that the themes & references might not be so accessible to readers who are not quite familiar with the culture and recent history of Turkey.
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.
Snow, the story of Ka, a poet who visits the troubled city of Kars, is narrated from a viewpoint four years after the events. The narration is (intentionally) cold, hazy and distant, as our narrator tries to piece together the events that have befallen poor Ka. The plot is brutal and tragic, centred on death and failing relationships. This isn't an easy read. If you want an uplifting novel, Pamuk isn't your man. But there is a lot to be admired in the way the sense of pathos and loss builds up to a beautiful crescendo.
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.
on 26 September 2006
Describing 3 snowbound days in a remote Turkish town, this novel examines politics and religion in modern Turkey. Pamuk examines the uneasy relationship that exists between nationalism and Islam, and the conflict between a desire for prosperity & progress and the fear of a creeping Westernisation that threatens to undermine Islam and republicanism. Alongside this Pamuk sets Kurdish nationalism, and never lets the reader forget the legacies of Armenia, and Russian colonialism.
The novel is fascinating in its analysis of Islamic extremism, particularly the examination of women's place in Islam and in Turkish society. Pamuk doesn't flinch from allowing his characters, on all sides of the arguments, to express their opinions and their doubts. In the environment of restricted free speech that exists in Turkey, you can but admire his bravery.
I have to admit that reading this book was hard work, partly because the subject matter is so foreign to my liberal Western background, but also due to the intense prose style. But it is a book that merits close attention and is worth persevering with - you really need to read the whole thing to fully appreciate it.
on 25 November 2007
In "Snow" the poet Ka returns to Turkey after more than a decade in Frankfurt, and journeys to Kars, far in the east. Among the things he hopes to find there is an old classmate and love, Ipek, now separated from her husband. He also plans to explore and report on a wave of suicides by girls there. It is snowing when Ka arrives, and the snow continues to fall, cutting off the town from the rest of the world. There is tension there: an upcoming mayoral election, the struggle between religion and secularism, a heavy-handed police presence. The conflict between Islam - and, for example, the right of girls to go to school wearing head-scarves - and the secular society the government has imposed causes the most problems.
Ka is an outsider. He begins as a dutiful journalist, talking to a variety of town figures, trying to learn more about the suicides, but finds himself drawn into this larger conflict. Throughout the country, and especially in this region, it is no longer the Kurds that are perceived by the authorities as being the greatest threat, but the increasingly influential Islamists. Ka, respected as a poet but tainted as one who has presumably been polluted by Western thought and ways, is viewed with both suspicion and interest by both sides. The police are reluctant to rough him up - as they do the locals - because of his Istanbul and German connexions, while the Islamists see him as the enemy but warily accept that he might be able to help convey their message. Eventually, he is also used as a go-between by both sides.
It is the desire to write a book about the poems written by Ka that leads the narrator - an alter-ego Orhan Pamuk, and long-time friend of Ka's - to tell this story.
Snow is a book about the difficulties faced by a nation torn between tradition, religion, and modernization. Set in the farthest east of Turkey, the locals are certain that in Western eyes they're all considered as ignoramuses. Pamuk effectively portrays these difficulties, and the many ambiguities in contemporary Turkish life.
The novel is expertly read by John Lee for Random House Audio.
on 14 May 2004
Orhan Pamuk is not an easy or superficially gripping author, but his sad, wry stories gradually build momentum and draw the reader into their world. There is something of the German existentialist in them, like a modern Heinrich Boll or Gunther Grass with a bleak view on hope and happiness. There is also something very 'other' about the Turkish culture he portrays - insecure, questing, nervy and nationalistic in even parts. Snow is set in a cut off town on the far edges of that massive country, straddling a disjointed history torn apart by old conflicts and now stuck in an uneasy stasis. Pamuk tackles contemporary issues of secularism and fundamentalism deftly and disturbingly. As with all his novels Snow is a story of many layers: a semi-requited love story; a gripping political thriller; a nostaligic evocation of memory and loss; a story of a family under peculiar stress; a broad cultural allegory. And extraordinarily he pulls the book of on each of these. It is never easy going, but Snow is quietly seductive and richly rewards persistance.
