Snow – Orhan Pamuk

10 January 2009
Chapters 1-5
I’ve started reading this during the coldest January in 20 years, and poor old Ka, the novel’s protagonist, is feeling the chill as well. He’s a lost soul, a poet who hasn’t written for years, stuck in a lost city cut off by snow that just doesn’t want to stop falling. At least Kars – a real place in Turkey – is described as a city. In fact, it feels more like Springfield in The Simpsons or London in almost any novel by Dickens: everybody knows everybody else. We aren’t being presented with reality here: this is Turkey in microcosm and Ka seems to be its lost Everyman. But then, Pamuk is regularly referred to as Turkey’s greatest living author, and like every other GLA he must sometimes feel the need to answer a call. He has an agenda: We need to talk about Turkey.

So far there’s been one big Event: in a café, as Ka attempts to sort out his private life (I’ll come back to that), another customer is shot. This is Chapter 4 – and Chapter 5 is a transcript of the conversation between him and the man who had travelled across Turkey to shoot him. He’s what we would call an Islamist, or a fundamentalist or whatever, and he shoots the other, older man on a matter of religious principle. The dead man was a Director of Education, and – in line with government policy – he’d banned girls wearing headscarves from attending classes. So far, I was thinking, so schematic – except the transcription succeeds in giving both speakers an authentic voice, and both seem exquisitely reasonable in their own terms.

The complicating factor, or one of them, is that some girls in the city have been committing suicide – but whether because of the ban or because of unfair cultural pressures, mainly from husbands or fathers, is one of the points at issue. We‘re right at the heart of where Pamuk wants us to be: in the middle of the issue everybody in our decade is always talking about, from Afghanistan to the USA. And for Pamuk, if Kars is a microcosm of Turkey, Turkey is a microcosm of the world.

But this is a novel, so Pamuk needs characters and stuff. Ka – who has no visible means of support – is trying to rediscover – what? – well, something. Such as his poetic gift, his national identity – and, most usefully in a novel, his lost love for the woman he once knew who now lives in Kars. He’s pretending to be investigating the suicides, but tells the woman he’s really there to ask her to marry him. I can’t decide whether he’s an idiot or not, with his head full of Western European and Russian literature. He’s recently back from 12 years’ self-imposed exile in Germany (it’s a long story) where he read a lot – and never learnt German. Is he an Everyman? Or does he represent a drifting Turkish intelligentsia that hasn’t a clue what to think?

16 January
Chapters 6-11
Every chapter, more or less, takes Ka to a different place in the city, where he engages in a conversation with somebody else. There’s Mahmut – the ex-husband of Ka’s would-be lover – who has renounced secular intellectualism for what he refuses to call political Islam even though that’s what it is. There’s Ipek, the would-be lover, who doesn’t reject Ka’s advances – but won’t sleep with him yet either. There’s Blue who is – sorry, isn’t – the terrorist who shot the Director of Education. And there’s the sheikh who has a well-known technique for making his listeners feel so good about themselves that they find themselves embracing Islam….

It’s as episodic as Ulysses, and as consciously literary. That’s ok: it’s always been clear we’re inside a book, not some clever simulacrum of reality. So when weird things happen, like the thawing of Ka’s muse – wrong metaphor, wrong metaphor – that allows him to write the poem entitled ‘Snow’ that the local newspaper has already reviewed (because they like to finish the print run in time to catch the theatre crowd), we’re ok with it. Maybe we even have a chuckle about Muslim fatalism – the same one that allows the joke quiz answer at the end of Slumdog Millionaire (which I saw last week): It is written. Whatever.

Ka undergoes several metamorphoses brought about – or not – by the montage of different Islamist voices. By the end of Chapter 11 he’s written another poem, so effortlessly it’s as though someone is dictating it. God? I don’t bloody well know, and neither does Ka – but he’s certainly not the same Westernised sceptic he was at the beginning…. For Ka now, snow seems to be shatteringly significant. Who sends it, asks the sheikh, if not God? And Ka begins to wonder: maybe the snow is God.

It’s not an easy read for a sceptical Westerner – and, surely, I‘m the target audience after all. Chapter by chapter it’s interesting, but this Everyman, or Pilgrim, or Candide, seems buffeted by fate and the opinions of others. Not Everyman, then; Emptyman?

