Fischer Guy: Hi Adam. Kathryn (at Bookninja) said that I'd
be hearing from you sometime soon to kick off our virtual discussion
of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Did I miss an email, or are
Adam Sol: It’s me. And it’s not exactly because I’ve been swamped, although I suppose I’ve had as much to do as anybody. The truth is I’ve been having a hard time thinking about how to begin. Snow is the first book I’ve read by Orhan Pamuk, and probably the first book I’ve read by a Turkish national. And with all the recent news about his trial in Turkey for treasonous and anti-Islamic messages in his work, discussing this book feels heavily weighted with political import. All the more so because Snow is about a somewhat effete intellectual who gets himself in over his head in the political complications and power struggles of Turkey and Islam. So let me begin by admitting that I am completely out of my depth and that Kathryn has made a colossal blunder by inviting me to discuss this book with you.
However. Someone has to talk about this book, and to get others to read it. Because the more I think about it, the more I believe that this book is crucial to... well, something. I am very hesitant to make grandiose claims about a book’s potential to “clarify Islam for a North American reader.” It’s just this kind of sweeping generalization that gets us in trouble when we talk about Islam. And Turkey itself has a highly specific, and unique, take on Islam, experience with Europe, etc. However, for all its faults — and I do think it has quite a few — Snow does seem crucial in a way that few contemporary books are these days. Huge in its ambitions, courageous in its blasphemies, sweeping in its scope. And its author is probably the most notable writer alive at the moment, who faces state punishment for his work, which means he must be doing something right.
I’ve said nothing about the book so far, have I? “Did you like it?!”
Christine: Like you, I feel wholly unqualified to discuss this work but also compelled to do so. I’ve been bugging Kathryn about it since I read it last winter; it’s a novel that is at once grave and playful, and I have a lasting admiration for it. I picked it up without any real idea why, since I haven’t read anything else by Pamuk, except that it had the whiff of the exotic to it and I needed to satisfy my wanderlust.
When I come to think of it, that could be an important aspect of Pamuk’s genius in this book: his decision to include an outsider to the culture he’s writing about as a main character. In the character of Ka, he inserted us. How’s that for audience empathy? A western reader can blithely journey to that exotic land, hand held by a familiar who speaks both languages. Ka embodies both other and familiar, of course; although he has spent the previous twelve years in political exile, he is a Turkish national.
I was aware, as I read, of being gently led into the labyrinth of convoluted logic supporting political regimes and religious fanaticism. It was like being told a story at grandfather’s knee. If I feel enlightened, it’s only to the enormity of my own ignorance.
This book makes a triad of works about Turkey or by Turkish nationals that appeared, all by chance, on my own radar screen in the past year (de Berniere’s Birds without wings, set in Turkey at the time of the Ottoman empire and Fatih Akin’s film, Head-on, about suicidal Turkish nationals trying to scratch out life and love in Germany). Turkey muscled its way on to the world stage less constructively this year with the charges it brought against Pamuk. So why Turkey? Why now?
Adam: Turkey has always struggled with this in-between-ness as far as the Islamic world and Europe is concerned. I read recently that a new Turkish film — that cost an unheard of $10 million to make — is all about some nasty US soldiers who mistakenly slaughter some Turkish women and children and who are eventually killed by a Turkish special-forces group. There’s also an organ-harvesting Jewish doctor. While the Globe article was quick to point out that most Turks see the movie as pure entertainment, not as political commentary, the visceral anger and distrust is obvious, and is a strong counterpart to the more public face of Turkey — the one that wants to get into the EU, the one that has strategic alliances not only with the US but even with Israel. It’s the perfect location for a struggle with these two opposing forces.
I’m not so sure I agree that Ka is “us” in the novel. He knows too much, he’s already an insider to a great extent, and his detached amusement has been a willful acquisition of his time away, while ours is a cultural inheritance. For me Ka is more of a failed prodigal son — he’s supposed to have gone away “into the wilderness” of Germany, to find important knowledge to bring back to his people. But instead he comes back weaker in mind and spirit, and the knowledge he has gained (about literature, about life outside Turkey) is of no value to anyone he meets, even Ipek, whom he loves.
It’s an interesting aspect of the book that while it moves fairly chronologically for the most part, we do get these glimpses into the future, after Ka has returned to Germany. (I don’t think I’m giving much away here really, but if you haven’t read the book and hate surprises, skip now to the next paragraph!). The fact that his remaining years in Germany — and even his ignominious death — are surrounded with such dross seems to me to imply something more sweeping about his failure. His great masterwork, the poems with which our narrator is so obsessed, remain lost; his love for Ipek has descended into an addiction to porn; and his potential for success — either as an émigré writer or an immigrant to Germany — has come to nothing.
