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A compelling tale of the crisis of political identity in a troubled world, writes Chandrahas Choudhury

Orhan Pamuk
Faber & Faber
£ 16.99

The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, now in his early 50’s, appears to have entered a golden phase of superior, enduring achievement. His previous novel, My Name Is Red, published in 2001, was a shimmering tale about a group of sixteenth-century Ottoman miniaturists whose conception of art is a religious one. They are threatened by the emerging western school of portraiture. Pamuk summoned an individual ‘voice’ for each narrator, creating a rich weave of interlocking perspectives. The language was colourful, and the shape of its sentences so beautiful and expressive, as to create — in Saul Bellow’s words — ‘wonder in the soul’.

In Snow, Pamuk turns his gaze from the past to the present. And from art to politics: the struggles and disputes of contemporary Turkey, once the seat of the thriving Ottoman empire but now a small secular republic, belonging fully neither to the East nor the West, ill at ease with some aspects of modernity, and negotiating competing claims about its authentic identity.

Versions of this problem abound across the world today. So Snow is very much a novel for our times. Pamuk has restrained his style in the service of his subject – the title suggests a kind of cold, stately beauty, distant from the many-hued charms of My Name Is Red. But Snow is a compelling work in its own right.

Snow tells the story of Ka, a poet who returns to Istanbul for his mother’s funeral after 12 years in political exile in Germany, and takes up a newspaper assignment to investigate a series of mysterious suicides – a ‘suicide epidemic’ – by women in Kars, a distant town. Ka has another reason for visiting Kars: an old classmate of his, Ipek, now separated from her husband, lives there, and he wishes to see her. An active member of the political left in his youth, Ka is now wiser, sadder, more cynical. Lonely and unhappy all these years, he is caught up with the problems of his life more than those of the world, and senses a possibility of redemption in making Ipek his. As he begins the long bus journey to Kars, it begins to snow heavily. By the time he enters the town, whose inhabitants in any case feel that they have been forgotten by the world, snow has blocked the roads and sealed them off. He meets Ipek, still radiantly beautiful, her family, and her ex-husband Muhtar, also a former classmate and now contesting the municipal elections as a candidate for an Islamist party. He goes around town seeking an explanation for the suicides, and listening to the opinions of people across the political spectrum. The passionate arguments – about religion in politics, secularism, belief in God and atheism, Europe and westernisation, even media coverage and bias – are reminiscent of Dostoevsky, in whose manner Pamuk expounds enthusiastically upon issues from all sides.

More wearying than this, to Ka and sometimes to the reader, are the political intrigues – lies, threats, duplicity, spying — in which Ka becomes embroiled, all of which spin beyond control when a coup takes place in Kars. Pamuk is aware that politics and political action – narrow, doctrinaire, often intolerant and misguided — weighs down a novel making the novelistic air heavy with smoke and grime. In an epigraph, he quotes the nineteenth-century novelist Stendhal: “Politics in a literary work are a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of very ugly matters.”

Even on this difficult terrain, Pamuk manages many fine and aesthetically appealing moments: listen, for instance, to Muhtar telling Ka the story of how he turned to religion, or to the terrorist Blue’s riveting narration of the legend of Rustem and Sohrab. Pamuk’s characters move fretfully through the turbulence of Kars, longing for triumph or escape; Ka’s dream, finally unrealised, is of taking Ipek back with him to settled, ordered Frankfurt, where he imagines them watching movies on Saturday nights and eating doner and sweet pickles at a restaurant. All he takes away from Kars are some poems that come to him at various points of his stay, which he puts together in a collection he calls Snow.

July 24, 2004

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