19 January
Chapters 12-18
We’ve just had our first view of the Events at the National Theatre. The view is partial, in every sense of that word: the narrator – who, in these chapters, has become more visible as a character who knows (or knew) Ka, having been confined to a couple of mentions of ‘I’ up to now – has his own views, and has been doing some investigations. It isn’t a comfortable narrative: sometimes the narrator seems omniscient, sometimes he (if it is a he) has to piece things together from people’s memories ‘years later’.

Hmm. If there’s one thing Pamuk has been successful in achieving, it’s a sense of confusion. Just as in the theatre scene nobody knows what’s real and what’s staged, well, the reader doesn’t know what to believe either. That joke about fate a few chapters back – the article about Ka’s poem written before the poem itself – starts to ring hollow: there’s nothing in the article about the fatal shootings. I hope this is all deliberate on Pamuk’s part – and yet, somehow, I can’t quite believe it. This section of the book all seems a bit of a mess.

Ok, what’s definitely happened? To start off, Ka continues on his rounds. He speaks to Nipec – who, the narrator tells us, will be shot through the eye a few hours later – and Nipec is somehow Ka’s younger self. This fact is presented more or less straight: they appear almost to know one another’s thoughts, just as Nipec claims the same about a friend of his. Ka also speaks to Ipek’s sister, whose take on the headscarf issue oozes – what? – truthfulness and sincerity. (Another one, I suppose, to go in the pot with Blue’s words, and the transcript in Chapter 5.) Meanwhile Ka keeps getting inspiration for new poems – and just before the theatre performance, in another conversation about atheism and belief, he seems to come out on the side of belief. (So, when he’s occasionally sarcastic about belief in God, that’s just an act? I don’t know – and he doesn’t seem to know either. I told you it was confusing.) Regrettably, we never get to read the poems, just get rather vague indications of what they contain: something else that’s a bit unsatisfactory about all this.

And then we get the chapters set in the theatre on the eventful night. The appearance of soldiers seems to be symbolic of the determination of the secularists to suppress the political Islamists. But it gets tricky when the bullets turn out to be real: folks, this is serious. Ok. At a simple plot level it could be seen as a retaliation for the murder of the director of Education earlier… but now the stakes are higher, and a lot of it has been caught on camera. Towards the end of Chapter 18, years later, the narrator returns to the scene. The theatre’s a half-demolished shell (the remaining part having become a warehouse storing western white goods), and there’s talk of Kars’ little revolution and a lot of bloodshed we haven’t reached in the story so far. And we haven’t heard anything of Ka for some time – except to be told that after this night the narrator never sees him again. Oh dear.

The ‘Is it real?’ confusion is obviously deliberate: why else set the events in a theatre, with half the audience terrified and the other half applauding? Maybe as corrupt westerners, we know there’s no God for a start, and we just want answers on a plate. Pamuk wants us – and all the westernised Turks – to know that’s it’s not as easy as that – and that to pretend it is, in this decade, is dangerous. The shooting in the café in Chapter 5? That isn’t a narrative faux pas, that’s the truth, man, and you’d better start believing it.

20 January
Chapters 19-23
Since the last time I wrote some more people have set out their stalls – which is all anybody does in this practically plot-free novel. We’ve had the copper escorting Ka for questioning – so at last we see the inner workings of the justice system; we meet the preposterous actor-manager who seems to be behind the little coup, the old cop stuck on a stupid, rambling quest to discover who is, or isn’t, poisoning army officers. (What? That’s not been mentioned before.) Er….

This isn’t getting any easier, and I’m bored. At roughly the half-way point of the novel, nothing really new is happening. Ka is no closer to any answers than he was 100 pages ago and, somehow, I can’t imagine the rest of it being any more illuminating than the first half. Will he/ won’t he finally get off with Ipek? Don’t know, don’t care. Will he be able to learn to believe in God? Don’t care. Will the revelations in Kars free his muse forever and let him carry on writing those wonderful poems we never get to see? (Yawn.) Will the snow ever come to mean anything, and not simply provide a pleasant backdrop?

Wake me up when we get there.