To me at the heart of the novel is that failure — the search for truth is fruitless, the efforts to reconcile are doomed. The heroic figure, it seems to me, is Turgut Bey, Ipek and Kadife’s father, who has managed to live a fairly respectable life, taking care of his daughters and reminiscing about surviving his “political period.” Mostly he’s done this by keeping his head down. Ka is the one we are supposed to admire, and we do sympathize with him, but ultimately he betrays us with his cowardice and confusion.
Christine: I like your casting of Ka as prodigal son, as the novel’s detached tone did make it feel like a parable, but I’m not so sure he has failed in that role. Isn’t the prodigal son’s coming home the only part that counts, whether broken or broke? I felt less betrayed than consoled by Ka’s ensuing confusion. Returning home after twelve years gives him the burden of justifying his absence and confronting his past, but he is no better equipped to deal with its insistent demands on his emotions — here is where I first kissed a girl, this is the school where a teacher said I’d never be a poet — than when he left. I feel that way every time I visit my home town, and so much more is at stake for Ka.
The practice of walkabout (leaving one’s birthplace at eighteen or so to spend a year experiencing the wider world) is worldwide, though with differing agendas. Many Europeans and Anzacs consider it indispensable to their children’s education and expect it after high school; on the other end of the spectrum, American Amish allow it, but after that year has passed, Amish youth must either return to their community or forsake it forever. At 42, Ka is no unformed youth, and the fact of his political exile makes his departure unquestionably different in nature, and yet, the time he spends in Kars seems similarly weighted with the problem of personal freedom versus community responsibility.
As Doug Sanders pointed out in the Globe this weekend, emigrating middle-east Muslims have an uneasy relationship with their new European homes. To be sure, complicated political and religious histories have a role to play here, and because of timeless desirability of Constantinople, Turkey’s is one of the most complex. But Sanders notes that it’s the problem of assimilation versus distinct identity, that age-old dilemma, that fans the fires; if European countries don’t allow assimilation, the only choice left to émigrés is a fiercer defense of their distinctness.
It’s no accident that Pamuk’s hero went to Germany when he left Turkey twelve years earlier, since, to Germany’s chagrin, Germany is home the largest population of Turks outside Turkey. Ka, like many Turks before him, is attracted to the cool intellectualism of western thought. Ataturk, who fought passionately for a Turkish nation-state at the end of the Ottoman empire but read western philosophy, had this to say about the religious fanaticism in his beloved country: “I flatly refuse to believe that today, in the luminous presence of science, knowledge, and civilization in all its aspects, there exist, in the civilized community of Turkey, men so primitive as to seek their material and moral well-being from the guidance of one or another sheikh.”
Embroiled in the heat of politically Byzantine and religiously fanatical Kars, Ka clings to his cooler western identity (and his German-made coat, Pamuk’s amusing metaphor for it), and yet, allows some part of himself to feel at home. His creative self blossoms; poems pour out of him. It is as if the soil of his birth gives him the rootedness he needs. I guess the passion awakened by his love interest doesn’t hurt either. It seems disingenuous to ignore the fact that our hero assumed a name, Ka, that was used by ancient Egyptians to describe spirit or life-force (his real name is Kerim Alakusoglu), but it is only when he is on Turkish soil does it seem to inhabit Ka in any way that is useful to his art .
Adam: Before we completely wrapped up in Ka, I want to talk a little about the other characters in Snow, who help to make the novel more than a story of the return of a prodigal son, a self-indulgent artist, a noble lover, or whatever Ka is. Blue, the charismatic Islamic radical, in particular has stayed with me, not only because of his romantic appeal — revolutionaries have been sexy since at least the 1790s — but because of his refusal to be contained by Ka’s pretentious logic. When Blue is in prison he’s at his most prescient, and when everyone thinks they’re using him, that’s when he’s using them. He’s a daunting portrayal of the mind of a savvy radical.
Also the theatrical power-brokers Sunay Zaim and Funda Eser, who seem to call the whole contraption of the novel into question. Is this a real coup or just theatre? For the boys who get killed, it hardly matters, but there’s something deeply disturbing and compelling about the circumstances here as well.
