Alone in Turkey: Payne praises a brave novel that makes us questiono

Alone in Turkey Tom Payne praises a brave novel that makes us question our world
by Tom Payne

May 22, 2004, Saturday

In 2001, an extraordinary book called My Name Is Red appeared in
English. It’s impossible to recommend it without sounding eccentric –
you try urging a friend to read a Turkish novel, brimming with stories
within stories and Koranic dialectic, about murderous miniaturists
working in the court of Sultan Murat III in 1591. The novel is set
around the 1,000th anniversary of Mohammed’s journey from Mecca
to Medina, when Islamic reformers were railing against artists in
Istanbul. Its opening chapter is a monologue about a corpse, and the
story takes in points of view from other perspectives: Satan says
his piece, as does a horse, Death, a coin and the colour red.

Its translation brought its author, Orhan Pamuk, greater fame in the
West, and, for all the book’s violence, it could almost be read for
entertainment. The book showed Pamuk could do everything – jokes,
horror, plot, structure, erudition, love.

In Snow, Pamuk uses his powers to show us the critical dilemmas of
modern Turkey. How European a country is it? How can it respond to
fundamentalist Islam? And how can an artist deal with these issues?

The novel is set in Kars, in the far east of Turkey, close to Armenia –
the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1908 remains in the characters’
minds. For the three days of the story’s main action, the town
is cut off by snow, so, when a coup takes place, the world cannot
intervene. The local paper, the Border City News, has a circulation
of 320, and prints news before it happens. The residents watch TV
constantly, even when there’s nothing on, and most are paid to spy
on one another. There is a high rate of suicide among the town’s
young women.

Ka, a poet, wants to know why. Some say it’s because the women are
beaten at home; others say they are protesting because they can’t
wear headscarves in school. “Why did your daughter decide to uncover
herself?” an Islamist asks Kars’s director of education, before
shooting him. “Does she want to become a film star?” The Islamists
don’t know what to make of the suicides, since the Koran forbids the
faithful to take their own lives.

Throughout the book, Ka stops to write poetry (mostly taken from the
dialogue around him). He asks a woman he loves, “Do you think it’s
beautiful?… What’s beautiful about it?” As a writer, Ka is at odds
with the intrigues and fear around him. He is often blissfully happy,
and we learn that one poem’s theme is “the poet’s ability to shut off
part of his mind even while the world is in turmoil. But this meant
that a poet had no more connection to the present than a ghost did.
Such was the price a poet had to pay for his art!”

And yet the artists in the story are lethally relevant. When the
coup comes, it comes on the stage of a theatre; even as members
of the audience are being killed, people mistake the events for a
fantastic illusion. For a while, Kars is run by an ageing actor who
regrets that he’s never played Ataturk. Even Ka, who is mistrusted
for being too Western, becomes integral to the action.

At one point, Ka reflects on the writers he’s known who have been
lynched by Islamists, and it’s a reminder that writing Snow has been
an act of bravery, too. It’s an unexpected sort of bravery, though,
because Pamuk has made great efforts to enter the Islamists’ heads.
The effect is like meeting the possessed anarchists in Dostoevsky –
these alternative views of the world find full expression, and make
us question our own.

If Pamuk wrote about real situations and tried to find sympathy with
true terrorists, more readers would be alarmed than already have
been. But he tailors the terrorists to his requirements – the most
seductive of them, Blue, hasn’t killed anybody and dotes on puppies.

The author’s high artistry and fierce politics take our minds further
into the age’s crisis than any commentator could, and convince us of
every character’s intensity, making Snow a vital book in both senses
of the word. Orhan Pamuk is the sort of writer for whom the Nobel
Prize was invented.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk tr by Maureen Freely

436pp, Faber & Faber, pounds 16.99

T pounds 14.99 (plus pounds 2.25 p&p) 0870 1557222