Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I tried to post this last night but Blogger was having problems. Grrr. I've heard of Orhan Pamuk. Heard that he was a good writer. Heard about the Turkish government not liking him talking about things like genocide. So when Snow made such a big splash I decided it was about time I get around to giving Pamuk a try. I am glad I did. The story is about Ka, a poet who has been living in exile in Frankfurt for 12 years after being accused of authoring a political article that he didn't write. He has enjoyed a modest success in the Turkish community in Germany but has been unable to write a single new poem. His first time back to Turkey is to attend his mother's funeral in Istanbul. There he meets an old friend who tells him about former friends and a wave of suicide among girls who have been forbidden to wear head scarves. So Ka heads off to Kars under the pretense of writing an article for his friend's paper about the "suicide girls." It also happens that Ipek, the woman Ka has loved since his youth, is now divorced and living in Kars. Ka is trapped in Kars for several days due to a snow storm that closes all the roads. During this time there is a coup in the city. Ka is seen as an outsider, a potential ally and a potential threat, and is courted by both sides. But through it all Ka is strangely detached. He is suddenly writing poems again, they come to him fully formed. He is happy and in love with Ipek and wants nothing more than to take her back to Frankfurt with him. If I tell you any more of the plot I might give it away. Snow is a deep and complex novel. It is a quiet book. If someone could write a book that feels and sounds like a heavy snowfall I'd say Pamuk has come pretty darn close. When it snows the air is crisp and crystalline. The world is quiet, seemingly silent. Yet the snow makes a sort of hissing sound as it lands on the snow that has already fallen and if you focus on that sound it is very loud. Sound also carries farther in the cold and is louder, sharper, but when it snows the hard edges of the sound are softly blurred. Being out in a heavy snowfall is a curious thing. I feel alone and isolated, very much focused inward. But at the same time I feel that me and everyone else who is out are part of something, connected in our determination and the care we take. Going into a coffee shop or other small shop during a heavy snow feels enveloping and safe, an oasis, and for a little while everyone present forms a sort of community. All this is what the book felt like. The book is peopled with Islamists who hate all things western but paradoxically they court Ka's good opinion. They are always worried that they, the Islamists, don't believe in God enough and that they will turn into atheists without even realizing it. They want to preserve Islam and they want to preserve Turkish culture from the west. At one point Blue, an Islamist leader, and Ka are talking about stories. Blue says to Ka,

"But now, because we have fallen under the spell of the West, we've forgotten our own stories. They've removed all the old stories from our children's textbooks. These days, you can't find a single bookseller who stocks the Shehname in all of Istanbul! How do you explain this?" Both men fell silent. "Let me guess what you're thinking," said Blue. "Is this story so beautiful that a man could kill for it? That's what you're thinking, isn't it?" "I don't know," said Ka. "Then think about it," said Blue, and he left the room.
On the flip side are the secularists who want to modernize and Europeanize Turkey, forcibly if necessary. They ban girls from going to school if they are wearing a head scarf. And they are so eager to be seen as western they forget their own culture. Both sides think they are right. There is no middle ground and neither will give in. Ka is stuck in the middle of it all. He witnesses a murder. He, out of ignorance, causes the beatings and deaths of several people. He will not, when questioned by the police, falsely accuse anyone. But he does not care about the coup in Kars or which side is right or who has power. Ka is a person stuck inside himself, longing for happiness but afraid to reach out and grasp it when it looms before him. It is an interesting twist that we find out the narrator of Ka's story is Orhan Pamuk himself. He writes himself in as a character, a friend of Ka, writing a novel about the time Ka spent in Kars and about his love affair with Ipek. Pamuk intrudes on occasion into the text to comment on events and make observations. At one point he nicely presents a sort of thematic summary:
Here, perhaps, we have arrived at the heart of our story. How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another's heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation, and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known? Even if the world's rich and powerful were to put themselves in the shoes of the rest, how much would they really understand the wretched millions suffering around them? So it is when Orhan the novelist peers into the dark corners of his poet friend's difficult and painful life: How much can he really see?
That pretty much applies not only to Ka but to the secularists and the Islamists, West and East and in between. I don't think this means, however, that we can't gain some understanding, some insight. I read it more as a warning--don't assume that because you might know a little, you know it all, or you know enough. Until there is room for everyone's story we haven't begun to see anything.