Orhan Pamuk

By Sophie Elmhirst

You can imagine the Faber editors salivating at the prospect of this book. 'Snow angered Islamists and Westernised Turks alike when it came out in early 2002 – and promptly sold more than 100,000 copies.' It's the kind of publishers' blurb that makes the heart sink – big ideas translated into bitesize catchphrases, ringing with topicality. It belies the furious urgency of Orhan Pamuk's novel and misrepresents its cause.

By the author's own admission, Snow is a 'political novel', but it reaches significantly further than that. In a recent interview, Pamuk recalled his thoughts prior to embarking on what he saw as an 'outmoded' form: 'how to make this old thing (the political novel) new again?' The answer? To weave the politics into a literary fabric so inventive, so intriguing and so masterfully structured that it feels integral, not artificial.

This isn't a political argument dressed up as fiction. It is a dexterously crafted tale of an individual, the westernised Turkish poet Ka, and his experiences while trapped in the remote border town of Kars. He is there to investigate the mysterious suicide epidemic among the town's young girls, and to report on the forthcoming municipal elections. But he quickly becomes embroiled in the charged tension between the secular state and the fervent local political Islamists.

Ka is tantalisingly elusive – the narrator is in fact an old friend of the poet, who retells Ka's story with the help of his old notebooks, discovered after his death. This constructed distance lends a romantic, mythical quality to Ka: he's a character shrouded in mystery, never fully illuminated or understood.

Contributing to the portrayal of this enigmatic character is the snow that enfolds Pamuk's story: it falls thickly throughout and the effect is hypnotic. Just as Ka is mesmerised by its beauty and entrapped by it physically, so we are pinned into the tale by his relentless description. It lends a surreal, dreamlike quality – the snow shrouds and contorts every vicious political twist. It clings to the narrative just as it envelops the characters as soon as they venture outdoors. It also intensifies the sense of impenetrability – Pamuk traces a careful path through the explosive political ideas, managing never to fully expose or commit to either side.

But there are sacrifices. One of the principal elements of Ka's visit is his reignited passion for Ipek, a beautiful Turkish girl. Where Ka is intriguingly inscrutable, Ipek is disappointingly 2-D. He is obsessed by her aesthetic perfection, but his adoration seems hollow when directed at such an emotionally shallow character. And there are moments when the book reads like a series of brilliant vignettes or a collection of filmic frames: the family watching the flickering whiteness on the screen of a broken television while the snow falls interminably outside; or the slow-motion murder of an official in a tea shop, while Ka gazes at the impossibly beautiful Ipek.

Despite these minor inconsistencies, though, Snow is easily carried by its political momentum and the sheer urgency and weight of its subject. This is an inestimably important book.
Steve posted 22 August 2007 (17:16:07)
>'Despite minor inconsistencies Snow is easily carried by its political momentum' I enjoyed Snow, but the politics? Was the coup absurd or deliberately absurdist? The hotel 'unity conference'? Steve sw9
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