David R. Adler writes on music and politics from New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic Online, Slate, Down Beat and Jazz Times. He also blogs at Lerterland. He is a 2006 nominee for the Helen Dance-Robert Palmer Award for Excellence in Newspaper, Magazine or Online Writing, given annually by the Jazz Journalists Association. Here David writes about Orhan Pamuk's Snow.
David R. Adler on Snow by Orhan Pamuk
I share Andrew Bolt's discomfort with the notion of a 'favorite' book, but Orhan Pamuk's Snow is significant for me this year. I read it shortly before travelling to Turkey for the first time. From Istanbul I flew with a journalist friend to Diyarbakır, the largest Kurdish city in southeast Anatolia. We hired a driver from there, passing through such places as Mardin, Cizre and finally Silopi, on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan. After crossing into Iraq, we drove seven hours to Suleimaniya and stayed for four nights. (The travelogue on my blog begins here.) This is a different route than the one travelled by Pamuk's protagonist, Kerim Alakuşoğlu ('Ka' for short). My voyage took me to the unstable corner where Turkey meets Mesopotamia. Ka traveled via Erzurum to Kars, in Turkey's far northeast, 'on the border between two empires now defunct, the Ottoman and the Russian...'
Ka's bus ride during a heavy snowstorm ('The passengers fell into a fearful silence...') reminds me of our four hour night-time jaunt from Silopi back to Diyarbakır, with our driver taking mountain roads at well over 70 mph. Snow is an element of danger for Pamuk, but as we learn at the start of chapter 2, it can represent both good and evil, or swing wildly between the two:
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, terrorizing.In chapter 13, however, snow symbolizes utopian yearning. Ka is walking through the snow with Kadife, the younger sister of his love interest, İpek:
She talked about how, as children in Istanbul, she and İpek always wanted the snow to continue. The sight of snow made her think how beautiful and short life is and how, in spite of all their enmities, people have so very much in common; measured against eternity and the greatness of creation, the world in which they lived was narrow. That's why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed, and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.And yet snow can also conjure 'a strange and powerful loneliness', as Ka discovers on his first morning in Kars, surveying the impoverished Kalealtı district:
It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.It so happens that, during Ka's stay, all roads in and out of Kars are shut for several days on account of the snowfall. For a time it really is the end of the world.
Compare this with the imagery of Pamuk’s 1985 novel The White Castle. The nameless protagonist, a 17th-century Venetian, is held as a slave for decades in Istanbul. He ends up accompanying the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV as they advance on Poland's Doppio Castle:
[W]e finally saw the castle itself. It was at the top of a high hill, its towers streaming with flags were caught by the faint red glow of the setting sun, and it was white; purest white and beautiful. I didn't know why I thought that one could see such a beautiful and unattainable thing only in a dream.Like the white snow, the white castle is a vision of hope, 'with birds flying over its towers, as perfect as the darkening rocky cliff of the slope and the still, black forest'. It is unattainable, not unlike Kafka's castle. For the Ottoman armies, however, the castle simply spells defeat, the end of the world in a different sense.
Pamuk employs both the snow and the castle to trigger radically contradictory emotions. For Ka, the simultaneous allure and threat of snow corresponds to his search for happiness with İpek and his intense fear of having it end.
Ka is a poet who has been creatively blocked for the last four years. Some time ago, after being 'tried for a hastily printed political article he had not even written', he fled Istanbul and took refuge in Germany. (Life imitates art - more about that in a moment.) He is travelling to Kars ostensibly as a journalist, to investigate a rash of suicides by teenage Muslim girls who are prohibited from wearing their headscarves to school. Ka's real goal, however, is to win back İpek. (The two used to date during their days on the student left.) Spending time with İpek effectively ends his writer's block; he begins work on a complex 19-poem cycle called 'Snow'. But Muhtar, İpek's ex-husband, is also in Kars - and he wants İpek back. Once a leftist as well, Muhtar is now an Islamist. You could say that İpek is being courted by both the religious and secular worlds.
Kurdish separatism is a part of this puzzle, but it's not central to the story. Rather, Pamuk's focus is the clash of political Islam with the militant secular nationalism of the Turkish state. Early in the book, an Islamist youth shoots and kills the director of the school that bans headscarves. (Life imitates art again - read on.) The state cracks down hard, seizing its chance during a performance of a crude and dated nationalist play called 'My Fatherland or My Head Scarf' at the local theatre. Goaded by a group of boys from the local religious high school, the crowd erupts in protest over the play. Troops open fire, killing several. It's the beginning of a brief reign of state terror, led by a shadowy figure called Z Demirkol. Together with İpek and her family, Ka gets drawn into a web of intrigue involving the authorities, a famous but washed-up actor named Sunay Zaim and a fugitive Islamist named Blue.
(On May 17 in Ankara, a fundamentalist shot five judges, killing one and wounding the others. His motive was to protest the banning of headscarves. At the funeral procession, marchers hoisted pictures of Ataturk and vented against the ruling AKP party, which is religious, though officially moderate. The very tensions evoked by Pamuk in Snow are spilling on to the streets as I write this.)
Andrew Bolt is right to note Pamuk's portrait of 'old student Leftists pulling on Islamist coats like they were just new cuts from the same cloth'. İpek and Kadife, the sisters, are both strongly drawn to Blue. İpek urges Ka to open his heart to religion just before he goes to meet with the local cleric Sheik Efendi. Surprisingly, Ka almost does. Perhaps he is the 'superstitious atheist' referred to in a Robert Browning epigram at the front of the book. In a recent address to the PEN American Center, Pamuk said:
The pleasure of writing novels comes from exploring this peculiarly modern condition whereby people are forever contradicting their own minds.In this sense, Pamuk doesn't judge his characters; he examines the toll on the conscience, and on intimate relationships, when people live on 'the dangerous edge of things', in Browning's words. 'I am… the kind of novelist who makes it his business to identify with all his characters, especially the bad ones,' asserts Pamuk.
The portrayal of Islamism in Snow is hardly flattering, but Pamuk has more reason than most to critique Turkey's Kemalist establishment. Last year he was charged with 'denigrating Turkish identity' for mentioning the Armenian genocide during a magazine interview. The case has since been dropped, but Pamuk is far from the only Turkish writer to suffer this sort of harassment. He is a singularly reluctant hero, but his bravery in the face of this specious accusation has made him a major figure in the international fight for free speech. (Time magazine has included him on its list of 100 most influential people.) In his PEN address, Pamuk links the free-speech struggle with his theme of human contradiction and the entire enterprise of the political novel:
It is because our modern minds are so slippery that freedom of expression becomes so important: we need it to understand ourselves, our shady, contradictory, inner thoughts...Ironically, Pamuk offers two contradictory thoughts during this very talk. First he says:
I always have difficulty expressing my political judgments in a clear, emphatic, and strong way - I feel pretentious, as if I'm saying things that are not quite true.Towards the finish he throws his professed self-doubt aside:
In the war against Iraq, the tyrannization and heartless murder of almost a hundred thousand people has brought neither peace nor democracy... This savage, cruel war is the shame of America and the West.America has plenty to be ashamed of; on that Pamuk and I agree. But what of Pamuk's subsequent praise for Harold Pinter? Far from embodying the 'pride' of the West, Pinter disgraced himself by joining the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic ('murdered at the Hague,' declares the group's website).
Blind spots aside, Pamuk is a man of democratic temperament who refuses 'to reduce [his] thoughts about life to the music of a single voice and a single point of view...' This accounts for the beauty and power of Snow. Not only did the book deepen my understanding of Turkey, it also reinforced my suspicion of glib certitudes in dark times.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]