I N T R O D U C T I O N
By Margaret Atwood
Just as Turkey stands at the crossroads of the Muslim East/Middle East and the European and North American West, so Orhan Pamuk’s work inhabits the shifting ground of an increasingly dangerous cultural and religious overlap, where ideologies as well as personalities collide. It’s no exaggeration to say that you have to read Pamuk if you want to begin to understand what’s going on in people’s hearts, minds and souls in such a world. In Turkey, he is far more than a novelist: people rush to read his novels as if he’s a kind of sure-fire prophet, or a hugely popular singer, or a national psychoanalyst or a one-man newspaper editorial page. There is nothing programmatic about his novels; he simply writes out of the center of the whirlwind both his characters and his Turkish readers feel swept up in every day.
Where is Turkey going? How will it come to terms with its once glorious, often troubled history, and resolve the conflict between old and new, and handle the power struggle between secularists and Islamists, and find self-respect, or peace of mind, or inner wholeness or a new direction? Pamuk’s novels don’t provide cut-and-dried solutions, but they follow the tortuous lines of such questionings with anguished and wrenching fidelity. Sometimes his characters are almost literally torn apart by choices they don’t know how to make, but are forced to make. His power as a novelist stems in part from his refusal to judge the choices his characters make: their tragedy is that no matter what path they take, they can’t be at ease; and, worse, some other element in their society is bound to condemn them.
Although it’s set in the 1990s and was begun before 9/11, Snow
is eerily prescient, both in its analyses of fundamentalist attitudes and in the nature of the repression and rage and conspiracies and violence it depicts. Like Pamuk’s other novels, Snow
is an in-depth tour of the divided, hopeful, desolate, mystifying Turkish soul. It’s the story of Ka, a gloomy but appealing poet who hasn’t written anything in years. But Ka is not his own narrator: by the time of the telling he has been assassinated, and his tale is pieced together by an ‘‘old friend’’ of his who just happens to be named Orhan.
As the novel opens, Ka has been in political exile in Frankfurt, but has returned to Istanbul after twelve years for his mother’s funeral. He’s making his way to Kars, an impoverished city in Anatolia, just as a severe snowstorm begins. (Kar is ‘‘snow’’ in Turkish, so we have already been given an envelope inside an envelope inside an envelope.) Ka claims to be a journalist interested in the recent murder of the city’s mayor and the suicides of a number of young girls forced by their schools to remove their head scarves, but this is only one of his motives. He also wants to see Iÿpek, a beautiful woman he’d known as a student. Divorced from a onetime friend of Ka’s turned Islamist politician, she lives in the shabby Snow Palace Hotel, where Ka is staying.
Cut off from escape by the snow, Ka wanders through a decaying city haunted by its glorious former selves: there are architectural remnants of the once vast Ottoman Empire; the grand Armenian church stands empty, testifying to the massacre of its worshipers; there are ghosts of Russian rulers and their lavish celebrations, and pictures of Atatu¨ rk, founder of the Turkish Republic and instigator of a ruthless ‘‘modernization’’ campaign, which included – not incidentally – a ban on head scarves.
Ka’s pose as a journalist allows Pamuk to put on display a wide variety of opinions. Those not living in the shrunken remains of former empires may find it hard to imagine the mix of resentful entitlement (We ought to be powerful!), shame (What did we do wrong?), blame (Whose fault is it?) and anxiety about identity (Who are we really?) that takes up a great deal of headroom in such places, and thus in Snow
. Ka tries to find out more about the dead girls but encounters resistance: he’s from a bourgeois background in cosmopolitan Istanbul, he’s been in exile in the West, he has a snazzy overcoat. Believers accuse him of atheism; the secular government doesn’t want him writing about the suicides – a blot on its reputation – so he’s dogged by police spies; common people are suspicious of him. He’s present in a pastry shop when a tiny fundamentalist gunman murders the director of the institute that has expelled the head-scarf girls. He gets mixed up with his beloved’s former husband, the two of them are arrested and he witnesses the brutality of the secularist regime. He manages to duck his shadowers long enough to meet with an Islamist extremist in hiding, the persuasive Blue, said to be behind the director’s murder. And so he goes, floundering from encounter to encounter.
