TOME RAIDER: Snow

By Orhan Pamuk (Vintage) - Out Now

An expatriate’s return to his Turkish homeland, a suicide epidemic among girls forbidden to wear head scarves, a hamlet cut off from the outside world by a forbidding blizzard, the sensuality of the momentary union of lovers’ hands held underneath a table: such are the interwoven motifs in the captivating imagistic web of “Snow,” the most recent novel of 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Defying genre constraints, “Snow” is, on one hand, a depiction of the contemporary political realities of a country that geographically straddles the border between the East and West—a polity divided between a secularized, cosmopolitan bourgeois and a political Islamist provincial underclass. But on the other hand, it’s a cerebral reflection on love, happiness, faith, and the dazzling power of language to construct and re-construct the reality in which we live.

“Snow” opens with the illusion of omniscient narration. “I’m an old friend of Ka’s and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars,” our narrator—who will later identify himself as “Orhan”—informs us.

Ka, a poet and occasional journalist, has returned to Istanbul after a 12-year political exile in Germany to attend his mother’s funeral. A journalist friend offers Ka the opportunity to see what Turkey is “really like” after his absence: Ka will travel to the remote hamlet of Kars near the Russian border to cover a story on a series of suicides amongst female students at the Institute of Education, which has enforced a state ban on the wearing of head scarves in educational institutions.

Ka’s friend suggests an additional incentive for the trip: the beautiful and mysterious Ipek, whom Ka has always had a thing for, has separated from her husband and is helping her sister and aging father to manage the Snow Palace Hotel in Kars.

As Ka travels through the dilapidated neighborhoods of Kars interviewing the families of girls who had committed suicide, he hears of lives of quiet desperation: 16-year-olds engaged to elderly men, girls subjected to verbal and physical abuse by fathers and husbands, and so on.

Yet the histories of “head-scarf girls” of the Institute are different: these are comparatively privileged girls whose parents support their pursuit of college education. These girls have given the head scarf a particular semiotic significance: it is for them a “symbol of ‘political Islam,’” and they will drop out of school and commit suicide before they will remove it.

In our post-9/11 world, there’s a rhetorical tendency in the media towards Manichaeism, seeing political Islamism as irremediably opposed to Western individualism. In “Snow,” these binary oppositions are repeatedly undercut.

As blizzard conditions close all roads into Kars, the hamlet becomes a world unto itself. Beneath this white veil, Ka is brought into Ipek’s family circle and new love blossoms between the old friends. Yet we’re told, “Veiling as it did the dirt, the mud, and the darkness, the snow would continue to speak to Ka of purity, but after his first day in Kars it no longer promised innocence...Instead, the snow spoke to him of hopelessness and misery.”

Inside white, then, is darkness, and inside darkness, white.

In this world, the live broadcast of the itinerant Sunay Zaim Theatrical Company’s performance in Kars’ own “National Theater” serves as an inset critique of media power in the broader world. With his daughters and Ka gathered around to watch the broadcast, a family patriarch abruptly changes the channel, putting a strange, new image on the screen. To Ipek’s question of what her father is watching, the father tersely replies, “It’s snow.”

Melvillean in its championing of indeterminate imagery, “Snow” makes gazing at television static the act of resistance to fixed symbolism for the 21st century.

The tragedy that ensues in the National Theater when Sunay’s company stages a dated play titled “My Fatherland or My Scarf” is a cautionary tale against claiming any one political meaning for a head scarf. In an act originally meant to symbolize liberation, a woman tears off and burns her scarf before being menaced by actors carrying ropes and knives. Meant to represent courageous defiance of obscurantism, the head-scarf-burning instead sparks a riot.

Shots are fired. What one might call a coup de théâtre is staged. For three days, the continuing blizzard seals Kars off from the outside world and from the Turkish army that would restore civil order. Filled with the desire to escape Kars alive with Ipek, Ka makes love and poetry of almost painful beauty.

Yet as the novel unfolds, we realize that our narrator isn’t an all-knowing presence, but rather an old friend trying desperately to piece together Ka’s mysterious death with the fleeting moments of happiness in his life.

Pamuk’s shimmering prose captures the very human desire for solace in love. As an acquaintance of Ka’s presciently states, “We could be the poets of our own lives if only we could first write about what shall be and later enjoy the marvels we have written.”

—Reviewer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at acohn@fas.harvard.edu.