on 8 February 2006
Orhan Pamuk's 'Snow' is an ambitious (if not over-ambitious) attempt to somehow grasp the complex struggle between fundamentalism and nationalism - and those caught in between - in his native Turkey. The rather unlikely hero Ka, a poet and exile, is drawn unwillingly into this conflict after witnessing a local official murdered by an extremist. Ka encounters a complex cast of characters in the manner of a Le Carré espionage thriller, being manipulated as a pawn in several (sometimes unlikely sounding) revolutionary plots. The effectiveness of this novel rests on whether you subscribe to the author's attempt to map complex issues of Turkish national and religious identity onto a slightly clumsy formular of intrigue and espionage. There are perhaps too many characters, and not all of them engage - not least the rather slight protagonist who is constantly inspired to write poems that the reader does not get the privilege to see. Meanwhile, the backdrop of endless snowfall, and its metaphorical connotations, is force-fed on the reader with repetitious descriptive passages. It may be that something is lost in the translation, but the rather cyclical nature of the narrative, and the imagery, is more exhausting than engaging. Or perhaps that is what was intended?
on 25 November 2013
This book caught my attention immediately. A political thriller based on East meets West and Islam vs Secularism in Eastern Turkey. A Nobel prize winning author. Outstanding reviews. "Essential reading for our times" apparently. And then I started reading it. Oh dear...
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 the light of Turkey's (and Britain's) desire that it should join the European Union and play a larger role in European affairs and in the light of the Turkish judiciary's recent attempts to prosecute the author for speaking out about some of the dodgier parts of its past, this book should really be required reading for all. It gives a vivid picture of the conflicting factions at play in the political game there from the secular Attaturkists to the fundamentalist Islamists, from conservatives to revolutionaries, from the devoutly religious to the devoutly atheist. And most shades in between.
But this is a novel, not a political tract and Pamuk also manages to invest his vast array of characters and opinions with faces and feelings. They are by turns fleshly, lustful, attractive, impetuous, wise, irrational, outrageous, subversive, camp, theatrical, etc. The whole piece is enclosed by the snow of the title which envelops and isolates this colourful gallery of (largely) misfits and the remote town in which the events recounted take place. This piece of symbolism certainly gives the book its distinctive colouring.
It is perhaps post-modern in an unnecessarily convoluted way. The book is about the poet, Ka, and is largely seen from his point of view. But it purports to be written by Orhan, a close friend of Ka, who may or may not be the same Orhan who actually wrote the book. Confusing or what? Helpful to understanding it all? Not particularly.
The other major cop-out is the failure (plotted into the story, it's true) to reproduce any of Ka's poems, a major clearing of writers' block which is supposedly sparked by his visit to the town.
Having aired those gripes, I would still maintain that this is a good read as well as being a salutary one. The characters are rich and varied, the plotting is involving, the political and religious dilemmas and dichotomies it presents are fascinating and important. Turkey sits, as it has through history, at the meeting-point of Europe and Asia. This novel gives a strongly limned portrait of this Janus nation as well as a fine picture of its characters as more universal human beings.
on 18 August 2005
Novels like Pamuk's "Snow" can be understood at different levels. Consider it as pure entertainment; for the political intrigue and thrill; or as a virtual door into a foreign place, the lives of far away people, their time or preoccupations.
Pamuk has attempted to present us with all three options in one. The reader is exposed to a panoramic view of Turkey's political and religious conflicts and ethnic tensions. His multitude of characters represents every conceivable strand of Turkish society: Atatürk secularism and pro-European modernism on the one hand and various religious factions of Muslim faith on the other. By compressing the events into one locale, a remote, poor and backward town, Kars, in Eastern Turkey, he creates a charged playing field. A major snowstorm has cut off the access roads to the town, bringing the conflicting positions to boiling point. A couple of murders occur. The mayoral election, which would have been won by an Islamist over a local Secularist, is cut short by a military coup. In addition, the town has become notorious in the Istanbul headlines for several suicides and suicide attempts by the so-called "headscarf girls". The assumption being that the girls decided to end their life because they were not allowed to wear their headscarf in school. Yet, their motivations are more complicated than that.
Within this complex political turmoil, wanders Ka, the protagonist of the story. A recently unproductive poet, he returned from Germany to attend his mother's funeral. He has also reasons for coming to Kars. Presenting himself as a journalist, he claims to be interested in the stories behind the headscarf girls' suicides. On a personal level, he wants to find a "Turkish girl" to marry and take back to Germany. The object of his dreams and desire is Ipek, a young woman he admired during their student days and who now lives in Kars.
