Frozen assets

Guardian, UK
May 29 2004

Frozen assets

James Buchan enjoys Orhan Pamuk’s evocation of Anatolia, Snow, but
finds there’s something missing

by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
436pp, Faber, £16.99

Orhan Pamuk’s new novel is set in the early 1990s in Kars, a remote
and dilapidated city in eastern Anatolia famed less for its mournful
relics of Armenian civilisation and Russian imperial rule than for its
spectacularly awful weather. Snow, “kar” in Turkish, falls incessantly
on the treeless plains and the castle, river and boulevards of Kars,
which the local scholars say takes its name from “karsu” (snow-water).

In this novel, the city is cut off from the world and also, to an
extent, from normal literary reality by three days of unremitting
snow. Written, the reader is told, between 1999 and 2001, Snow
deals with some of the large themes of Turkey and the Middle East:
the conflict between a secular state and Islamic government, poverty,
unemployment, the veil, the role of a modernising army, suicide and yet
more suicide. Pamuk’s master here is Dostoevsky, but amid the desperate
students, cafés, small shopkeepers, gunshots and inky comedy are the
trickeries familiar from modern continental fiction. The result is
large and expansive, but, even at 436 pages, neither grand nor heavy.

Pamuk’s hero is a dried-up poet named Kerim Alakusoglu, conveniently
abbreviated to Ka: Ka in kar in Kars. After many years in political
exile in Frankfurt, Ka returns to Istanbul to attend his mother’s
funeral. He is then commissioned by an Istanbul newspaper to write
an article about the municipal elections in Kars and investigate a
succession of suicides by women and girls in the city. In his role
as journalist, Ka trudges through the snow interviewing the families
of the girls. He learns that they are committing suicide because of
pressure by the college authorities to take off their headscarves
in class. (Compulsory unveiling succeeds just as well as compulsory
veiling, which is not very well.)

It soon emerges that Ka is not greatly interested in headscarves but
has come to fall in love with his old Istanbul schoolmate, Ipek, who
has ended up in Kars and is separated from her husband. Meanwhile,
his lyric gift returns to him with a force bordering on incontinence,
and he is forever plunging into tea houses to get his latest poem
down in a green notebook. Another narrator, called Orhan Pamuk,
tells the story not from the notebook, which is lost or stolen, but
from notes in Ka’s handwriting that he finds four years later in the
poet’s flat in Frankfurt.

The book is full of winning characters, from Ka himself to Blue, a
handsome Islamist terrorist with the gift of the gab, an actor-manager
and his wife who tour small Anatolian towns staging revolutionary
plays and coups de main, and Serdar Bey, the local newspaper editor,
who has a habit of writing up events and running them off his ancient
presses before they occur. There are many fine scenes, including one
where a hidden tape records the last conversation between a college
professor in a bakery and his Islamist assassin.

Yet there are literary judgments that some readers will question. The
first is to omit Ka’s poems. The green book has been lost or stolen
and what remain are Ka’s notes on how he came to write his 19 poems
in Kars and how they might be arranged on the crystalline model of
a snowflake. That is quite as dull as it sounds: really, in a book
so expansive and light, the only dull passages. Incidentally, what
verse there is in the book, copied from the wall of the tea-shop,
is worth reading. One senses that Ka is a poet visiting Kars because
the poet Pushkin visited Kars (on June 12 and 13 1829).

Pamuk also decides to stage his two narrative climaxes as theatre.
The first of these, in which soldiers fire live rounds into the
audience from the stage of the National Theatre in Kars during a
live television broadcast, is a fine job of writing and translating,
but the effect is the same as with the descriptions of Ka’s poems. The
second literary layer makes the matters at issue both fainter and less
persuasive. Pamuk likes to undermine and destabilise each character by
introducing a degenerate counterpart: not merely Ka/Pamuk, but Ipek
and her almost-as-beautiful sister Kadife, the two Islamist students
Necib and Fazil, and so on.

This playfulness or irony may be a response to a literary dilemma. To
use a European literary form such as the novel in Turkey is,
in an important sense, to ally oneself with European notions of
individualism, liberty and democracy that even when they are upheld
(rather than breached) are meaningless to traditional Muslims.
Liberty in Islam is the liberty to be a Muslim, democracy likewise,
individualism likewise.

Pamuk knows that as well as anybody and dramatises it in a raucous
scene in which a group of leftists, Kurds and Islamists gather in a
hotel room to write a letter to the Frankfurter Rundschau. He also
anticipates his critics by having Serdar Bey accuse Ka in the Border
Gazette of being so “ashamed of being a Turk that you hide your true
name behind the fake, foreign, counterfeit name of Ka”. In fact, the
best sentences in the book are those entirely without any playfulness,
or indeed any artistry, such as this one, where Ka remembers the almost
permanent state of military coup d’état of his Istanbul childhood:
“As a child he’d loved those martial days like holidays.”

A more serious challenge to novelists in Turkey, Iran and the Arab
world is that the events of September 11, the Moscow theatre attack
and Abu Ghraib are both more romantic and more desperate than even
Dostoevsky could have dreamed up and written down.

· James Buchan is the author of A Good Place to Die, a novel set
in modern Iran. Orhan Pamuk appears at the Guardian Hay Festival on
Monday May 31. See for details.