Understanding is Everything Apr 19, 2007
"One of the pleasures of writing this novel, was to say to my Turkish readers and to my international audience, openly and a bit provocatively, but honestly, that what they call a terrorist is first of all a human being. Our secularists, who are always relying on the army and who are destroying Turkey's democracy, hated this book because here you have a deliberate attempt by a person who was never religious in his life to understand why someone ends up being what we or the Western world calls an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist."
Whether you are new to the writings of Orhan Pamuk or like me, a convert to his work in translation, you will find the book, "Snow," is packed, nay; overflowing with Turkish humanity. In Orhan Pamuk's self-avowed first (and last) political novel, the disaffected and somewhat anesthesitized inhabitants of Kars find their imperfect voice in his newest novel. Through mad-cap theatrical coup and broad, windy statements to an imagined and unhearing "Western Press," the reader is ingeniously treated and sometimes led by the nose through the complexity of an Islamic society that desires access to its past and admittance to the modern world.
Therein lies the rub.
Understanding is everything, although it can't immediately change anything. The readers of "Snow" will find many intricately-drawn zany characters, who represent a spectrum of political fundamentalist Islam; its adherents, admirers and detractors. All are deliciously served up on an exotic Turkish platter and are no less appealing for the remote locale.
As a reader, I am consistently amazed by Mr. Pamuk's stellar ability to give authentic, credible voice to a wide array of eccentric characters, each effortlessly recognizable for all their foible. There is a remarkable, transcendent levity to Pamuk's depiction of what are deeply tragic events; a rather mystical take on the "ship of fools" theory of life. When a young fundamentalist student in the book expresses his desire to become the "first Islamic science fiction writer" it is wistful, encouraging and poignant statement. The people of Kars do not by any means lack for voice. What they lack is a stable political vehicle that allows a coherent telling of their tale.
The varying degree of political involvement portrayed in the aloof dreaminess of love-sick Ka, ex-leftist, poet and main character, the complex hyperbole of Blue, fundamentalist outlaw, and Kadife, a forthright "westernized" girl from Istanbul converted to head-scarf activism represent the voices we don't usually hear behind the sad ubiquity of exploding bombs.
There are plenty of Pamukian literary devices in this novel that address the author's recurring themes and symbols. These have to do with questions of identity and metaphysics. Some note has been made in reviews here (USA) pondering the possible meaning(s) of Ka's name. I am told the author was influenced by Kafka. If readers of "Snow," desire a clue to the meaning or significance of the town's name, ("Kars") see the ending pages of "The New Life (also highly recommended)."
Every author has his own retinue of literary device and Mr. Pamuk continues to employ his own abundantly. The symbol of snow (in Turkish, "kar") is both tender metaphor and unifying symbol. Snowfall covers everything in the novel (and everyone) indiscriminately, possessing the miraculous nature of each snowflake's distinct design. Distinct design also aptly describes the Kars citizenry.
As I was finishing this valuable, well-written book, an Islamic faction in Iraq was holding two French journalists hostage, demanding that France lift its ban on the wearing of head-scarves by Muslim girls in French public schools. The underlying controversy of the book? A ban on head scarves in Turkish public schools by the state officials of Kars, resulting in a wave of suicides by young girls. Or was that the actual reason? Decide for yourself, by reading "Snow". One of the great fortuitous compliments I imagine an author receives (to his probable chagrin) is life attempting awkward imitation of his art. (Mr. Pamuk began this book before 9/11).
Understanding is everything, even when it changes nothing. Perhaps it is all we, at times, can do.