It is a weird book. A dreamy love story against the backdrop revolution in an isolated small town. A tale of winter and snow, of dreams and identity lost. A clash of the global with the local.
I read it right after reading the social guide to Turkey Turcja. Półprzewodnik Obyczajowy. And it was a good choice, because the guide helped to set the stage for me to experience Pamuk’s book in a more conscious way. I’ll say upfront that it’s not my favorite of Pamuk’s books, I think this place will always be taken by My Name is Red. Partially because I do think it was a better book, but partially out of sentiment, I read it when I was in Florence for the first time.
I read Snow in Polish translation, my brain is so drained by the pandemic, or middle age is catching up with me, that I find it a lot easier to read in Polish recently. Maybe it is a symptom of my longing to visit home, which is still impossible.
So what is the book about? It is a history of a Turkish poet Ka, written by his friend Orhan. Orhan remains a semi-visible narrator, we get to know some of his thoughts about his friend but most of the time he focuses on telling us about his friend’s stay in the city of Kars. Ka lives in Germany, but he came back to Turkey for his mother funeral, and after that he decided to travel from Istanbul to Kars. Officially the reason for his trip is to write about a plague of teenage suicides and upcoming election, but he also hopes to find the love of his life, Ipek.
He finds a lot more than he bargained for. When he comes to Kars, the heavy snowfall blocks the roads and completely isolates the city from outside world. This allows Pamuk to create an environment he can control completely, but also one that like a lens focuses all of Turkey’s problems. It seems the teenagers kill themselves because of the ban to wear headscarves in school. But his is soon overshadowed by a military coup that takes place in the city, funnily enough led by an aged actor, who lost it all.
The story quickly reaches a level of absurd rarely seen in literature. But there is a point to it, because Pamuk takes all of Turkey’s divides, complexes and amplifies them in this small environment like in a petri dish. Experimenting with what would happen if you pit against one another devout muslims, communists, people fervently longing to westernize and people with no backbone. And nothing sane can come out of this.
Pamuk in this book tries to show us all the contradictions that come with living in Turkey. The schizophrenia of living on the border of the East and West, when one wants to be both and also wants to be neither. Where state and religion cannot be reconciled. Where every single decision is a political choice, a weight that drives people either into frantic activity or into apathetic inaction.
In the middle of all this we have Ka, with his raging emotions and selfishness fighting with his willingness to do the right thing. He desperately tries to believe in something, thinking only faith can be his salvation. He throws himself here and there with no rhyme or reason. It is a character that we feel for at the beginning but throughout the boko we become disillusioned with him.
It is a very weird book. At one moment in the exulting high of emotions only to fall into the swamp of politics in the next. I was also very confused with all the factions and could never follow who was in which one and what are they fighting for. And I do think it was deliberate, Pamuk was trying to make us experience the chaos that the Turkish identity is. And it certainly was an interesting experience, I’m just not sure if it’s one I’d like to repeat.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska