Friday, March 13, 2009


Snow, by Orham Pamuk
2004, 463 pp.

Lament the state of the political novel. Like its introspective older brother, the novel of ideas, the political novel has been largely dormant the last sixty years, since the great times of Orwell and Koestler and Huxley. Pieces of its territory have been appropriated by the thriller writers and the spy novelists, and the rest has become desolate and overgrown thanks to the general public flight from anything which smells even faintly of cognitive activity. Orhan Pamuk's Snow is definitely a political novel, but a ramshackle one; held to the standards of its predecessors it is a clear sign that the genre is a shadow of its former self.

The plot is easy to summarize. A poet called Ka returns from political exile in Germany to Turkey. He travels to the isolated frontier city of Kars, ostensibly to investigate a series of girl-suicides, but actually to look up an old flame. While there, Kars is cut off by a blizzard, and a ridiculous, vaguely fascist actor leads a coup and attempts to repress the region's burgeoning Islamist movement.

Some obligatory preliminaries. Pamuk is something of a post-modernist and is fond of cyphers. "Ka" is an abbreviation of the character's full name, and could be an allusion to Kafka's "K." or "Kemal Ataturk," and it is certainly not an accident that "kar" is the Turkish word for "snow," and that the action of the book takes place in "Kars." Setting a political novel in an isolated, snowy, frontier town is certainly an allusion to Dostoevsky's Demons, and Kars is further useful to illustrate the conflicting emotions which are endemic in the forgotten strongholds of fallen empires. The setting and the atmosphere are the most convincing parts of the book: Pamuk effortlessly makes the dirt, the snow, the despair, and the resentment palpable, and indeed it is possible to find online a painstaking map of Ka's walks around the city. The reader soon becomes used to the presence of angry, unemployed men and post-imperial inferiority complexes. The New York Times summed it up well: "the mix of resentful entitlement (We ought to be powerful!), shame (What did we do wrong?), blame (Whose fault is it?) and anxiety about identity (Who are we really?)."

However, the actual politics is less successful, due mainly to Pamuk's apparent refusal to take a side. Ka engages in long discussions with various Islamists (one of whom is absurdly and distractingly named "Blue") about the existence of God and whether Ka is or is not an atheist. He continually protests he is not, though, and indeed there are no strong atheist characters, so this conflict falls flat and Pamuk deftly avoided acknowledging the old truism that the criticism of society in general is based on the criticism of religion in particular. As Ka gets wrapped up in the intrigue and plotting of the Islamists and secularists, he sometimes seems like a particularly placid rendition of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (or Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, if you like) or a bewildered Raymond Chandler character as he shuttles back and forth between the police, the Islamists, and the actor who led the coup. Ka himself is essentially devoid of actual politics, though: he mainly just wants to have sex with the woman he came to see. He witnesses executions, beatings, a violent coup, and meets with terrorists, but never shows much reaction. Instead, "perfect" poems come to him out of nowhere (in a way which strongly suggests they are sent by God) and he spends a lot of time moping over Ipek, the woman he wants but who won't sleep with him when her father is home.

All of this makes for a rather lily-livered political novel, without a central argument or conclusions. It is not without interest, though, since Pamuk adds another post-modern wrinkle. The narrator at first seems to be a standard third-person omniscient, then gradually takes on a personality and turns out to be a friend of Ka, who is named Orhan Pamuk and who has written a novel called The Black Book, and who eventually promises to write Snow. (Spoilers follow, so beware). This narrator lays on some heavy foreshadowing, then reveals halfway through the book that Ka is killed four years after the book's events and that he has been trying to reassemble what happened in Kars and why Ka was killed. The narrator gets a few chapters of his own and takes on an increasingly prominent role in the story, which was interesting, but also hinted at ways the book could have been better. Why not instead start with Ka's death, and more strongly feature the narrator's interesting and resourceful forensic reconstruction of his dead friend's life? That would have given the story more forward momentum and allowed more consideration and reflective conclusions. There is real pathos in the narrator's memories of his lost friend, but only meandering, slightly unconvincing melodrama in Ka's activities in Kars. Why not just transcribe Ka's notebooks instead of telling us what's going to happen? Why include the narrator at all, if his only purpose is to interrupt the story and add a sense of distance and detachment to an already anemic narrative?

The last half or so is a turgid mess of peculiar names and people explaining each other's plots to one another. This seems to take forever, and makes the book's three-day time span seem unconvincing. The final "human as snowflake" metaphor is almost unbelievably trite, and the dialogue the whole way through is stilted and flat. We never learn any of Ka's "perfect" poems, nor are we ever particularly clear as to why he was killed, and by whom, and who ended up with his lost poetry notebook.

Snow has its high points. A meeting of radicals accelerates into farce, the atmosphere is excellent, and the narrator subplot is strong. I am interested in reading his earlier work, which is apparently more Baroque, more concerned with scholars and texts, and more innovative. Snow is by no means bad, but is cruel enough to hint at how good it could have been.

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