Review: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Updated - August 06, 2018 03:41 pm IST

Published - August 04, 2018 06:03 pm IST

As the ‘kar’, or snow, begins to fall, a journalist who writes poetry arrives at the remote city of Kars on the Turkish border. Thus begins Nobel Prize-winning Orhan Pamuk's Snow (2004), a remarkable novel about the "clash and interlacing of cultures." After spending 12 years in political exile in Germany, Kerim Alakuşoğlu, who prefers to be known by his initials Ka, wants to find out more about impending municipal elections which Islamists are on the brink of winning, and also about the girls who have been taking their own lives because they were banned from wearing the head scarf.

As he hears the suicide stories, Ka is shocked at the manner in which the girls had killed themselves: “abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines.” Kars itself is at the crossroads of past and present with vestiges of Armenian, Russian and Ottoman rule strewn around, and in a state of decay several inches of snow can’t hide.

What it also cannot conceal are the contradictory pulls, between secularism and Islam, the rich and poor, rationalism and insanity. While Ka comes to terms with Kars, another plot strand opens up — the journalist-poet’s love for the beautiful Ipek.

A blizzard

It’s when Ka is meeting Ipek at New Life Pastry Shop that they witness the murder of the director of the Education Institute, who had barred the head-scarfed girls from classes. Strapped to Prof. Nuri Yilmaz’s chest is a tape — unknown to the assailant of course — and their conversation prior to the killing is recorded. “You’re not an atheist, are you?” the professor is asked, and the spine-chilling exchange takes up a dozen pages, till he is shot.

Other characters wade in — a writer named, what else, Orhan; Ipek’s beautiful sister Kadife; a local newspaper editor Serdar Bey who often prints reports of events before they even take place; an Islamic terrorist called Blue. In the meantime, Kars is cut off from the outside world by a blizzard and desperate acts follow. As for Ka, he returns to Frankfurt — and tragedy.

Curtail them

In his last letter from Frankfurt, Ka had announced that he had finished a new book of poetry called Snow , and that most of the poems are based on childhood memories. But the green notebook where he had written the poems is nowhere to be found among his belongings.

With voice after voice being buried, you can’t help but be reminded of Pamuk’s epigraph, taken from Dostoevsky, “Well, then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent.” Margaret Atwood, reviewing it for The New York Times , said it was “essential reading for our times.” In 2018, as the world becomes more divided, it seems to be even more so.

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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