The hero of Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel has a long charcoal-colored coat, a weakness for porno movies, and a melancholic longing for the god of the Koran. We never find out whether the man called Orhan Pamuk in the novel shares these attributes, but, speaking as the narrator, he does inform us that he and his main character, who is also his friend, have a lot else in common. Both are Turks. Both come from good bourgeois Istanbul families of decidedly secular outlook. Both are literary aesthetes with strikingly similar taste in women. And both are authors of works called Snow.
Pamuk’s work is the novel at hand, and it tells the story of the creation and loss of the second book, a volume of poetry written by Pamuk’s alter ego, who goes by the name of Ka. As Pamuk is at pains to explain, the name is actually a cipher, formed from the two initials of Ka’s official name: acronym as pseudonym.1 But one suspects that its real origins lie in poetic logic. The Turkish word for snow is kar—suggesting a peculiarly intimate fusion of author and subject. It’s a nuance that’s lost in translation, but, as we will see, the relationship between Ka and snow is so much a part of the texture of the novel that we don’t really need the reminder.
Pamuk and Ka also share a destination. It is the provincial city of Kars, on Turkey’s far eastern border, and, though their trips are separate, both men visit it in winter, when its harsh contours vanish beneath heavy snowfall. Ka, kar, Kars. The story opens with Ka’s arrival there at some point in the mid-1990s; Pamuk will follow four years later in an attempt to recreate his friend’s experiences. Kars proves the perfect setting for these mirrored journeys, for it is a place—like so many frontier regions that have shifted from one state to another in the course of history—that embodies doubleness. For many years it was part of the Russian Empire, becoming part of the newborn Turkish republic in 1921, and Pamuk rhapsodizes about the European character of its old buildings.
The persistent references to this point in the novel amount to something of a geopolitical joke when we consider that we are 740 miles to the east of the Bosphorus, usually regarded as the border between Europe and Asia. Kars has its Hotel Asia, to be sure, but it is the city’s “elegant Baltic buildings” that linger in the minds of the author and his hero. The irony—one travels deep into Asia only to end up in Europe—is especially clear to Ka, who is returning to Turkey after long years in political exile in Germany. For the residents of Kars that charcoal-colored coat, purchased in a Frankfurt department store, marks him as a would-be “European” just as surely as his cultivated Istanbul speech and his Western-style education.
Not that he ever felt European in Europe, of course. Ka seems to have spent his twelve years in Frankfurt mainly by himself, in almost complete isolation from the society around him. At one point he boasts that he doesn’t know a word of German. Ka, it will turn out, is even estranged from the other Turkish political refugees in Frankfurt. And that, in fact, is entirely appropriate for a political exile who, as Pamuk notes, “had never been very much involved in politics.” Ka’s banishment, moreover, actually hinged on a case of mistaken identity. During one of Turkey’s intermittent spells of military rule, Pamuk explains, in an aside, that Ka had to flee his homeland, thanks to an antigovernment article that was incorrectly attributed to him. In short, Ka is not just your ordinary returning prodigal. He is an outsider even among outsiders.
Yet it is surely no accident that he feels drawn to Kars, a place that is still deeply divided in spirit. In the early years of the Turkish republic, we learn, it was a redoubt of Kemal Atatürk’s program of militant Western-style modernization. By the time of Ka’s visit, however, those days are little more than a subject for the nostalgia of the elderly; the city has fallen mysteriously into decline, and politics has come full circle. The secularists are in retreat, and Kars, battered by poverty and a pervasive sense of diminished possibilities, is on the verge of electing its first Islamist mayor. (Yet another hint of the failure of Kemalist ideology lurks in the background: the flickering presence of Kurdish guerrillas, belying the founder’s embrace of Turkish ethnic nationalism as the moving force of his new state.)
Ka does not have to go looking very far in order to confront these tensions. They are built into his ostensible reason for making the trip to Kars in the first place. He has come on assignment from an Istanbul newspaper to investigate the case of the “headscarf girls”—a group of pious young Muslim women who have been committing suicide rather than obey the official dictate that they must remove all outward attributes of religion when participating in public life. It’s an issue that strikes to the heart of the conflict between the Islamic revival in modern-day Turkey and the still-enduring principles of the Kemalist political legacy, which are rooted in a rigorous separation of faith and state, and it quickly brings Ka into contact not only with the families of the dead girls, but also with Islamist circles in the city, both open and covert, as well as their equally resolute opponents.
