Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Understanding Turkey's Soul: "Snow" by Orhan Pamuk
My friend, Inga Keithly, has not known me for very long, but she knows me well. So, she was right on target when she handed me a book and said:
"You will really appreciate this author's work."
Thus was I introduced to the writings of Orhan Pamuk. In the midst of my reading "Snow," I was carrying it with me in downtown Boston. A passerby saw the book and remarked:
"You are reading a book about my country. In Turkey, Orhan Pamuk is regarded as one of our finest writers. He has written many works in Turkish; this is one of his few works written in English."
John Updike, who knows a thing or two about good writing, had this to say about "Snow" and Pamuk:
"A major work . . . conscience-ridden and carefully wrought, tonic in its scope, candor and humor . . . with suspense at every dimpled vortex . . . Pamuk [is Turkey's] most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize."
This political novel is set in rural Turkey, yet transcends its geographic setting to shine rays of poetic insight into universal human emotions and experiences. The protagonist, Ka, is a poet, an ex-patriot Turk who has been living in Germany and returns to his homeland to investigate the mysterious suicide of several young women in the Turkish backwater town of Kars. While in Germany, Ka's poetry muse had deserted him, but amidst the perpetual snowstorm that blanketed Kars during his stay there, poems once again came to him - seeming to crystalize in his mind like the unique snowflakes that enveloped him and his surroundings. Once back in Germany, Ka organized his new poems according to the hexagonal structure of a snowflake - a taxonomy that arranged the poems along axes that he called "Reason," "Memory" and "Imagination."
I found Pamuk's syle quiet and subtle. I see many similarities between "The Kite Runner," and "Snow." For me, as a reader educated primarily on the canon of The West, reading the more interior-focused works of writers from Asia is an acquired taste, but one well worth acquiring. An analogy hit me the other day as I was grabbing a bite to eat at the Jaffa Cafe on Gloucester Street in Boston's Back Bay. I ordered a plate of falafel, hummus and baba ghanoush - and enjoyed it immensely. It was only after I had placed my order that I saw that this item on the menu was listed as a "vegetarian's delight." I am a classic carnivore (actually, a card-carrying omnivore!), and love my red meat, so it stunned me to know I had ordered and enjoyed a "vegetarian" meal. The tastiness of the ingredients had allowed me to transcend labels and expand the horizons of my tastebuds. Works like "Kite Runner" from Afghanistan and "Snow" from Turkey have accomplished the same broadening effect on my literary tastes.
A recurring theme in "Snow" is the national inferiority complex with which many Turks wrestle - at home and in exile - as they live with the shameful legacy of the Armenian Massacre that lies as an unhealed and oozing national wound just beneath the surface of daily life. A parallel source of struggle, shame and strife is the role of women and girls in society - a very visible symbol of the question of the degree to which Western values will determine the future of Turkey and other developing nations in the Middle East and Asia.
"Did they pity you? Did their hearts go out to you because you were a miserable Turk, a lonely destitute political exile, the sort of Turkish nobody that drunken German youths beat up just for the fun of it?" (Page 231)
As the narrative unfolds, these national issues are personified in the characters whose lives swirl like eddying curtains of snowflakes drifting to earth. Ka is briefly reunited with the beautiful Ipek, who vacillates between being accessible and inaccessible to Ka. Ipek's sister, Kadife, plays out on a literal stage the struggle that many women of her generation find so difficult - the choice between tradition and conformity on the one hand and individuality and rebellion on the other hand.
Pamuk does a remarkable job of blending and balancing political commentary, artistic insight and interpersonal intrigue in this moving tale. I agree with the assessment of Margaret Atwood, writing about "Snow" in the New York Times Book Review:
"Not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times. [Pamuk is] narrating his country into being."
I plan to read other Orhan Pamuk titles and am pleased to recommend this work to discriminating readers.