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Orhan Pamuk: Kar (Snow)

What could be better than a post-modernist sad love story which bravely confronts the issues of Islamic fundamentalism, Western influence and the role of women in modern Turkey? Once again Pamuk produces a masterpiece and one that probably led to his getting the Nobel Prize and, frankly, this is one of the occasions when the Nobel Prize Committee actually got it right.

As the title implies, snow is key here and, no, not as a name for heroin. The story is set in Kars, whose name means snow. The hero is called Ka, similar in sound to kar, the Turkish for snow. And, during most of the novel, it snows, cutting off the city of Kars from the rest of Turkey. Indeed, it even snows in the small part of the novel set in Germany. And Ka writes a poem about the snow. The story is told by Orhan Pamuk who is both narrator but also, at the end, a character, as he goes to Kars to gather information about the events in the novel, which he will then turn into the novel we are reading. The hero is Ka (the initials of his name), a poet who has lived in exile in Germany for political reasons. He has written little poetry recently. He has briefly returned to Turkey where he met an old friend, a newspaper editor. The editor wanted someone to go to Kars to report on the municipal elections and, more particularly, the recent spate of suicides by young women. When Ka learned that Ipek, a woman with whom he had been in love with, is now in Kars and separated from her husband, he agrees to go. He arrives on the last bus before a snowstorm cuts off the city from the rest of the country, leaving events to unfold without outside intervention.

The plot is too complicated to recount in any detail. The main issue seems to be that young women have taken to wearing head scarves, contrary to the wishes of the secular army and often contrary to the wishes of their secular parents. Indeed, this wearing of the head scarves is often an act of rebellion against the older generation, including their parents. While the headscarf issue is a factor in the suicides, it certainly is not the only one and Pamuk’s careful exploration of both the headscarf issue and suicides is one of the many strengths of the book. At the same time many of the young men are Islamic fundamentalists, supporting the women over the headscarf issue and supporting the somewhat dashing Blue, an Islamist leader sought by the authorities. Pamuk, while opposed to their views, is sympathetic to their stand and explores it without being too judgmental. A successful coup, led by the head of a theatre group, the clash between the pro-Westerners and the Islamists, Ka’s passion for Ipek and Ipek’s sister’s passion for Blue, and the failure of both passions are just a few of the complex interwoven themes and plot elements in this book. We also follow a newspaper which is written the day before not only its publication date but before the news it reports has occurred. We see several strange murders, many of which Ka is somehow involved in. Ka recovers his poetical abilities and writes a series of poems, all of which are mentioned in the book, including what inspired him to write them and, of course, all are linked to what is happening in the book, whether it is snow, his love for Ipek or the political events taking place around him.

Ka’s role is key and not just to narrate events. He is held in deep suspicion by many in Kars, as a pro-Westerner, atheist and exile. The military/police (and there are several branches of the police and military) also have little respect for him and suspect him of helping the Islamists. He also influences, in various ways, Ipek and her sister, Kanife, as well as others, often despite himself. Pamuk’s skill is in telling a beautiful story, a story of love and passion, with a strong political and religious undertones, a complex exploration of the role of women in modern Turkey, a good dose of suspense, superb characters, all different, all with some sort of agenda, even if this agenda is often not what it initially seems, bringing forth ideas on what it means to be a Turk and on what religion means to different people and the often difficult role of the writer, all mixed with a healthy dose of post-modernism. The whole is another superb novel.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by İletişim
First English translation 2001 by Knopf/Faber & Faber