Snow by Orhan Pamuk

A fast-moving Turkish farce delights Stephen O'Shea with its intellectual energy and prescience

Sunday 23 May 2004 00:00 BST

It comes as a surprise that political prescience should be yet another of the many gifts of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. Praised as a virtuoso of the postmodern highwire - in the company of Borges, Calvino and Eco - Pamuk has delivered intellectual delights without bothering his readers too much about the times in which they live. My Name is Red, the Impac winner depicting a 16th-century aesthetic feud among Ottoman miniaturists, was hailed as a work of idiosyncratic genius, as was The White Castle, which involves a Muslim master and a Christian slave switching identities. Now, with Snow, composed before 11 September 2001, Pamuk gives convincing proof that the solitary artist is a better bellwether than any televised think-tanker.

Set in easternmost Anatolia in the 1990s, the novel deals with the present-day shouting-match between East and West - a subject that is second nature to any native of Istanbul like Pamuk. A meeting of Noises Off and The Clash of Civilisations, the work is a melancholy farce full of rabbit-out-of-a-hat plot twists that, despite its locale, looks uncannily like the magic lantern show of misfire, denial and pratfall that appears daily in our newspapers. How could Pamuk have foreseen this at his writing desk four years ago? Even the beatings and humiliations seem familiar.

The show takes place during three eventful February days in Kars, a shivering has-been of a town hard by the border with Armenia. A snowstorm has cut off the place, prompting an itinerant theatrical troupe to stage a coup in the name of old-fashioned Kemalist secular values. Their leader, a thoughtful drunk whose fame rests in his resemblance to Ataturk, is concerned about militant Islamists and Kurdish separatists in Kars, as well as a rash of suicides among the city's pious headscarf-wearing girls. Enter Ka, a poet returned from exile in Germany, to report on the suicides for an article to appear in "Republic" (ie Cumhurriyet), a leading Istanbul newspaper read by Westernised "white Turks" like himself.

What Ka finds, as the snow settles on streets lined with dilapidated Tsarist-era mansions, is a city of articulate rage. Angry at being poor, provincial and despised by the godless, the townsfolk confront Ka and disabuse him of his reflexive feelings of superiority, the most memorable harangues spouted by a youth with dreams of becoming "the world's first Islamist science-fiction writer". The Western newcomer, who has spent the past 20 years not writing poetry, masturbating, and collecting political refugee cheques in Frankfurt, is enchanted at finding himself stuck in a tendentious backwater straight out of Turgenev and Dostoevsky, to whom he refers liberally. Ka's muse returns and his libido revives.

At his hotel, run by an old socialist with two beautiful daughters, the inevitable boulevardier complications arise, one of the love triangles pitting the atheist poet against a lusty fundamentalist. Ka goes out repeatedly to meet this hunted Islamist mastermind - who came to national attention over the murder of a game-show host - to negotiate matters political, sentimental, and, in the end, theatrical: whether one of the inn-keeper's daughters will remove her headscarf on stage. As the intrigues mount and become ever more deadly before the final betrayal, Pamuk gives us a florid wink by letting his characters take a break every afternoon to watch a Mexican soap opera on television.

In Turkey, the novel was criticised for its use of caricatures. Not those of the foolish pasha of tired European travel writing, but the Turk-on-Turk variety: the spent leftist, the brainless policeman, the head-scarf passionaria, the miserable Anatolian. True, Pamuk trades on stereotypes. But the strength of Snow lies in its failings. The less believable the characters, the more true-to-life they appear. It is to Pamuk's credit that he saw this sad farce coming before the rest of us.

Stephen O'Shea is the author of 'The Perfect Heresy' (Profile). His book on Islam and Christianity in the medieval Mediterranean world will appear next year

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