Small wonder, then, that Ka is soon immersed in countless conversations about the nature of Turkish identity and its oscillations between the imagined poles of East and West. The subject is a familiar one to all Turkish intellectuals, who live in a country that has never quite overcome an inborn sense of civilizational schizophrenia, but here in Kars—where political violence has been frequent through the years—the debate has an urgency that belies the appearance of sleepy provinciality. It is no coincidence that the city turns out to be suffering from a bad case of divided loyalties. Spies and informers abound. Government agents turn out to be pursuing personal agendas rather than official ones. A visitor from the terrorist underground is at large. You can get killed if you end up on the wrong side of the identity question, and in the course of the story that is exactly what will happen, more than once. And even Ka—the innocent bystander, the aesthetically minded loner, the instinctive sympathizer with the underdog—may prove capable of lethal betrayal in the pursuit of love.
For all the density of its real-world detail Snow is really a book about a quest, and a miracle that grows out of it. Ka’s quest is not inspired by politics, and the mystery it engenders belongs to an entirely different category altogether. Ka’s reporting job about the headscarf girls—the professed motive for his trip to Kars—is just a cover story. The real reason for his visit is a woman named Ipek, an old love from his university days. Having left Istanbul years before, she has now returned to her hometown of Kars, where she is living with her father, a former leftist political activist who, now resigned to the torpor and apathy of late middle age, is managing the Snow Palace Hotel.
The beautiful Ipek is divorced from her husband Muhtar, the head of the local, relatively moderate Islamist political party that now appears poised to win the coming elections, and Ka is eager to exploit her availability. And, sure enough, he is successful—at least at first. She responds to his entreaties, and he convinces himself that Ipek is willing to return with him to Frankfurt, and that they will live together there in bliss. But the dim prospects for this unlikely liaison are made clear by the events on their first date, when the local minister of education is gunned down by an assassin in retaliation for enforcing the state’s policies against the headscarf girls. It also soon becomes clear that both Ipek and her sister Kadife, a believer who sympathizes with the suicides, are more deeply implicated in the political crisis in Kars than either will initially admit—albeit through romance as much as through ideology. That complication has catastrophic effects for Ka, and for his prospects for happiness, once it becomes clear that the Islamists’ foes are preparing a counterblow.
Throughout it all the snow keeps falling—thick, muffling snow. We know that Ka has seen plenty of snow during his years in Frankfurt, but this particular brand—the snow of Kars, of Ipek, and of the locals’ tortuous search for redemption, whether it be in faith or politics—somehow strikes home in the most literal sense. It sets off memories, reminding him of the winters of his Istanbul childhood, but also suggests the oblivion imposed by time, replete with melancholy and regret. It summons up both beauty and boredom. At another moment the snow triggers a sudden surge of religious yearning:
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Mesut asked, with some annoyance. “Aren’t you an atheist too?”
“I don’t know,” said Ka.
“Then tell me this: Do you or don’t you believe that God Almighty created the universe and everything in it, even the snow that is swirling down from the sky?”
“The snow reminds me of God,” said Ka.
“Yes, but do you believe that God created snow?” Mesut insisted.
There was a silence….
This encounter resounds like a tuning fork, and a few paragraphs later, as a myriad of details from his past converge on the unifying paradox of the snow, Ka hears
the call deep inside him: the call he heard only at moments of inspiration, the only sound that could ever make him happy, the sound of his muse. For the first time in four years a poem was coming to him; although he had yet to hear the words, he knew it was already written; even as it waited in its hiding place, it radiated the power and beauty of destiny.
Ka returns to his hotel room and immediately writes down the poem in “the green notebook he had brought with him from Frankfurt.”
