The Schizophrenic Sufi


by Orhan Pamuk
Knopf, 426 pp., $26.00
Orhan Pamuk
Orhan Pamuk; drawing by David Levine


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…

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