It occurs to me that I have read one other Turkish national — the poet Nazim Hikmet, who wrote spectacularly cheerful poems from prison. I’m trying to fit him into the constellation of characters in Snow, not because I think there’s a direct correspondence — although Hikmet did end his life in exile, as Ka does, and, like Blue, Hikmet was able to manipulate his imprisonment into something strangely transcendent. Let me quote one of his poems, just so you can see what I mean. This is from a translation by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, published by Persea Books.
Nazim, what happiness
That, open and confident,
You can say “Hello”
From the bottom of your heart!
The year is 1940.
The month, July.
The day is the first Thursday of the month.
The hour: 9.
Date your letters in detail this way.
We live in such a world
that the month, day, and hour
To say a big
And then, without finishing my sentence,
to look at you with a smile
— sly and gleeful —
We’re such perfect friends
that we understand each other
without words or writing...
Hello to all of you.
It’s a hilarious little poem, but it betrays some real audacity, gumption and willful cheeriness, considering the circumstances it was written under. Like Ka, Hikmet doesn’t make the classic Western error of assuming that his suffering is beyond humour.
I grow a bit frustrated with our form. Clearly we should be having sweet strong coffee and shivering if we’re going to discuss this novel properly.
Christine: My office is always subzero in winter and I’ve set myself up with a double-double. OK?
I’m glad you mention the theatrical coup and its ontological implications, because in this section of the novel Pamuk really shines. In his hands, we have earnest revolutionaries as bumbling as Keystone Kops, the catatonic response of the audience, and ensuing confusion both on-stage and off. Does life imitate art, or the other way around? It’s brilliant comic satire while at the same time a deadly serious consideration of power in the hands of those who least deserve it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s like that moment just before a child’s laughter turns to tears, that knife’s edge of intensity that isn’t sure how express itself, except that it must.
And after all of the commotion, Ka’s thoughts turn meditative in a gorgeous evocation life’s transience: “And how beautiful was the falling snow! How large the snowflakes were, and how decisive. It was as if they knew their silent procession would continue until the end of time.” Even the gravest human battles are only a speck on the wheel of time, which of course begs the question of Pamuk’s role as novelist. If only snowflakes endure, where does that leave him?
Yet, his choices of themes in the novel couldn’t have been more relevant. Blue, as you mention, cuts a romantic figure, and his placement in the novel was a prescient choice. Pamuk even describes Blue as an “Islamist” who threatens death when a media personality makes inappropriate remarks about the Prophet Muhammad. Gets you in the gut, doesn’t it, considering recent events in Denmark and the fact that this novel was first published in 2002. It’s 2006 and the March 1 st edition of Middle East Times details a statement signed by Salman Rushdie and other high-profile international authors that calls for “resistance to religious totalitarianism.” The statement also argues that “the struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological field.” Meanwhile, a Muslim American professor of law publishes an argument against Islam as an extreme religion (The Great Truth: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Khaled Abou El Fadi). And the snow continues to fall.
We’ve now had three turns each and I feel that we’ve barely scratched the surface. We haven’t discussed the perfect argument of the head scarf chapter, for instance, the playful metafictive quality of the novel, or the fact that if nothing can be taken at face value, and that seems to be one of Pamuk’s thematic underpinnings, then we can’t trust this book’s version of events, either.
I feel that I’m no closer to understanding the world of Snow than when we began, and yet I admire Pamuk’s work more. Does one need to be Turkish, do you think? Or Muslim? Can a novel, even one as accomplished as this one, bridge the chasm between western and middle-eastern thought? Or maybe the awareness of that chasm is the book’s lasting legacy for the western reader, the reality that while fiction allows us inside the head of the other, it can’t change the fact that we are limited, always, by our dominant world view.
Adam: And yet, what else is fiction for, what else is art for, if not to bridge those gaps, to force us to confront our ignorances, to challenge us to try to understand? I agree that we haven’t gotten our hands fully around the novel — how can one fully grasp the snow? — but I think we have gotten closer. If we have failed, we failed no less than our hero failed, so at the very least we have good company in our confusion.
This has been a real pleasure for me, Christine. Let’s do it again sometime with a novel that we both feel capable of confronting.
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Christine Fischer Guy is a Toronto writer and journalist who has lived and worked in London, England. Her reviews have appeared in The Women's Post, Books in Canada, and The Globe and Mail. Her fiction has appeared in Grimm magazine and she has two stories forthcoming in Descant.
Adam Sol is the author of two collections of poetry, including Crowd of Sounds, which won the Trillium Award in 2004. He lives in Toronto and teaches in the Laurentian University @ Georgian College program.