He calls the poem “Snow,” and it serves as the overture to a series of other poems—nineteen in all—that soon fill the notebook. We never get a look at its contents; for reasons that become clearer later on, the poems are merely evoked. Though they have many images and motifs (titles include “Stars and their Friends,” “Chess,” and “The Chocolate Box”), they turn out to form a mysterious whole. Later Ka will be “able to see” (as Pamuk puts it) that they can be plotted on a pattern in the form of a snowflake according to axes “inspired by the classifications in Bacon’s tree of knowledge.” At first glance this seems like just the sort of postmodern artifice we have come to expect from practitioners of literary formalism in the mode of Borges and Nabokov. But one could just as easily see it as a crystalline riddle in the grandest traditions of Sufi mysticism. (An Islamist calls Ka “a modern-day dervish.”) One of the book’s most moving scenes comes when Ka meets the local Sufi sheikh:
“May God bless you for accepting my invitation,” said the sheikh. “I saw you in my dream. It was snowing.”
“I saw you in my dream, Your Excellency,” said Ka. “I came here to find happiness.”
Ka explains to the sheikh his own paradox: he longs for faith but finds it impossible to accept the strictures and backwardness of Islam. “I want to believe in the God you believe in and be like you, but because there’s a Westerner inside me, my mind is confused.” The sheikh gently consoles him (at one point he says, jokingly, “Do they have a different God in Europe?” and soon “a feeling of peace rose up inside Ka.” The poem that results from this encounter will be titled “Hidden Symmetry”—a phrase that harks back to an earlier reflection:
Much later, when he thought about how he’d written this poem, he had a vision of a snowflake; this snowflake, he decided, was his life writ small; the poem that had unlocked the meaning of his life, he now saw sitting at its center. But—just as the poem itself defies easy explanation—it is difficult to say how much he decided at that moment and how much of his life was determined by the hidden symmetries this book is seeking to unveil.
Though he never quite manages to find God, Ka encounters these symmetries all around him during his stay, and embraces the otherworldly origins of the poems that they seem to inspire. Inspiration, he notes, is something that comes from outside, almost in spite of him: “Later he would point to the speed with which this happened as proof that this and all the poems that followed it were—like the world itself—not of his own creation.” Elsewhere he recalls the note at the start of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” and concludes: “Imagine, a magnificent poem that had created itself, without the poet’s having exerted any mental energy!” Yet the poems are not a tonic; they provide no solutions. “He hoped the poem had been sent to console him, to give him hope. But when it was done, he still felt crushing pain throughout his body, so he left the National Theater in distress.” Art offers transcendence; in the end it will be as close to belief as Ka is ever going to get. But it will not save him. Neither will love.
The reasons for that lie in yet another twist in the narrative. It turns out that snow has a more mundane role to play in this story. When Ka arrives in town, the falling snow soon builds into a blizzard that cuts Kars off from the outside world. The opportunity is seized upon by an intriguing character named Sunay Zaim, an itinerant actor who has come to Kars with his avant-garde theater company, which is planning to put on a performance of a 1930s-era work of Kemalist propaganda entitled My Fatherland or My Scarf. The play, which depicts the modernizers’ triumph over the backwardness of Islam, is a calculated provocation aimed at the enthusiasts of religious politics in the city.
But it soon becomes apparent that this, too, is a cover story. What Sunay actually has in mind is no less than a temporary coup d’état, with himself at the helm, designed to eliminate the Islamist threat and make him a secularist hero. (Though the precedent is never explicitly mentioned, both his plans and his high-modernist aesthetics seem to owe a lot to the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio and his founding of an early fascist mini-state in Fiume after World War I.) Sunay, in a self-described “Jacobin mode,” finds plenty of allies among the local military and a couple of renegade right extremists, all of whom are happy to seize upon the chance to settle scores with the religious camps. One particular target of their anger is Blue, the ultra-conspiratorial Islamic militant who has settled in Kars out of sympathy with the headscarf girls. They will win in the end—but not before Ka has been drawn deeply into both sides of the conflict.
