01 April 2006

Snow — book review

Snow - Click for details and orders at Amazon.co.ukGreat novelists, such as Graham Greene for example, have an uncanny ability to express and interpret their times: what we know as the zeitgeist. I'm not sure if Pamuk is in that category yet, but on the basis of this outstanding novel it seems this is where he is heading. In real life Pamuk has recently been taken to court for claiming, rightly, that the government of his country sanctioned the murder of over a million Armenians during the First World War. This absurd case was eventually dropped, but with this book Pamuk remains controversial by focusing on the key issue of our time: the relationship between Islam and western values. And he doesn't have any easy answers. As he he says in one of his more lapidary statements: 'People who seek only happiness never find it.'

A well known poet and journalist, Ka, visits the ancient eastern Turkish city of Kars in order to write about the spate of suicides among young girls. He makes contact with people he knows in the city, shrouded in a snowfall which has also cut it off from the rest of the country. Isolated, twixt west and east in this city, a drama is played out which is a microcosm of the wider conflict between the secular and the religious.

He meets the beautiful Ipek, daughter of hotelier Turget Bey and former wife of the leader of a small Islamic political party, in The New Life Pastry Shop. They talk about Ka's life as a Turkish poet in Germany and Ka begins to feel a strong attraction for her - later to be consummated by an affair.

Here in the café, they see the widely respected Director of Education shot by an extremist for being a suspected atheist and for preventing girls entering his institute wearing headscarves in accordance with the Koran. The conversation between the old man and his assassin before the fatal shots are fired is a perfect summation of the conflict which provides the theme of the book. The device used of a novelist friend recalling all these events through notebooks and interviews, creaks a bit but overall works reasonably well.

Kars, we discover, is a hotbed of the political and the religious, all mediated through the extraordinary personalities we meet. Ka recites a poem at a televised festival at the National Theatre in which a dramatized conflict turns into a real one in with shots fired and people killed.

A local coup, it transpires, has been engineered by elements loyal to Kemal Ataturk, the charismatic early 20th century president of Turkey who established the republic, emancipated women and fought to replace a feudal religious culture with the secular, modernizing rationalism of Western Europe.

Ka has personal contacts, at varying levels of intimacy, with the people involved - the fading actor with a burning ambition is to play Ataturk; the fugitive revolutionary Islamist, Blue; a number of his disciples from the Religious High School; the sinister secret service men who seem to have the whole city bugged and regards torture merely as standard interrogation; and Ipek's sister, Kadife, who champions the 'headscarf' girls.

The drama - no less than Huntingdon's Clash of Civilizations - is played out in the streets and cafes of this ancient city whose history has involved invasion, resistance and multiple ownership by Mongols, Russians and Armenians as well as Turks.

Ka flits from scene to scene, his status as a leading poet allowing him privileged access but what is happening is always confused, unclear as if the all-enveloping snow keeps events out of focus until they happen. Indeed, the title of the book is eponymous in the sense that Kars is Turkish for 'snow' and perhaps it symbolizes how the fierce struggle between rational west and Islamic east has been cloaked and preserved by obfuscating, historical layers of the stuff.

Pamuk is excellent at giving both sides of the argument powerful and equal expression. Anyone wishing to understand the baffling conflict between those fierce conviction stares of young Islamic fundamentalists and ourselves in the West should read this book. Read for understanding that is: solutions would be too much to ask even of a novelist of Pamuk's rare gifts.

Guest review by Bill Jones who blogs at SKIPPER

more MODERN FICTION reviews

Orhan Pamuk, Snow, London: Faber, 2004, pp.440, ISBN 0571218318

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