Orhan Pamuk's novel is set in the winter of 1992 in the city of Kars in the north-eastern part of Turkey, not far from the borders of Armenia and Russia. Snow is falling heavily when Kerim Alakusoglu, who prefers to be known by his initials Ka, arrives by bus. He is a poet who has lived in Frankfurt for 12 years. He has returned to Turkey to attend his mother's funeral in Istanbul, where he was born and raised.
A liberal journal, The Republican, commissions him to write an investigative piece about curious events in the remote city, and that is what Ka intends to do at the outset. A number of young women, fervent Islamists, have committed suicide rather than divest themselves of the headscarves that cover their hair.
Ka, in his role of disinterested journalist, questions the girls' families and friends and visits the police, the editor of a newspaper, the Border City Gazette, and other dignitaries. The elegant overcoat he wears (purchased in Frankfurt) marks him out for many in Kars as a Westernised intellectual. For them, Westernisation is synonymous with atheism. They are not to know that during his brief stay among them he is trying to find a way back to God.
The multi-layered story is told by Pamuk himself, with the assistance of the notes Ka kept in Kars. These have been retrieved from Ka's flat in Frankfurt, four years later. The principal theme is concerned with the burgeoning of Ka's love for the beautiful Ipek, a former classmate in Istanbul, who is separated from her husband Muhtar, another friend from Ka's student days.
With this romantic obsession comes the reflowering of Ka's poetic talent, lying dormant for some time. In beleaguered Kars, he writes 19 poems with a new-found ease and fluency. It's as if they are demanding that he set them down in his green notebook. We know that certain poets had these sudden bursts of creativity and Ka, in the midst of violence and murder, experiences the always surprising contentment that accompanies such fecundity.
Snow is also an avowedly political work of fiction, of a kind still relatively rare in Britain. It finds voices for religious and other fanatics, for reactionaries and the occasional moderniser, and those who maintain that their arcane beliefs need not be challenged with reason. Chief among these disconcerting characters is a dashingly handsome terrorist who goes under the sobriquet Blue. He is probably the mastermind who instigated the assassination of a camp television host who cocked a snook too many at Muhammad.
His conversations with Ka are teasing and menacing by turns, with Blue setting little linguistic traps for the poet. These scenes are very cunningly written. Blue is flamboyant in his crafty way, but outmatched in flamboyance by Sunay Zaim and his wife Funda Eser, a pair of strolling players who have performed in tiny towns across Anatolia, spreading the word of republicanism in sketches. They reminded me of Dario Fo and Franca Rame, who have been mocking Italian governments for more than three decades.
In Snow, Sunay and Funda are responsible for a military coup, following a performance at the National Theatre that incites the fundamentalists in the audience to hurl abuse at the actors and to riot. Pamuk is aware that in certain cultures the theatre has to be subversive. Taking Brecht's theories into account, Sunay and Funda use skits on TV commercials and belly dancing to make people think, even as they are entertaining them.
But it's the characterisation of Serdar, editor of the Border City Gazette, that best demon- strates Pamuk's penchant for serious playfulness. It is Serdar's gift to provide crudely detailed descriptions of events before they happen. Serdar is the classic devious newsman, a fabricator of sensational headlines that just occasionally contain a scintilla of truth.
Four epigraphs precede this complex and ambitious novel, two especially apropos. The first is from Robert Brown- ing's "Bishop Blougram's Apology": "Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things,/ The honest thief, the tender murderer,/ The superstitious atheist"; the second is from Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma: "Politics in a literary work are a pistol shot in the middle of a concert, a crude affair though one impossible to ignore. We are about to speak of ugly matters."
That's precisely what Snow does, circuitously and cleverly. At its centre is the doomed romantic Ka, who has read the great poets and attempts to bring to his work some of their potent confusions. It's a novel full of orchestrated surprises and shocks, and perhaps too many overlong digressions. Pamuk has fared badly in the past with some English translations, but Maureen Freely has served him excellently here. Those readers who love, as I do, his previous novel My Name is Red, should be warned that Snow is radically different and contemporary. Pamuk is not in the business of offering his public more of the same, exotic thing.
Paul Bailey's latest novel is 'Uncle Rudolf' (Fourth Estate)
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