Like Pamuk and Ka, Sunay and Blue are twins of a kind (even if they are ideologically opposites). Both are charismatic political extremists who want to remake the world; and both understand the power of culture as a political weapon. Sunay, like many of his fascist predecessors, views politics as a work of art, not vice versa; as part of a game of political blackmail he will force Ipek’s sister to remove her headscarf on stage as part of a play, a symbolic annihilation of the ideals of his opponents. Blue, for his part, first gained notoriety for his threats against the “un-Islamic” behavior of a game show host, and he treats Ka to a long rant about the importance of the Shakh nameh, the thousand-year-old classic of Persian literature. There is very little that is Islamic about the work, but Blue seems to be making a point about protecting “one’s own” cultural traditions. He challenges Ka to consider whether “this story is so beautiful that a man could kill for it.”
Despite their pretensions, though, both men are deadly serious. Both Sunay and Blue are artists, in their way, but unlike the mystical Ka both are convinced that they know how secular mystery is to be solved. And in contrast to Ka, whose imagined snowflakes come to exemplify the “singularity” of individual experience, both Blue and Sunay are obsessed with enforcing visions of conformity that leave little room for innocents. Neither is particularly worried about the prospect of hurting anyone. But both will be casualties themselves by the end of the tale.
Where Pamuk really excels in this novel is in the deftness with which he allows these forces to tug at one another. Like Dostoevsky, the literary forebear whose spirit haunts this book most palpably, Pamuk appears to value politics, among other things, as a great opportunity to let his characters rant in all sorts of productive ways.2 The simplicity and coherence of ideology are seductive, but the principles they contain rarely stand up to social reality. In their place we are treated to a blizzard of motives. One of my favorite chapters brings together a host of the city’s political radicals for a “secret meeting” (every word of which is being monitored by the state) on how to respond to the coup. Grand debate about issues of global concern mingles with personal vendettas, comical small talk, and inside gossip. One of the “old-wave socialists” will be informing on the meeting to the relevant authorities:
His intentions weren’t malign; he did this to help the associations head off police harassment. He would inform the state of any activities he didn’t like—most of which seemed unnecessary in retrospect anyway—but in his heart of hearts, he was proud that there were rebels out there fighting for the cause, so proud, in fact, that he would brag about the shootings, the kidnappings, the beatings, the bombings, and the assassinations to anyone who would listen.
Ka is capable of listening with sympathy to representatives of even the most extreme views. Yet he also has no illusions about the ends to which politics can lead:
By his thirties, he’d seen too many of his friends and classmates tortured for the sake of foolish, even malign principles; then there were those who were shot dead in the attempt to rob banks and those who made bombs that wound up exploding in their hands. Seeing the havoc of his lofty ideas put into action, Ka deliberately distanced himself from them.
If activism can change the world we are still mistaken if we believe that we can always predict the results of our actions (like the bullets that ricochet indiscriminately through the audience when Sunay stages his coup de théatre). We think we understand cause and effect, but the actual links may be inscrutable. When Ka arrives in Kars, he is told about the assassination of the former mayor; by the end of the novel he will have heard three different versions of the death, and the enigma—a favorite Pamuk word—is never resolved.
Human beliefs are not just rich with multiplicity; in Pamuk’s world they are also in constant flux. Some of the novel’s Islamists, like Ipek’s former husband, began as Marxists; the same applies to a few of the right-wingers as well. By the end of the novel several of the Islamic radicals have abandoned political activity altogether, joining earlier generations’ utopians among the ranks of the resigned. Moreover, ideological labels that initially seem so clear turn fuzzy under scrutiny. The more that Pamuk’s characters obsess over the binary opposition of East and West, for example, the more they undermine the very notion. The Westernizers are by no means all “atheists.” Blue has been weaned not only on the Koran and the twentieth-century radical Islamist theorist Sayid Qutb, but also on somewhat dated Western traditions of third-world liberation ideology and Hollywood movies. During the “secret meeting” he turns out to be the only one who’s been to Europe.
For his part, Ka says, “I wanted to be a Westerner and a believer.” It never works, of course, for Ka can’t really commit himself to either. Nor does love offer much of a panacea; it is yet another brand of belief, predicated on trust between two people who can never know everything about each other. When Sunay’s henchmen try to enlist Ka as an ally in their hunt for Blue, they reveal, along the way, that Ipek once had an affair with the alleged terrorist mastermind. Ka will betray Blue in turn—and lose Ipek forever as a result. Ejected from Kars by the coup plotters, he returns to Germany and lives there in solitude for another few years until he is killed by an assassin—apparently in retaliation for informing on the Islamist leader. We will never know the precise circumstances of the matter, of course. But one thing is eminently clear. Here, too, Ka has failed to become a believer.
