Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars, it no longer promised innocence. The snow here was tiring, irritating, terrorising … it no longer took him back to the snowy streets of his childhood … no longer returned him to a place where he could enjoy the middle-class life he missed too much even to visit in his dreams. Instead, it spoke to him of hopelessness and misery.
So reads an early paragraph in Orhan Pamuk’s best known novel, Snow. Ka, the protagonist of Snow, is a political exile, who returns to Turkey after a number of years in Germany and travels to the remote town of Kars in order to investigate a spate of female suicides. He also has a secret mission – to reunite with Ipek, his recently-divorced childhood friend and long-lost love. As the snow falls, the roads in and out of Kars are closed, and over the following days the secular and Islamist tensions in the town unravel.
This is the simplest summary I can think to write of what is a complex, convoluted novel that combines a love story with a discussion of the political issues facing modern Turkey. Chief among these is that of women wearing headscarves – a prominent battleground and sensitive topic in contemporary Turkish politics. Yet Snow also conveys the history of politics in this small border town – where old socialists, Kurdish nationalists, Western secular republicans and political Islamists all vie – with comic humour at times – to manipulate events beyond their control. And it discusses the poverty-stricken state of eastern Turkey (while warning against the pitfalls of stereotyping this place) – as contrasted with the wealthy, middle-class Istanbul background that Ka the protagonist is used to.
It is a fascinating book for a number of reasons. It’s slightly autobiographical hints make me want to know more about its author. It’s politics and complex language make me think that English language readers must surely be missing something in translation. There are poetic passages that evoke emotions of this border-town wilderness, where snow permeates every layer of life in a way that is quite difficult for those who haven’t experienced such an environment to comprehend (it reminded me of waiting for a train in a small village in the middle of Hokkaido, northern Japan one morning – minus 20 or 30 degrees, with blankets of snow all around and not another soul in sight). There are also passages that illuminate the post-9/11 confrontation between the secular and Islamic worlds – there is surely here (and indeed in Turkey’s struggle between the two tensions) a lot to learn.
Snow is grand but also concise, political but also deeply mystical and romantic. Pamuk’s storytelling allows you to see events as though they are suspended in time – with a grim inevitability to the way events play out. It is not a light or entertaining novel that you can breeze through – but it is rewarding if you persevere. Above all, Snow is evocative and atmospheric – a highly memorable read.