Review of "Snow" by Orhan Pamuk

(Translated from the Turkish)

This is a sociopolitical novel taking place in our times during a snow storm in an eastern town of Turkey called Kars. (One thing that is lost in translation is that the name of the town means snow in Turkish.) There is romance and suspense but both are tightly entangled with the politics. If you are not interested in the politics of the Middle-East and the role of the Islamists there you might not enjoy this book.But if you are interested in that region, you will find the book a fascinating account of the three-way struggle between an oppressive government with ruthless police, equally (if not more so) ruthless Islamist rebels and the rest of the people caught in between. The main character of the novel is a poet (nicknamed Ka) who had been living in exile in Germany and returns to Kars for a brief trip. He is a typical naive liberal (quite a nebbish actually) who gets caught between the Islamists and the authorities. Because the narrator refers to him as "his friend" I have heard some readers complaining that Ka emerges as not a sympathetic character as one might have expected from a friend of the narrator. These readers miss the irony of the narrator. The negative portrait of Ka is crafted carefully and emerges slowly which makes it all the more effective and credible. Several of the characters had been Marxists 20 or 30 years earlier time but some of them have now become Islamists (putting priority on the rebellion against the government) which others have joined the state in chasing Islamists (putting priority on secularism). Hypocrisy abounds on all sides. A major Islamist activist ("terrorist" according to the government) is depicted as a womanizer and an adulterer who insists however that his latest girlfriend cover her head with a scarf as a sign of modesty. The overall picture is quite glum and I could not find any rays of hope. I am afraid that this might be an accurate depiction of other Middle-Eastern countries besides Turkey. Oppressive and corrupt regimes whose main opponents are fanatical religious fundamentalists.

I should add that this book was chosen as one of the top five novels of 2004 by the NY Times Book Review and one of the top ten fiction books of 2004 by the Economist. The latter list is rank ordered (NYT is alphabetical) and "Snow" is listed third following the "Plot Against America" and "The Master"
(a novel about Henry James).

T. P. - March 2005