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:
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."↩
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.”↩