Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow concerns the conflict between tradition, religion, and modernisation in early 1990s Kars, a remote city in eastern Anatolia, Turkey. It describes the difficulties faced by a nation crushed by poverty, unemployment, questions about the veil, the role of a modernising army, and, above all, an epidemic of suicide among religious girls in the city. The city’s locals suffer from a dreadful inferiority complex that they are all purportedly ignorant in the eyes of the West; therefore, they need to prove themselves––religion was their only solace. But as the story unfolds, their agonising struggle is not only with the West but with the brutality of the secularist regime in Turkey.  

The story touches on the life of Kerim Alakusoglu, a poet of a bourgeois background in cosmopolitan Istanbul and who prefers to be called Ka. Upon his return from political exile in Frankfurt, Germany, Ka is commissioned by an Istanbul newspaper to investigate an upcoming municipal election and the waves of suicide in Kars––home of the newly divorced friend, Ipek, about whom Ka cherishes the most beautiful youth memories. As he ventures on this task, he encounters resistance: conservatives accuse him of atheism, the city’s secular government doesn’t want him to write about the spate of suicide cases, so he’s watched by spies and suspected by the commoners. However, violence erupts between the military and local Islamic radicals, and Ka unexpectedly finds himself overcome by confusion: Shall he follow the Western enlightenment or the Muslim fold? But he was neither happy in Germany nor could he fit in the Muslim community.

Despite the unremitting snow, Ka held interviews with the families of the girls, and it was his conviction that the ban of headscarves in schools attacked girls like a disease, developed gradually and reached its highest point in the perpetration of suicide. But, it soon emerged that the question of headscarves had ceased to weigh upon Ka, for he was wholly absorbed by an intense love passion for Ipek, a passion which now filled his life and was binding him more and more closely to her. Meanwhile, he became more and more poetic; he became more and more creative. He screwed the words out of himself in the green notebook with extreme distinctness.

Pamuk exquisitely depicts the tension between religion and secularism, which took a new menacing and unfamiliar shape in Kars. In his novel, this tension often has a singular vividness and an exceptional semblance of reality. At times, mental images are created, but the whole picture is so truthlike and filled with details so delicate and artistically consistent, that Ka did not know what to do with himself to escape from the difficulties and the absurdity of his position, the hopelessness of the city, and the hideousness of such insufferable torture.

[Sunday 16th August 2020, Cambridge]

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