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The Schizophrenic Sufi

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.

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    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.

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