Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Book Review - Snow by Orhan Pamuk


I loved Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk’s book My Name is Red. It was gorgeous; it was exquisite; it was elaborate; it was truly original. Save for the descriptions of the snow, itself, Snow doesn’t have the elegant beauty of My Name is Red and it’s far, far more political in nature. There’s nothing wrong with a book being political in nature, of course, but it’s just not my cup of tea. It took me so, so long to finish this book because I would read a little, find I just didn’t care, put it down, and often fall asleep.

While My Name is Red was set in the sixteenth century, Snow is set in the present day. It centers around an Istanbul poet, Ka, who’s been living in exile in Frankfurt, Germany for the past twelve years. However, as the book opens, Ka is on a bus heading to Kars, a mountain village in one of the poorest sections of Turkey, at the Russian border, to attend his mother’s funeral. And of course, it’s snowing, a snowfall that won’t stop until the book’s final page. (In Turkish, “kar” means “snow.”)

One of Ka’s friends, a journalist with an Istanbul newspaper, asks Ka to look into a very strange happening in Kars…the rash of suicides among the “head scarf girls,” girls who have been expelled from college for wearing a scarf to cover their heads after it’s been forbidden to do so.

Ka agrees to do a little sleuthing in Kars, but the mystery of the “head scarf girls” isn’t his primary motive, nor is helping his friend. Ka is hoping to be reunited with Ipek, a woman he knew during his days as a student, a woman he never really stopped loving, a woman whose sister, Kadife is…who else…the leader of the “head scarf girls.” Once married, Ipek is now separated from her husband and lives in a dilapidated building known, fittingly, as “The Snow Palace Hotel.”

As the snow continues to fall, Ka does attempt to learn about the suicides of the “head scarf girls,” but he finds people are very reluctant to talk to him. He’s been living in the west for twelve years, after all, he’s far wealthier than the citizens of Kars, and because of those two things alone, he’s simply not trustworthy.

Eventually, Ka meets with an Islamic extremist named Blue and the convoluted plot of Snow begins to meander and take on a rather picaresque quality as Ka wanders from encounter to encounter during the raging snowstorm.

One of the book’s defects is the fact that Ka is such a dislikeable character. I can tolerate dislikeable protagonists, and when they are drawn well, they fascinate me, but Ka, for much of the book, acts like a spoiled child and not enough like a responsible, grown man. He’s too weak, too ineffectual. He doesn’t even know if he belongs to the East or to the West. This would be okay, if Ka were simply wrestling with his problem of identity, but he’s not. It’s almost as though he doesn’t care; he waffles, depending on who he meets.

Snow is, of course, a symbolic book, almost an allegory of East-meets-West politics and Ka, because of his twelve years in exile, has come to symbolize the West. The snowstorm that blurs and isolates everything is symbolic of the blurring of both the East and the West in Kars, and of course, of Kars’ isolation.

Pamuk is an author who usually concentrates his efforts on male characters. Snow, however, is different. In Snow, Pamuk gives us two very strong female characters: Ipek and Kadife, in addition to the “head scarf girls.” While I don’t care for feminist literature or “chick lit,” I liked this inclusion of strong female characters and think it deepened Pamuk’s work. And for all his childishness and naïveté only Ka seems to realize that the “head scarf girls” are human beings and not a political or religious symbol:

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 the 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.

To his enormous credit, Ka manages to see that just as each snowflake is unique, each “head scarf girl” is also unique and irreplaceable and deserves to be treated as such.

While Pamuk never brings the elaborate plot of Snow to a truly satisfying conclusion, he does bring the village of Kars vividly to life in both its beauty and its squalor, and for me, at least, this was extremely interesting.

The conclusion is quite dramatic, almost melodramatic in nature, and instead of provoking the reflection that I’m sure Pamuk intended, it is almost comical. It’s also far too long, and its length detracts from its power. I think this is a book that would have been served well with the talents of a good editor.

Snow is a very realistic novel, just about as different from the fantastic and glittering My Name is Red as one can get. It’s certainly a book worth reading, but, save for the hauntingly rendered beauty of the snow and the sadness that permeates every corner of Kars, not much else in Snow lingers.

3/5

Recommended: Beautiful, but sad, portrait of an isolated Turkish village, haunting images of snow and ice; the protagonist, however, is a weak character, and the picaresque style can be tiresome at times.

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