Sunday, July 31, 2011

"the world's hidden symmetry"

Many years before, Ka had explained to me that when a good poet is confronted with difficult facts that he knows to be true but also inimical to poetry, he has no choice but to flee to the margins; it was, he said, this very retreat that allowed him to hear the hidden music that is the source of all art.

Orhan Pamuk (1952-) is the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 2010 Norman Mailer Lifetime Achievement Award in the United States. With over seven million books sold in fifty languages, he is Turkey's bestselling writer. In 2005 Pamuk was jailed for taking publicly about Armenian Genocide and the mass killing of Kurds, prompting an international outcry and doubts about Turkey's future in the European Union. A statement supporting Pamuk was signed by José Saramago, Gabriel García Márquez, Günter Grass, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, John Updike, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Three years later the lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz, who had brought the charges, was arrested along with several other ultra-nationalists for plotting a series of assassinations. It is believed that Pamuk was among their intended targets.

The tumultuous and fractured nature of Turkish society forms the basis of Pamuk's 2002 novel Kar, (translated by Maureen Freely), the Turkish word for "snow" that is played with throughout the story. We open with the poet Ka's return from exile in Germany to Kars, an impoverished city in eastern Anatolia. He has been assigned by a socialist paper called Republican to report on the recent rash of suicides of "born-again" Muslim girls forbidden to wear their headscarves in schools and other institutions. Though considered a backwater today, Kars is rich in Ottoman, Kurdish, Russian, Georgian, Armenian, and Greek history. In the deep winter snow it is a bleak, run-down place that still boasts magnificent buildings recalling its glory days as a trading hub and cultural nexus. Now masses of unemployed men congregate around television in dingy teahouses and tensions run high. Periodic outbursts of violence are not uncommon. Ka's arrival also coincides with a massive blizzard that cuts Kars off from the rest of the world and creates an environment akin to a pressure cooker. It is a Turkish microcosm, complete with its own mini-coup.

Ka's inquiry opens a veritable Pandora's Box involving not only political Islam, but also radical Islam, Kurdish rebellion, Marxism, secularism, and the clash between traditional and Western values. Despite his past as a leftist student, Ka has no current ideological attachments, which allows him to function as a mediator of sorts between the city's various factions. Meanwhile, he longs for the hand of fair İpek, an old friend who runs a hotel with her father, a retired leftist named Turgut Bey, and her sister, Kadife, the leader of the so-called "head-scarf girls" whose lover Blue is wanted by the state as an alleged terrorist leader. To top it off, a disgraced actor named Sunay has seized power in the name of secularism and nationalism and instituted a brutal crackdown on Islamic and Kurdish activity. He is the closest thing to a villain in this deeply complex tale, as the previously warring political groups temporarily unite in opposition to the military repression. The rich tapestry of beliefs, loyalties, friendships, and love affairs inspires a burst of creativity in Ka, who seems detached from the events surrounding him even as he is drawn further in. A poet longing above all for his own happiness, Ka embodies the difficult relationship between Western notions of art and individualism and his homeland's demand that he take a side. A revered sheik bluntly rejects his desire for a private relationship with a God best revealed in the beauty of falling snow.

We soon learn that the narrator is in fact Ka's novelist friend Orhan, who is himself acting as an investigative reporter some four years later following Ka's murder in Frankfort. Snow is Orhan's reconstruction based on his interviews with the various characters and the notes Ka left behind. This further reinforces Pamuk's exploration of the interaction between fiction and reality and the unfolding of a Creator's hidden pattern. (Note the character Orhan sharing a name with his author.) Sunay uses political theater both to jumpstart his coup (all too late did the audience realize the soldiers were real and the guns loaded) and, later on, as a propaganda tool starring Kadife, who has promised to bare her head onstage in exchange for Blue's release. One of Ka's notebooks reveals a diagram based on the six-sided snowflake - made up of the triple axes of Reason, Imagination, and Memory - the hidden symmetry of the world on which he has positioned all the poems written in Kars. In the center is "I, Ka." Each person is as unique as the snowflake, Ka believes, flourishing for a brief time before fading away.

The rich layers of Snow make for a vivid introduction to contemporary Turkish politics and pressing social issues. I am bothered, however, by what appears to be Orhan Pamuk's appropriation of women's experiences to make a point about Islam v. secularism. I could not find any information on the Web about Turkish Muslim women committing suicide over the headscarf controversy. What I found instead was that the suicide epidemic, which is occurring in Batman not Kars, is a new form of honor killing, often for reasons as trivial and innocent as light flirtation or wanting to see a movie. In anticipation of joining the European Union, Turkey has tightened the penalties for this egregious human rights abuse, which has prompted families to urge their "dishonored" daughters to kill themselves rather than risk losing two children. One method is to lock the girl in a room with rat poison, a gun, or a noose until the deed is done. So maybe there's something I'm missing here, which is entirely possible, but it looks like Pamuk took considerable poetic license, which is pretty disrespectful to the victims. If anyone out there knows more about this topic, please don't hesitate to enlighten me.

There are also problems with pacing. Snow is a character-driven story and as such runs the risk of getting bogged down with naval-gazing. Unfortunately, the trap is unavoided and, as I noted yesterday, the result is an overlong novel (426 pages) that seriously drags. Still, I am glad to have read it but can't say I plan on picking up more Pamuk in the future. To be fair, though, it was a New York Time Book Review Best Book of the Year and counts John Updike and Margaret Atwood among its admirers.

Orhan Pamuk's Snow was my reading selection for the month of July. Please feel free to join us for the rest! You can find the complete book list here. Other participants this month include:

Emily @ Evening All Afternoon
JoV @ Bibliojunkie
Richard @ Caravana de Recuerdos
Sara @ Wordy Evidence of the Fact

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Richard said...

Glad you liked this more than I did (so far...), although I'm also somewhat amused that you're not all that interested in picking up more Pamuk despite being glad that you read this novel of his. LOL! Have the feeling that some of the issues dealt with in this work (the headscarf thing, the East/West tensions, the suicide culture, etc.) would have been more interesting to read about in a more straightforward, maybe even non-fiction fashion since the soap opera dramz and the writing left much to be desired in the first half of the book at least.

Emily said...

Wow, that detail about the "suicides" being a new form of honor killing makes the treatment of gender in this novel even more questionable than I already found it. Thanks for bringing that up!

Finally finished this and definitely agree that the pace...drags...on...and...on. It really pains me to dislike this novel as it has crazy amounts of potential, but...oh well. It does bring up some interesting questions, but the execution could have been SO much better. And shorter.

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