Wednesday, 21 January 2009

snow [w orhan pamuk]

In the week or so since I've finished Snow the economic crisis in the UK, and other parts of the world, has slipped another notch, a new leader of the Western world has been installed, with great fanfare, there have been no terrorist outrages, and, apropos nothing at all, I have read another ten thousand scripts.

Beside the last point, all of the above has some pertinence to Pamuk's novel. Although this is a novel set in Kars, a small town in a distant corner of Turkey, Pamuk succeeds in convincing the reader that what he is actually writing about is the great ebb and flow of ideas and ideologies which shape the margins, and therefore by definition, the very structures themselves, of this world, this world being the one within which all of the above information might seem of pertinence.

The novel describes the brief stay in the city of a minor Turkish poet, Ka, who finds himself trapped there by heavy snowfalls, as the army seize power in a theatrical coup. The coup is conducted with the aim of suppressing the radical Muslim influences in the town. It's doomed to be unsuccessful, its lifespan no longer than the time it will take for the snow to start melting. During his stay, Ka meets all the city's key political players. He falls in love with Ipek, who he later learns is a former lover of Blue, the leader of the radical Muslims. Ostensibly in the city to investigate a recent spate of suicides by girls who have refused to take their headscarves off, Ka finds himself possessed by his poetic muse, writing a flood of poetry for the first time in years.

Snow is therefore, about many things: the value of love, the nature of creativity, the curse of politics. It's a multi-layered book, which can be read from a variety of perspectives. There are all kinds of themes one could choose to highlight, and a variety of readings to be had. As such its invidious to select one, but given the week that's passing, it feels prescient to choose to nominate the way in which Snow unfurls the great dividing line that exists between the world of the 'West' and the world of those who feel alienated by this 'West' with its laisser faire morals, economics and social structures. In his travels round Kars, Ka walks the tightrope which is this fault line, understanding the need and value for belief, whilst also cherishing his right to write what he wants, and to love in accordance with the urgings of his heart.

It comes as little surprise to learn that its not a tightrope that can be walked for long. Ka finds it impossible to resist his tragic destiny, falling under the sway of what he perceives to be an inevitable unhappiness. The novel skillfully diffuses tension, constantly leaking information about what the future holds for its characters. Pamuk's book doesn't seem so much interested in the tension inherent in his plot (the survival of a hero adrift in an anarchic cut-off border town) as the tensions that collectively create a context for the hero's plot to unfold. Tensions which provoke his creativity, which force him to come to terms with what really matters in life. Tensions which underpin the aspirations of both 'Western' society, and the parallel society which defines itself in opposition to 'the West', one shaped by its poverty just as much as the West is shaped by its wealth.

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