But perhaps Ka can find posthumous redemption, of a sort, in art—through the mystical unity, without religion, he has found in his own work called Snow. Toward the end of the novel Pamuk arrives in Kars on a quest of his own: to recover at least something of his dead friend’s work, and to write a book memorializing it. Pamuk has already searched Ka’s belongings in Frankfurt and found no trace of the little green notebook of poems, which appears to have been lost forever—probably stolen by the killer. In Kars Pamuk hopes to reconstruct the genesis of the poems, and possibly even find a recording of Ka’s reading of one of the poems in the local TV archives. He ends up retracing Ka’s steps, visiting the scenes of the events we know so well from what has gone before.
Along the way he encounters many of the same talismanic details that once affected Ka: the black dog, a poster warning that suicide is an offense against Islam, little wheels of “famous Kars cheese.” Pamuk writes, “That morning, as I walked the streets of Kars, talking to the same people Ka had talked to, sitting in the same teahouses, there had been many moments when I almost felt I was Ka.” And just like Ka, he comes together with Ipek for the first time over walnut pastries in the New Life Café—where Pamuk is similarly “undone by her beauty” and falls in love, to the same futile end. He leaves by train, just as his predecessor has done—but not before the locals have had a chance to warn us readers not to trust the author’s portrayal of them.
As we find ourselves retracing Ka’s steps, in more or less reverse order, we realize that we are in a palindrome, a crystalline mirroring. The symmetry may be only half-hidden, but it is all the more singular for that. We may not know what axis of the snowflake we now find ourselves on. But the sense remains that somehow the mystical unity sought by Ka and traced and evoked by Pamuk has survived the murder of the poet, and the loss of his poems; while, along the way, Pamuk the novelist illuminates his country’s quandaries of identity, and the crisis of confidence between Islam and the West, with an imaginative depth we had not known before.
There is an echo or two as well of Kafka's hero K. Note, for example, Pamuk's observation that his normally mild-mannered central character has always stubbornly insisted on using this made-up name in official documents, "even if it meant conflict with teachers and government officials."↩
Here, too, the pages are crowded with febrile youth; revolutionaries morphed into reactionaries; obsessive talk of suicide, atheism, and political terror; politics as deadly serious theater or scandal; and breathless musings about the relationship of the home country to ideals of "Europe" and "European civilization." The Possessed, driven by the moral quandaries posed by terrorism and political extremism, is a particularly strong influence. The proto-Leninist Nikolai Stavrogin finds his analogy in the charis-matic Islamofascist Blue. Ipek's father Turgut Bey, the disillusioned leftist, seems a sly recasting of Stepan Verkhovensky, once radical, now contemptible liberal. Blue's demand to be executed as an "individual act," thereby mocking Western worship of the self, sounds like a Dostoevskian conundrum. He gets his wish.↩
There is an echo or two as well of Kafka’s hero K. Note, for example, Pamuk’s observation that his normally mild-mannered central character has always stubbornly insisted on using this made-up name in official documents, “even if it meant conflict with teachers and government officials.”↩
Here, too, the pages are crowded with febrile youth; revolutionaries morphed into reactionaries; obsessive talk of suicide, atheism, and political terror; politics as deadly serious theater or scandal; and breathless musings about the relationship of the home country to ideals of “Europe” and “European civilization.” The Possessed, driven by the moral quandaries posed by terrorism and political extremism, is a particularly strong influence. The proto-Leninist Nikolai Stavrogin finds his analogy in the charis-matic Islamofascist Blue. Ipek’s father Turgut Bey, the disillusioned leftist, seems a sly recasting of Stepan Verkhovensky, once radical, now contemptible liberal. Blue’s demand to be executed as an “individual act,” thereby mocking Western worship of the self, sounds like a Dostoevskian conundrum. He gets his wish.↩