Thursday, May 3, 2012

Orhan Pamuk's Snow



Snow
By Orhan Pamuk
Faber/Penguin, 436pp, $29.95


‘The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem he would have called what he felt inside him "the silence of snow".’

As soon as I read these lines, I knew I wanted this book. As I went deeper, I realised I also wanted to be inside it, as we always feel when great literature affects us - because we know it or, more strangely, feel it knows us.

That the author of Snow plays a literary shadow game - as a nameless narrator attempts to retrieve the details of a turning point in his friend's life - adds to this curious feeling of remembering rather than reading, of melting into the process of the story.

It would certainly be hard to find a more perfectly titled book than Snow. With its meticulously formed sentences, floating atmospheres and endlessly swirling storylines and characterisations, not to mention the snow itself that falls so constantly, it could take on a heavy-handed quality. Yet the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk never runs out of ways to make you feel, taste, see and "hear" its quiet power.

When Snow opens we are introduced to Ka, a well-known poet and would-be journalist on his way to a Turkish border town called Kars. Having spent the previous 10 years in Germany as a political refugee, Ka has returned home. Ka has lived a creatively bereft life in Germany, writing nothing and feeling the shame of an immigrant's life at the bottom of the social heap: "it had been a long time since he had enjoyed the fleeting pleasure of empathising with someone weaker than himself."

He has been commissioned by a newspaper to report on a municipal election in Kars and to investigate a mysterious "epidemic" of suicides among local young Islamic women. But Ka is really taking the journey west to seek out a beautiful girl called Ipek, whom he hopes to make his wife. As he trudges through Kars pursuing the details of the election and the more troubling events that motivated so many young women to kill themselves, a snowstorm cuts the town off completely.

Questions of politics, faith and identity dog Ka and all those he speaks to. Eventually these tensions overflow in a local coup that takes on the dimensions of farce, while Pamuk sustains a terrible sense of matter-of-fact brutality and evil nonetheless.

At one point, Ka observes how the "pale yellow street lamps cast such a deathly yellow glow over the city that he felt himself in some strange, sad dream, and, for some reason, he felt guilty. Still, he was mightily thankful for this silent and forgotten country now filling him with poems."


It becomes clear that the narrator who is telling us Ka's story is drawing from Ka's diaries in order to track his movements and hopefully find these lost poems, the "soul" of the events. The gap between this narrator and friend of Ka's and Orhan Pamuk himself begins to narrow till any line between what might be fact and what is presented as fiction becomes hard to determine.

Despite the European postmodernist tag he gets, there is something very Eastern and traditional about Orhan Pamuk. His style echoes the elaborateness of Turkish art, Sufi mysticism and the role of the storyteller as a conjurer. As corny as the metaphor sounds, reading this book also feels as if you are looking at a world in a snow-dome (or a television set), with all the melancholy distance that might imply.

At times there are just too many digressions into history, philosophy and character background, and I wondered how much my own travelling through Turkey kept me involved in the internecine political and religious arguments that power this highly soulful thriller. Would others understand, or wish to understand? In the end, the book felt too long, though I was no less moved towards tears for all that excess.

Written before the events of September 11, Snow is a Dostoevskian political thriller that could happily sit beside The Possessed (aka The Devils). It confirms Pamuk's place as one of the most important writers at work today. Where Dostoevsky, however, was fevered to the point of manic, Pamuk is made of altogether cooler, if no less romantically fatal, stuff.

-         -  Mark Mordue

Review first published in Spectrum Books, Sydney Morning Herald, September 11, 2004
Passport image depicts Orhan Pamuk's first passport, sourced online, no credit available.


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