Friday, 17 January 2014

Book Review: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/824339.SnowFrom Sweden I’m moving on to the South of the continent or rather to the European tip of the Bosporus and above all to Asia Minor, in other words to modern Turkey between Black and Mediterranean Sea. As a matter of fact, there aren’t an awful lot of Turkish writers whose work is translated into English or German although as late their number is increasing gradually. For today’s review I picked the novel Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Without doubt the laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2006 is one of the most renowned authors of his country. 

Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in June 1952. Already before graduating in journalism from the University of Istanbul, he dedicated his life entirely to writing. His first novel Cevdet Bey ve Oğulları (Cevdet Bey and His Sons) won the 1979 Milliyet Press Novel Contest under a different title, but was first published only three years later. Several other novels followed until the writer’s big breakthrough came with The Black Book (Kara Kitap) in 1990 which was followed by highly successful works like New Life (Yeni Hayat: 1995), My Name is Red (Benim Adım Kırmızı: 1998), Snow (Kar: 2002), and Istanbul: Memories of a City (İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Sehir: 2003). In 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The literary criticism The Naive and Sentimental Novelist (Saf ve Düsünceli Romancı: 2011) is his latest released work. Orhan Pamuk lives in Istanbul. 

The scenery of Snow ("kar" in Turkish) is the Eastern Anatolian town Kars which has seen much better days. It’s in a winter of the 1990s when Kerim Alakuşoğlu, who already as a schoolboy took to abbreviating his detested name as Ka, travels to Kars. Ka is a middle-aged poet of small renown who has been living in political exile in Germany for many years and who suffers from writer’s block. The commission of a newspaper in Istanbul to report about the upcoming local elections in Kars and a series of suicides by young women who refused to take off their head-scarves serves him as pretext to visit the town of his early childhood and to meet his adored former schoolmate İpek. He secretly hopes that the recently divorced will accept to marry him. At his arrival under heavy snowfalls Kars is cut off. The following three days are filled with investigations for articles which Ka doesn’t even mean to write and with courting beautiful İpek. Talking to military, police, Secret Service, secularists, communists, nationalists, moderate Islamists, and the wanted Islamic extremist Blue, Ka is drawn into the thicket of conflicting political convictions. Moreover the aging actor and leader of a travelling theatre group Sunay Zaim, who always dreamt of impersonating Atatürk on stage, takes advantage of being cut off from the world and of a live television broadcast of their performance to seize power in a coup de main executed on stage. Ka doesn’t really care about it, not even the killings and the arrests. He is a poet in love and in the snow he feels the presence of Allah. The writer’s block is broken and poem after poem flows into his pen and into his green notebook. But sooner or later even the heaviest snowfalls stop, traffic connections are cleared from snow and the old order is restored. Inevitably the events have some kind of sequel for everybody who got mixed up in them, for Ka too. 

It isn’t obvious from the very beginning, but Snow is told by a first-person narrator who traces Ka’s every move during those three days in Kars. As the reader learns later on, Ka was shot dead in Frankfurt four years after the events and the narrator, his writer friend Orhan (Pamuk), made it his business to reconstruct the nineteen poems which Ka wrote in Kars and which are lost to the world because his green notebook has disappeared. The genesis of the poems together with Ka’s life story serves the author as the perfect background to touch on the complex political and cultural situation in Turkey, a country between Asia and Europe, between Islamic heritage and western lifestyle, between tradition and modernism. The contradictions manifest also in the great variety of characters with often opposing views populating the novel and in Ka’s inner strife. They are described very carefully and with a certain degree of irony and playfulness. Orhan Pamuk’s language and style remain simple throughout and make it easy to follow the plot. Unfortunately, the protagonist’s poems are revealed only by their titles and by their position on a symbolic snow crystal which is a bit of a let-down. 

As you can easily guess, I enjoyed reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk very much. It shows the dilemma of the Turkish people in search of a new identity which pleases followers of all the different ideological and religious movements present in the area, be it on the national or on the individual level. To me it seems only natural that the topic is on the minds of Turkish writers. Also the novel The Flea Palace by Elif Shafak, which I reviewed almost exactly one year ago, revolves around the difficulties of finding a comfortable place between East and West. As for Snow by Orhan Pamuk, it’s a read which I recommend highly both for its literary quality as well as for the glimpse into the Turkish soul which it allows.


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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

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6 comments:

  1. I have read a few books by Orhan Pamuk so far and loved all of them. This is still on my wishlist.

    Thank you for your review.

    Marianne from Let's Read

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    1. Snow was my first read by Orhan Pamuk and I'm sure that it won't be my last. I love complex and elaborated stories like this one. Not many authors manage remain so convincing throughout a novel. I hope that you'll soon get a chance to read Snow.

      Thanks for your comment, Marianne!

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  2. Beautifully written review and good analysis. I have not read the book or anything by this author but I am inspired to do so now because of your review. I visited Istanbul many years ago when it was not so modernized and I realized difficulty in straddling two distinct continents and cultures. This goes on my reading list for sure.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Suzannah! I'm glad that you liked my review and that it inspired you to read Snow by Orhan Pamuk - after all that's the point of writing reviews ;-). For the rest I can only hope that you won't be disappointed by the book. Enjoy it! It's definitely worth the time.

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  3. I have this one on the shelf. I've read somewhere it was mawkish, I'm glad to read you have another vision of it. (and a more positive one!)

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    1. No, I really wouldn't call Snow mawkish! Certainly, when there is a love story there's always a risk that the author slips off into kitsch, but here it's just an additional plot line and one that is skillfully interweaved with the main story (in thrillers there uses to be a love story, too, and those really are mawkish sometimes). It also fits because the protagonist is quite a dreamer.

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