Snow (2002) – Orhan PAMUK

So I started reading this novel three months ago – in the last uni holidays. For me, that’s a really long time ago. The problem is, I kept picking it up and putting it down. But finally, I have finished it. That’s the greatest thing I’ve done this year, I think. And if this review smells of Stockholm Syndrome, I apologise in advance.

Ka, a Turkish poet living in Germany, returns to his home country to investigate a spate of suicides in the small town of Kars. There, he finds an interesting cast of characters, each with a unique take on what is going on in the village. Of particular interest to Ka, though, is his old flame, Ipek. But as the snow falls around the town, they are closed in, and something terrible is coming.

Ok, first things first. This book is legitimately interesting. It’s one of the few contemporary novels (The Reluctant Fundamentalist is another good one) that actually faces one of the central tenants of Western society at the moment: the problem of Islam. Because, let’s face it, we do have one. Pamuk, as an exiled Turk, has an interesting perspective on the problem, and his ability to discuss and dissect both sides of the argument make for interesting reading.

There’s quite a bit of symbolism going on in the novel, and after a while, it’s pretty clear what the symbols are. Or what I think they are. Kars is a synecdoche for Turkey, and Ka the poet is Pamuk the author. His return to his hometown (read: homeland) means people question him and what he stands for – and he gets a lot of criticism for not being religious. There is definitely an anti-atheism theme to many of the characters who populate Kars, and they constantly question Ka’s beliefs. I don’t truly believe him to be an atheist – I think he attributes the poems he writes to God, or someone higher, at least – but because he is not as sure in his beliefs as many other people in the town, he is a site for attack. Which is interesting in its own right.

What is more interesting, though, is the idea of ‘political Islam’, and the people behind the concept. These people are so determined to return Turkey from its current fate as a secular Islamic state, that they will do anything to ensure this goal. This ties into the girls committing suicide – questions of removing their hijab become vital to their suicides as the pressure from both sides becomes too much. Women committing suicide to make a political point is an old technique, but Pamuk uses it to great effect here.

Pamuk is also an excellent writer. particularly the opening chapter, which is genuinely beautiful. And the descriptions of snow throughout the book are lovely.

Ok, so here’s the caveat. Snow is perhaps one of the most boring, tedious books I’ve ever read.

Well, that’s not totally true. Here’s the problem. Pamuk clearly had a message/issue he wanted to talk about. That’s fine. What he didn’t realise (and clearly his editor didn’t either) is that you don’t need to have huge tracts of circular dialogue between characters going on and on and on for 400 odd pages. Readers are not stupid. We get it. Again and again, Ka and Blue (the leader of the political Islamists) discuss the problems facing modern Islam and Turkey. The problem is, they talk about the same issues each and every time they talk. And there’s no finality to it. Not that I’m expecting a solution to every problem – but most authors have the decency to show even their own viewpoint. But, no  – that’s too good for Pamuk. He sits on the fence the entire time. So what’s the point?!

It’s not just Ka and Blue that face this problem. Each time Ka talks to someone, it’s like he’s having the same conversation again and again. And there’s a lot of reported dialogue in this novel. It’s not bad dialogue – it’s just that sometimes, I wonder if this wouldn’t work better as a play. Or a film. Or anything but the written word. Well, maybe an extended essay would be ok. Each conversation just tears at you, until you have to throw Snow at the wall in frustration, and wander off to find something else to read. Anything else.

This novel has an interesting central premise. But everything else is as boring as batshit.

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7 thoughts on “Snow (2002) – Orhan PAMUK

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh, Matt, I thought this was a marvellous book, and not just because it tackles a thorny subject! I agree that it’s a bit disorientating, what with narrators changing and all those multiple metaphors and symbols, but boring? tedious? No. Well, not to me, because I knew nothing about Islamic politics in Turkey and I found it fascinating. I had no idea that the position of women was so fraught! That poignant little scene where Ipek tells Ka about the treasures she wants to take with her to Germany was a revelation to me… Among the sentimental mementoes of her dead mother there’s also a whole collection of sexy clothes – given to her by Muhtar, her first husband, who wouldn’t let her wear them in public. This represents the conflict of Islamic men who are attracted to sexy western women but their religion forbids them from enjoying themselves, so they act like hypocrites, wanting their wives to be sexy but not allowing them to be, and at the same time publicly condemning western women for being corrupt.
    Turget Bey, Ipeh and Kadife’s father represent the paralysis of fear that prevents Turkey from making the move out of the Middle East and into Europe. He’s so afraid of suicide bombers that he won’t go out of the house – but his daughters do! He, the powerful male in a patriarchal society, is protected and cossetted by women, one allied to Islam and the scarf and the other bare-headed and ready to go to secular Frankfurt with Ka. Women are the visible symbols of this conflict in every way.
    I had never really thought about the symbolism of clothing in an Islamic context before, even for men. I’d seen the president of Iran without a tie, but it had never registered that ties are interpreted as symbols of the wicked West. So just getting dressed is a political statement, whatever you do!
    I was also intrigued by that running motif of Ka behaving in self-destructive ways (because even when he’s happy he doesn’t think it will last). Surely that’s a metaphor for Turkey itself, becoming modern and adopting western ways but being held back by fundamentalists who believe that this life doesn’t last so life now should be compromised in order to achieve eternal life? The book is so full of insights like this, and I think that what looks like repetition is in itself a structural metaphor for the confusion and endless cycle of political change and counter-change, vacillating between secularism and religiosity.
    One day I’ll get round to blogging the thoughts I journalled back in 2006 when I read Snow!

    • matttodd says:

      Lisa! It’s like an essay! I’ll try and respond to your points as I go.
      Here’s the thing – I get (I think) all the symbols, and who’s standing in for what. But that’s the problem. Pamuk whacks you over the head with them so they’re not subtle at all. And that’s in the first 100 pages. So you have 300 more of the same thing. That, and I think he has a tendency to focus too much on what the character symboloises to fully flesh them out – so many of these characters are two dimensional ciphers that I just didn’t care about them.
      As you say, it is full of interesting insights – I totally agree. I just think they are presented in such as way as to induce stupor and sleep.
      Maybe that’s just me, though. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  2. whisperinggums says:

    Matt and Lisa, good discussion. I took quite a different tack in my review: I saw the politics but what I focused on was more the personal aspect: what did all this mean for Ka. I like books like this which explore politics but rather than harangue us about the politics per se look at what this means for the people within. Also, I saw it very much in terms of art (Ka) versus politics (Blue) and the implications of living as an art-driven person (not that Ka didn’t have his political side) or as a politically driven person. I guess, for me, I see the book as being about “the political is the personal”! It certainly became so for Orhan when he questioned the Turkish state!

    • matttodd says:

      Sue, thanks for dropping by!
      You are, of course, completely right. Snow is a very personal novel, and Ka’s inability to express himself properly in the face of politics is interesting – though he becomes more able as he spends more time in Kars. For me, this struggle between the religious and the athiest, the West and the East, is the strongest part of the novel, and Pamuk’s own experiences in this field are clearly felt.

      • whisperinggums says:

        Thanks Matt for the welcome. Glad you agree, even if you found it tedious! You know I CAN understand that because I COULD NOT get into My name is red. I am going to try again though – because I really enjoyed Snow and Istanbul.

      • matttodd says:

        Good luck!

      • whisperinggums says:

        Thanks – do you think I need it?

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