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I must admit my ignorance and that I only became interested in reading an Orhan Pamuk book when he won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature. Never before I had read a book written by a Turkish writer and knowing that he also lived in New York for a while, I did not know what to expect. Was his writing going to be modern and the story set in the current or a historical time, was it going to touch on religion or not, will reading it feel like high-brow, soaking culture or a simple whodunit story? In fact my curiosity was so insatiable that I read two of his books (“Snow” and “My Name is Red”) one after another within a week, and I can say that the answer to all of the above is yes. His books cover all of that and more.
While “My Name is Red” was set up in the 16th century Istanbul, “Snow” is a contemporary story, nevertheless - reading “Snow” for me it felt like reading a historical novel. The book opens up a chapter relatively unknown to the average western reader, the clash between the secular and extremist Islamic worlds. Neither of these are news in Turkey, but in Pamuk’s book they become very much alive, with people living and dying by them. The biggest merit of “Snow” might, at the end of the day, be just this - raising the world’s awareness towards these contemporary issues with deep historical roots.
The story is complex and it mainly follows the return of a Turkish poet/journalist – Ka – now living in Germany, to the remote city of Kars on the Turkish border. Despite being (to use a stereotype) a small place in the middle of nowhere, Kars is boiling with tension. A love story develops between Ka and his old classmate – the beautiful Ipek, on the background of the municipal elections, a story about a number of suicides by young women, as well as the local authorities’ struggles to catch Blue – who is described as “a dangerous terrorist and a formidable conspirator, a certified enemy of the republic who was organising the fundamentalists”.
I will not spoil the reader’s enjoyment by dropping any clues about the turns that all these stories take. What I can safely say is that my favourite was Pamuk’s description of Ka’s writing creation process – how the poems come to him, how they grow from a little feeling or an idea to a fully developed poem. “Snow” is describing the genesis of poem after poem, and yet none of these poems are ever revealed, other than as a concept. This is clever as it avoids the potential disappointment after understanding how a poem originated, what drove it in the mind of its creator, only to read it at the end and find it somehow short of your expectations.
What is not so clever and felt over-used - the description of the omnipresent snow. I can think of several metaphors Pamuk was trying to achieve by this, and I’m sure every reader will have their own interpretation, but sometimes it just felt too much. We got the point quite early, the artistry of describing the snow has worn out some time later too, so now move on.
“Snow” has an advantage over “My Name is Red” in that it leaves a bit of space for guessing at the end and all is not disclosed. Did Ka or didn’t Ka betray him? If not Ka, than who did so? And before you worry you will not get an answer, be assured that some clues are left there to be used.
What I like about both Pamuk books I read (not a big sample – granted!) is that they are very different, though the similarities are there. Pamuk does not repeat himself, he strives for new, while being very grounded in his own heritage. “Snow” is probably the easier reading (which doesn’t mean it is easy), and it still left me with the realisation of the author’s craftsmanship. One cannot but admire his skills, but I’m not sure it touched my heart in any way. The book makes a cerebral reading, it is very original, interesting, there is much to admire within and I can certainly see why he received the Nobel Prize. But reading it doesn’t make me sad or happy, I do not feel the pain of the lover’s struggle to gain the heart or Ipek and I am not angered by all the unfair obstacles that arise. I feel that Pamuk maybe missed a cord there, and he could have also aimed to raise deeper emotions in the design of the political and religious story lines. In my opinion this makes the book a very good one, instead of an exceptional one, but all in all worth a reading.
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