Snow is not the first thing that comes to mind when most Westerners think of Turkey. Americans are most likely to have encountered only the country's Mediterranean coast, bikini-clad and by boat. So it is disorienting from the first to enter a novel set in a provincial eastern Turkish city in a heavy snowstorm–only the first of the disorientations a reader should experience in Snow by Orhan Pamuk, hailed by one critic as “the sort of author for whom the Nobel Prize was invented.”
At the time of the publication of his first novels to be translated into English, Pamuk was described as “Turkey's foremost novelist.” The author note in Snow describes him as “one of Europe's most prominent novelists.” Herein lies the central dilemma of modern Turkey and of Snow, a highly literary fable of the struggle of an essentially European intellectual and social elite to understand, control or make peace with elements of the country that are bitterly anti-European.
Ka is a poet who has been living in exile in Germany for some twenty years. When he returns, the radicals are no longer socialists but Islamists, and he wavers between sympathy for their religious devotion–as he begins himself to feel stirrings of belief in God–and fear of their hostility to him and everything he represents as a secular, Westernized intellectual.
The beautiful leading women in Snow are symbolic of the soul of a nation: Ipek, bareheaded, independent, generally modern in her attitudes, separated from an Islamist politician; and Kadife, the leader of a group of girls barred from school for wearing head scarves as a symbol of religious devotion–or political protest, or personal independence. One of these “head-scarf girls” has committed suicide, part of a wave of female suicides; and as with all symbols, the meaning of this most intensely individual and antisocial of all acts is up for grabs, and vulnerable to political manipulation.
Snow reminds Ka of God and the book's narrator of the divine uniqueness of every individual. Yet as several characters point out, “individuality” is also a kind of idol used by the West to denigrate more communally minded philosophies. Snow–by closing off all roads to the outside world–provides cover for a military coup that turns from ludicrous theater to real violence aimed at preventing an Islamist democratic victory in the local elections. (The elite's sense of guilt that their freedoms are propped up by unsavory means is a strong theme here.)
Snow also represents the timeless accumulation of historical events that has turned a vibrant, diverse city into a depressed backwater where everyone's goal is to be like everyone else. A single snowflake also provides the structure for the book of poems Ka writes in the course of the novel, and which then goes missing, making this a book about a missing book–one of several postmodern sleights of hand that some readers will adore and others find irritating.
The terrorist named Blue who is a media creation; the empty chamber of a gun that is actually full; politics as theater, theater as politics; pairings in which people are obsessed with other, more vibrant people, their “originals”; an unreliable narrator trying to piece a story together from other texts; the poems that don't exist and the Islamist sci-fi novel that is plotted but not written–these elements make Snow a kind of brain-teaser about authenticity and the nature of reality.
The romance at the center of the book is not especially convincing as a love story, yet it is potent as allegory when Ka discovers, to his heartbreak, that both sisters–not only Kadife, whom he respects, but Ipek, whom he adores–share the same secret.
If you're reading Pamuk's work as European literature, Snow is probably not the first of his books to read, but as a kind of postmodern journalism of modern Turkey–a pained report from the psychological border between East and West–it is highly worthwhile.–The Baltimore Sun