The story is told by Orhan, a close friend of Ka, four years after the events in Kars. Orhan travels to the town to retrace Ka's steps, to find his notebook with the poems and also to shed light on the political dramas of the day. In many ways he describes Ka as a somewhat confused, middle-aged man, whose exposure to the realities of Kars result in his questioning his life so far. He is taking in all political and religious positions, getting increasingly entangled as events unfold. Wanting to please his various interlocutors, he appears to flip-flop his own positions. In discussions with religious leaders he even wavers in his secular beliefs and appears to be overwhelmed by a sudden spurt of poems that come to him as through some "divine channel".
While going into minute, sometimes tedious, detail in defining time and place, the activities are increasingly repetitive and predictable. The characters, despite being given ample dialogue are not convincing and the rationale for some of their actions seems almost farcical. The newspaper editor who pre-empts the next day's news headlines, the theatre director/actor and his belly-dancing companion who play leading roles in the secularist movement. Nobody is quite what they want or appear to be. The women, in particular, despite their importance for Ka, are hollow. His love for Ipek is not based in reality but rather on his daydreams, both past and future. Her beauty is praised constantly, but nothing much of her character is revealed.
Pamuk himself described "Snow" as a political novel. Is it convincing in that ambition? For the reader who is not that familiar with Turkey or its language, it is difficult to judge its value in this category. My own interpretation is that Pamuk created a satire on Turkey and its historical and present-day problems. The exaggeration in the description of Kars, political intrigues, religious fanaticism, military brutality, and Ka's own personality would lead to that assessment.
The narrator, Orhan, interjects his own 20-20-hindsight vision of Ka in his interactions with the other protagonists of the story. Several times, he addresses the reader directly and, halfway through the book, reveals what happens to Ka after his return to Germany. An all-knowing narrator can be an effective technique in a story, but it is not very successful here. Rather than complementing the reader's understanding, Orhan competes with his friend for their attention. The result is a strange mix of over-detailed reporting on the events and circumstances in Kars during the snow storm and very generalized, almost philosophical commentary on love, poetry, happiness in which the character Ka is embedded. [Friederike Knabe]
on 4 February 2005
This book is a kaleidoscope. Twist the lens and the intricacies of the plot transform into different patterns but nonetheless are held together by the three intersecting axes of the structure of a snow crystal. On the prongs of each axis, opposites are juxtaposed in terms of character, ideologies, passions and aesthetics.
The complexities of modern Turkey fall through the pages like snowflakes on the beleaguered border town of Kars. The beauty of the snow acts as a blanket for the underlying ugliness of the conflicting philosophies. As the snow melts, the violence of these opposites is slowly revealed and the reader begins to understand the reasons for the divisions: Secularists are pitched against Political Islamists, Communists with Nationalists, Atheists with the God-Abiding, Iconoclasts with Artists and Informers with the Innocent of Heart. All of these types play a role.
It is the symbolic placement of these conflicts in a border town that alerts the reader to a central problem that the novel exposes; that of cultural marginalization. This is particularly apt at a time when Turkey seeks entry into the European Union.
But after the thaw, the novel requires the reader to engage in some serious reflection. We begin to understand how the world has been snow-blinded by its own burlesque and farcical dramas: the statements, the conferences, the forceful agendas. It takes such a novel, published in 2002, to remind and warn us of the possible reasons for the vengeance and major psychological coup d'etat of 9/11: marginalization, poverty, condescension, rejection, containment. Have we been bridge building or foolishly circumventing?
I found this multi-faceted novel an enriching experience that works in the mind long after it has been read. Some understanding is reached and wisdom gathered on the enormously complex issues that plague East and West.
The translation is flowing and captures well the various genres that this work employs. The stereotyping of character is not a flaw but an integral technique used for the better understanding of the whole; yet, at the same time a deep humanity emerges as the frailties of the varied characters put their credos to the test. The novel is arranged in chapter vignettes that reminds one of the diversions of serial novels of the 19th century or even the best articulations of TV soap. But to mention such terms is not to belittle the magnificent dexterity, fun and range of the narrative; its plays within plays and its conjuring with plot and subplots. The writing is electrically charged and moves onwards with a pace that does not sacrifice depth.
I hope this novel will encourage readers to follow the development of Orhan Pamuk who straddles the divide between East and West; a writer who offers a prophetic insight that requires not only investigation but informed participation in a world that needs to listen.