20 January
Chapters 24-28 + paragraph 1 of Ch 29
Whoa. Chapters 24-28: as you were. At the end of 28, after a lot of adolescent pouting and doubt, Ka gets his end away. In fact, everything about these chapters makes Ka seem as though, when he arrived in the city a few days ago, he really was born yesterday. ‘For the first time in his life…’ the narrator says, at least twice – and you wonder where the hell he’s been. One of the times is when he realises that it’s possible to be duplicitous when sorting out your sex-life. He only gets inside Ipek’s knickers because he’s plotted to get her dad off the premises: he’s been to see Blue again, and he’s tricked both him and, later, Ipek’s dad to do a joint signing of a statement well away from Ipek. Zz.

Sorry, did I drop off? Naughty Ka, spinning a yarn like that about the fictitious editor of a fictitious Frankfurt newspaper. Another one of those ‘for the first time’ sentences comes with his realisation that everybody in Kars does this all the time. Nobody, in this little microcosmic universe, ever talks straight to anybody else. And, er… otherwise things have carried on, as I said. Some time during Chapter 24 or 25 I decided it was only possible to read this as a satire: Ka is such a knob. He’s seen the dead Nipec walking – except it’s Nipec’s friend and they have a talk. He’s had a clandestine meeting with Ipek’s sister Kadife – who has turned out to be Blue’s lover – and travelled across the city hidden under tarpaulins with her, not unlike that Wessex Tale of Thomas Hardy‘s. Basically, as in more or less all the chapters so far, he’s been buffeted hither and thither like, hmm, a snowflake in the wind. And occasionally he finds a poem coming on, says pardon me while he urgently whips out his notebook, and gets it down, easy as shitting. (Pamuk, as before, gives us a one- or two-sentence précis. Thanks.)

But as I was saying. It’s only when he stops being the helpless Candide and seizes the day, albeit dishonestly, that he finally gets what he thinks he wants. And then, as Chapter 29 opens… he’s dead. Ok, four years have passed – but that’s some retribution. Of course, it might not be retribution at all. But at least we’re out of that fucking snow.

26 January
Chapters 29-34
Damn. No we’re not. Out of that fucking snow, I mean. It turns out that Ka’s death four years hence isn’t the electric shock therapy this story needed – it’s just a way of bludgeoning to death any narrative curiosity we might have. After a bit of wandering about in Frankfurt for the rest of chapter 29 – and it turns out the first person narrator is Orhan Pamuk, as if we care – we’re back in Kars, back at the moment when Ka has finally got his leg over. And all that’s going to happen is, over (probably) 100 pages or more, we’re going to find out how Ka got from being a confused – but somehow, reader, respected – non-entity to a non-entity with three bullets in him. I’m not bothered, obviously, but I’ve kind of promised myself I’m going to finish.

I’ll shut up about Ka for a minute, and have a think about the actual novel. I began to wonder whether I was unfairly bringing a load of Eng Lit expectations to bear on a work from an entirely different culture. But then I thought, nah. It’s a basic error to kill off your main character two-thirds of the way through in order (I’m guessing) to let the reader know he‘s got himself into much deeper water than either he or the reader might have expected. It might have been different if I cared about this idiot – lust, lies, endless Islamist/political discussion – and those bloody poems. Which he’s now categorised into (wait for it) a snowflake-shaped matrix of meanings. Unfortunately, in Chapter 29 poor old Orhan can only find the matrix, not the actual poems.

I’m now about three-quarters of the way through, and any sympathy I might have had for the main character (or might not, come to think of it) has gone. This book just isn’t working for me, because the political points it makes are too broad and the main characters are portrayed terribly crudely. There’s nothing nuanced in any of their behaviour, motives or relationships. And now Ka is letting himself be railroaded into becoming an operator on behalf of the state. His only motive, as far as I can tell, is to save his own skin and get Ipek to come back to Germany with him. Nothing counts, he says – out loud, to a far more principled character – except happiness.

Hang on. Is this supposed to be a tragedy? Give me strength. Literally – I’m finding it more and more difficult to lift the book.

28 January
Chapters 35-40
‘At this point, to enhance the enjoyment of my story….’ So begins the final paragraph of Chapter 40 and I think, You could do that by poking me in the eye. Only kidding: in fact, more has happened in these few chapters than most of the rest of the book put together. There’s been some debate about political Islam and the mock-Europeans the Islamists lampoon but, mercifully, not so much that you’re climbing the walls. And there’s enough of the political shenanigans, enough of the pangs of love. Maybe if the novel had all been a bit more like this, with Pamuk less keen to bring the narrative to a standstill for ten or a dozen pages for yet more exposition – and if it had been about half the length – it wouldn’t have been so bloody boring. But hey.

