The Sympathy of Melancholy: Orhan Pamuk’s SNOW
There is a play on words that gets lost in translation from Turkish into English. I am by no means a Turkish speaker (as if), and I only discovered it when looking up information about the town in which Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated 2002 book is set. Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and the citation said that he:
in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.
Well, that is certainly true of Snow.
- KARS is a remote frontier town, on the far east border of Turkey with Armenia – it’s troubled history has seen it obviously under Ottoman rule, but also occupied for a few decades by Imperial Russia and even the British.
- The Turkish word for ‘snow’ is ‘KAR‘ – so the published Turkish title was just that. The majority of the events described take place in Kars in the depths of winter when the city is entirely cut off from the outside world by snow drifts – roads are impassible and the trains unable to run.
- The protagonist of the book is a poet called ‘Ka‘ – that’s not a common Turkish name but is formed from his initials: Kerim Alakoşoğlu.
Ka has lived in political exile in Germany for years – but has returned to Turkey for a family funeral, and a journalist friend in Istanbul offers him a short assignment investigating a recent spate of young girls committing suicide in far-off Kars. He spent some of his childhood there and so seizes the chance for a nostalgia trip – a trip that will change his life. The city is in turmoil – and while most of Turkey ignores Kars most of the time, it is the focus of attention because local elections are imminent and the front runner for mayor is an Islamic radical.
The novel is narrated by an old friend who’s spent time following in his footsteps and trying to piece together what happened there and in the 4 subsequent years back in Germany. By the end of the book it is clear that the narrator is none other than Pamuk himself.
This is a dense book – and yet richly rewarding. It encompasses so much – too much to grasp in a few paragraphs.
- It is a searing analysis of the tensions inherent in modern Turkey. It’s set in the 90s – i.e. before 9/11 and the true nature of Islamic terrorism had gained widespread public consciousness in the west. The Europeanisers who follow in the footsteps of Ataturk. As the New Statesman reviewer said, the book ‘illuminates the confrontation between secular and extremist Islamic worlds better than any work of non-fiction I can think of.’ Well, I’ve not read many non-fiction analyses – but I have to say that this certainly rang chords. That’s one of the great gifts of fiction – one gets inside the mind of people with profoundly different outlooks. And as today in the west, battleground is the issue of women wearing headscarves. Even over the short time I’ve been going to Turkey, I’ve noticed the huge increase in Istanbul of women covering their heads.
- The girl’s suicides have horrified people of both sides: for the secularists, it is the grim outworking of Islamic oppression of women; for Islamists, it seems the inevitable consequence of atheism. Ka is basically atheist, but finds himself slightly swayed by prevailing winds – so some Islamist students he gets to know and highly respect, assume he must therefore want to take his own life.
- It is a story about love and happiness – can you be happy in love – or, as with Ka, is happiness always spoiled by the dread of its loss? Pamuk constantly drops in hints of what is to come as he narrates Ka’s tale – and yet it is precisely his narrator’s art which makes you long for it to be otherwise as he spends time with the captivating and secular İpek.
- It is a story about family loyalties – as Ka spends time with İpek, her more radicalised and headscarf-wearing sister Kadife, and their father, the former communist Turgut Bey.
- It’s a story about literature and poetry – Ka has suffered years of writer’s block – but his short time in Kars has impelled him to write – he is regularly interrupted by the impulse to write – and so has to carry his notebook to the poems wherever he goes. It is about the power of art to change things – one or two characters have spent lifetimes translating european poetry into Turkish in the hope of its power rubbing off on their culture; and some of the key events take place on the stage of the town’s National Theatre. A band of secularist ham actors have arrived with hopes of changing and exposing culture in a way similar to Hamlet’s play within a play.
- It is a book about the individuality of individual lives – which is where the snow comes in. Snow was not just a device to cut Kars off from the outside world, and thereby turn it into a microcosm of Turkey. As Ka discovers in research back in Germany:
the form of each snowflake is determined also by the temerpature, the direction and strength of the wind, the altitude of the cloud, and any number of other mysterious forces, Ka decided that snowflakes have much in common with people…
…Lurking throughout these commentaries was the belief that his poetry was shaped by mysterious external forces. And by the time he was recording these thoughts in his notebooks, Ka was convinced that every life is like a snowflake: individual existences might look identical from afar, but to understand one’s own externally mysterious uniqueness one had only to plot the mysteries of one’s own snowflake. (p383)
Pamuk’s middle name could practically be ‘melancholy’ – every book I’ve read of his is permeated by it, rather as Istanbul occasionally gets swathed in fog sweeping off the Bosphorus. But his writing is very affecting. And anyone who wants to understand modern Turkey, and indeed the culture clash between Islam and the post-Enlightenment West, could do far worse than spending time with this sensitive and humane writer.
Snow has been described as a ‘courageous’ book – and in the light of the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism (especially post-Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses), it’s not hard to see why. Although as far as my outsider’s view can tell, he’s not blasphemous – he merely exposes the perversities and absurdities of that world. Which is not to say that he is starry-eyed about the west or secularists. Far from it – which is perhaps the clue to his melancholy. He doesn’t quite fit with either. And that perhaps is contemporary Istanbul’s, and indeed Turkey’s, agony.