the line between playful farce and gruesome tragedy is very fine. For instance, the town’s newspaper publisher, Serdar Bey, prints an article describing Ka’s public performance of his poem ‘‘Snow.’’ When Ka protests that he hasn’t written a poem called ‘‘Snow’’ and is not going to perform it in the theater, Serdar Bey replies: ‘‘Don’t be so sure. There are those who despise us for writing the news before it happens. . . . quite a few things do happen only because we’ve written them up first. This is what modern journalism is all about.’’ And sure enough, inspired by the love affair he begins with Ipek and happier than he’s been in years, Ka begins to write poems, the first of them being ‘‘Snow.’’ Before you know it, there he is in the theater, but the evening also includes a ridiculous performance of an Ataturk-era play called My Fatherland or My Head Scarf
. As the religious-school teenagers jeer, the secularists decide to enforce their rule by firing rifles into the audience.
The twists of fate, the plots that double back on themselves, the trickiness, the mysteries that recede as they’re approached, the bleak cities, the night prowling, the sense of identity loss, the protagonist in exile – these are vintage Pamuk, but they’re also part of the modern literary landscape. A case could be made for a genre called the Male Labyrinth Novel, which would trace its ancestry through De Quincey and Dostoevsky and Conrad, and would include Kafka, Borges, García Márquez, DeLillo and Auster, with the Hammett-and-Chandler noir
thriller thrown in for good measure. It’s mostly men who write such novels and feature as their rootless heroes, and there’s probably a simple reason for this: send a woman out alone on a rambling nocturnal quest and she’s likely to end up a lot deader a lot sooner than a man would.
There are two strong female characters in Snow
, the emotionally battered Ipek and her sister, the stubborn actress Kadife. In addition, there’s a chorus: the head-scarf girls. Those scrapping for power on both sides use these dead girls as symbols, having put unbearable pressure on them while they were alive. Ka, however, sees them as suffering human beings. ‘‘It wasn’t the elements of poverty or helplessness that Ka found so shocking. Neither was it the constant beatings to which these girls were subjected, or the insensitivity of fathers who wouldn’t even let them go outside, or the constant surveillance of jealous husbands. The thing that shocked and frightened Ka was the way these girls had killed themselves: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines.’’ Their suicides are like the other brutal events in the novel: sudden eruptions of violence thrown up by relentless underlying forces.
The attitudes of men toward women drive the plot in Snow
, but even more important are the attitudes of men toward one another. Ka is always worrying about whether other men respect or despise him, and that respect hinges not on material wealth but on what he is thought to believe. Since he himself isn’t sure, he vacillates from one side to another. Shall he stick with the Western enlightenment? But he was miserable in Germany. Shall he return to the Muslim fold? But despite his drunken hand-kissing of a local religious leader, he can’t fit in.
If Ka were to run true to the formof Pamuk’s previous novels, he might take refuge in stories. Stories, Pamuk has hinted, create the world we perceive: instead of ‘‘I think, therefore I am,’’ a Pamuk character might say, ‘‘I am because I narrate.’’ It’s the Scheherazade position, in spades. But poor murdered Ka is no novelist: it’s up to ‘‘Orhan’’ to act as his Horatio.
Pamuk gives us what all novelists give us at their best: the truth. Not the truth of statistics, but the truth of human experience at a particular place, in a particular time. And as with all great literature, you feel at moments not that you are examining him, but that he is examining you. ‘‘No one could understand us from so far away,’’ says a character in Snow
. Reader, it’s a challenge.
Copyright © 2004 by Orhan Pamuk. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.