Anyway, things move on as Ka plays his ridiculous game of attempting to manipulate the convoluted politics of the different mafias running Kars in order to ensure his own happiness. The main players in his scheme are Blue and Kadife (Ipek’s sister – I must have mentioned her a few times already): Blue is released on condition that Kadife will bare her head onstage. But Blue, who agreed with the plan, has changed his mind now he’s out of jail… but Kadife wants to do the play anyway.

And, reader, while he’s in captivity (only perfunctorily described by Pamuk) Ka is told that Ipek is unfaithful: she only has eyes (or anything else, if the cops are to be believed) for Blue. Cue tortured scene in the bedroom: yes, she did love Blue – but, honest, she’ll learn to love Ka when they move to Frankfurt. Even Ka isn’t stupid enough to buy her story, but he’s full of the kind of grief that makes him knock off a poem sharpish. We already know it’s going to end in tears (and porn videos in Frankfurt starring someone who looks like Ipek), so we’re not particularly bothered that Pamuk decides to cut off Chapter 40 half-way through. Stuff is happening, sure, but it’s still fairly easy not to be riveted by it.

When I wrote last, at the end of Chapter 34, I was wondering whether Ka was being presented as a tragic figure. If he is, he’s like the (far younger) Romeo, complaining – after he’s fucked everything up – of being Fortune’s fool. He’s half-right, I suppose.

31 January
Chapter 41 to the end
Hmm. We find out why Ka doesn’t get the girl: she’s convinced he’s the one who shops Blue to the cops. So… cue more tortured scenes, ‘from Ipek’s point of view’ as Orhan the narrator helpfully tells us. In floods of tears she unpacks her bags and lets Ka get on the train on his own. In these chapters we get the final crunch episode of the mini-coup soap opera: Kadife goes on stage with the Henry Irving of eastern Turkey, bares her head, and shoots him. Dead. Orhan Pamuk, now a character in his own novel, finds all this out by visiting Kars after Ka’s death. And from this different angle, everything seems exactly the same. ‘Orhan’ even wonders whether he’s turned into Ka – he’s certainly as interested in getting Ipek into bed as Ka ever was – but alert readers might have noticed that Pamuk doesn’t do individuals anyway: Ka the confused, westernised intellectual morphs into Orhan the confused, westernised intellectual with no trouble at all. Pamuk plays some post-modern games having Orhan talk to the characters about how they’ll appear in the novel, but… well, it all seems a bit pointless. Once the plot is explained – which we’re not that bothered about anyway, obviously – nothing is gained through Orhan’s snowy meanderings in his ‘beloved friend’s’ footsteps.

By the end it’s like having been at a meeting with a huge agenda. Boxes ticked: the state of Turkey in the new decade; Turkish (and Kurdish) identity; Europeanisation; the dangers of political Islam; the rights of women in Islamic societies; the existence of God; the meaning of life, the universe, and snow…. But I’m leaving this particular AGM with the feeling that not a lot has come out of it. With regard to most of the issues I’m not too concerned: it’s part of this novel’s raison d’être to raise questions, make everybody a bit uncomfortable. But some attitudes, especially relating to the treatment of women, aren’t questioned at all. If you’re a bloke, you fancy the women. If you’re a woman, you’re a heroine like Kadife. a soap star like Ipek, or a porn star; and by definition you’re beautiful and/or sexy.

No, it’s not an AGM, it’s a mess of half-chewed ideas in a novel that never seems to know what it wants to be. Some of it is interesting, like the difficulty of defining an identity in Turkey (and, running beside that, the suspicion of the atheistic Europeans with their childish hedonism). But it’s not nearly enough: I was going to say that there’s a better, shorter novel in there trying to get out. But really it’s an unsorted pile of source material and narrative threads needing to be beaten into a much better shape. Pamuk needs to convince the reader he’s in control, not floundering about in at least as bad a state as his main character.

One Response to Snow – Orhan Pamuk

  1. wecanreadit says:

    Thank you for taking the trouble to comment.

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