Andrew's Reviews > Snow

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
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M_50x66
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Jun 20, 07


A strange novel who's "failing," if it can be called that, may just be a lack of real ambition. The novel is written from a "once-removed" or reconstructive perspective. This is nothing new and nothing inherently to complain about, many great novels have been written like this (example: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, but that novel is written so because the "protagonist" is compromised and in this case taken by the devil, so a third party really brings us closer to the action). But here I'm not quite sure. And again, I'm not sure if this is a "failing," but it certainly leads one to feel a bit disappointed. As many people have pointed out, it'd be better to read Ka's poetry than read this novel, but of course what he have is this novel. I don't think it'd be fair to say that this is simply a failing of the author: "he wasn't good enough to write the poems so he wrote this novel from a distance." That seems too easy, and after all, is Pamuk really felt like he should have written the poems he would have, maybe they would have been good, maybe not.

But instead we have an outsider looking into a sea of passion (but not quite blind passion). The town is full of radical Islamists, radical republicans, radical Marxists, and radical lovers. But they all seem to understand the need for each other and the fact that everything is political. The Islamic Students realize that they need atheists to run the state, the political showman need the Islamists to be "moved" by their work, Ka realizes that Ipek needs him to get over Blue, etc. In this world Islam is political and atheism is a religious statement.

The problem and issue seems to be that we are all more interested in radicals (be they terrorists, lovers or actors or poets). While nominally this is a novel about extremes, on closer look it reveals itself not to be at all. It is a novel about the social and political interaction of extremes. This is inherently disappointing, we'd all much rather prefer to delve into the radicals and read Ka's all consuming poetry.

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Darcy Yeah, it is really interesting that the poems are "missing" in this novel. But I'm kind of skeptical about whether or not the poems would be any good. Not that I doubt Pamuk's ability to write good poetry--he has a really lyrical prose style--but I doubt Ka's ability to write good poetry. I read the titles (for example, "All Humanity and the Stars") ironically, as though they are pointing to Ka's inability to write, or his overwriting. But perhaps this is also the translation? The titles to me sound hokey--as though Ka is being deliberately "poetic", but maybe this isn't the case in Turkish.


Andrew The question of the quality of the poems is interesting. Obviously it's hard to tell due to the translation, but I wonder this: if the poems are unrevelatory, if Ka's love for Ipek and his isolation in this strange, disintigrating place doesn't inspire him to greatness, then what is the point of the novel? Were we to accept the greatness of Ka's poems, then the fact that they are missing is the rock around which this novel is built. Like a sea of meaninglessness, misunderstanding, violence, and impotent obsession circling a grain of truth (or God, or inspiration or whatever you want to call it). What is this novel without those poems? If they are just pretentious poetic garbage, then why is this character worth reading about? We would be left with poetic meaninglessness--and a novel that goes on too long. I'm curious to hear what you have to say.


Darcy I agree with you, actually. One of the oddities of the novel, for me, is that Ka doesn't seem to be a "hero." It is as though the narrator keeps trying to convince us that he is--that Ka's poems are amazing and that they are worth a trip back to Germany, or even a trip to Kars. Of course, not even the narrator ever sees them. Ka's poems mean something to him, at least, whether they are good or not. I guess what I find interesting about them is that they don't seem to have any weight, impact, or influence on anyone else except the narrator, who spends a good amount of time telling us (and assuming that we agree) that the poems have weight, impact, and influence.

Maybe I'm not saying this well. I think what I find interesting about the poems is that Ka goes to Kars ostensibly to find out more about the suicide girls, in the same way that Orhan goes to Kars to find out more about Ka. But Ka ends up being distracted by his poems--the suicide girls and the political turmoil they engender is clearly the "crisis" in the novel, and yet for Ka the excitement is over his poems and sex with Ipek.
Orhan the narrator treats the revolution as though it is merely a backdrop to Ka's production of poems--as though the headscarf politics are important because they inspire Ka to write. It is almost as though Orhan the narrator has also become distracted by the poems, as though if he could only find them, then he could locate Ka.

I find it really difficult to talk about Ka--I can't figure him out. But I think I find it even more difficult to talk about the narrator ;) Did you like Ka? I don't know anyone else who has read the novel yet, so I'm really curious about what other people think.


Glen R I don't think Ka went to Kars primarily to find out about the suicide girls. The journalism assignment was just an excuse to get there; his real mission was to find happiness, whatever that means. For Ka, the last and only chance for happiness in this life was Ipek. It is this (I think superficial) search for happiness that is the story's central "crisis." It causes Ka to take the assignment, betray his friend Muhtar, and kill Blue, which ironically destroys his chances for happiness.

With regard to the revolution, headscarf politics, and other incidents, I don't their relegation to the backdrop of Ka's story is unfair. They are not the main focus of the story; Ka is. He is certainly a difficult character to talk about--for you, for me, and even for Orhan the narrator. Perhaps this is Orhan's reason for exploring the backdrop incidents of Ka's time in Kars in such exhaustive detail: he is trying to dig Ka out of those events. In the absence of the green book, which we are to believe is the truest expression of Ka's self and his legacy, we can only know Ka through these events.

Of course, all the energy Orhan expends to find Ka begs the question: Is Ka really worth trying to understand? The narrator seems to think so. But why does he care? Orhan calls Ka a friend, but the nature of this friendship is only vaguely hinted at. Perhaps his interest in Ka is ultimately self-centered and speaks to a more universal human insecurity: Could Ka's miserable, empty life be Orhan's fate as well? How did he end up and remain so pitiful? The narrator's search for Ka centers ultimately, I think, on the stages that lead to misery in an attempt to assess his own capacity for misery and, hopefully, avoid it.

Do I like Ka? I think he's kind of a funny, strange man, but one can't help but pity him. In a way, he is perhaps the nightmare of all men: to live without meaning and die without a legacy. There was no reason for him to end up so unhappy, considering his privileged upbringing, good education, and charm (yeah, I think he was kind of charming). Orhan the narrator has a similar background, so could he have a similar fate? My guess is that is the question that drives the entire story.


Darcy Well, actually I think I agree with you ;) The novel does seem to be as much about Orhan (the narrator) as it is about Ka--about one man trying to locate his identity in that of another, and finding the task impossible. But that said, I also think that the political issues in the novel are not simply backdrop, although Orhan the narrator pushes them to the fringes of the narrative. As you say, we can only know Ka through the events in Kars (which raises some odd questions--why can't we know Ka through events in Frankfurt? Or Ka after he returns to Germany? Or Ka during his college years?), but those events are fundamentally political and so Ka himself is fundamentally political.

Since we never have access to Ka's subjectivity (i.e., the poems), then Ka is constituted for us (and for Orhan) only by his reactions to the events in the novel. I guess a related question is why does Orhan the narrator want to separate Ka from the events in Kars (or to dig him out, as you say)? Why is that divorce of Ka's actions from the poems so vital and desirable? It is almost as though the novel is arguing that Turkish society is afflicted by just that desire--to separate one's being from one's actions and responses is to be able to define one's self (as secular, as religious, as European, as Middle Eastern, as progressive, as traditional) as purely one thing or another, rather than working through the complex contradictions of these giant categories. In other words, it feels as though the novel is all about negotiating those exact contradictions that haunt the novel: Blue fights for an Islamic state, yet he sleeps with Ipek and Kadife; Ka is a secularist, but he believes his poems come from God; Turgut Bey is a leftist who is scared even to leave his hotel; Ka is in love with Ipek, but he treats her like an object; every man in town seems concerned (politically or otherwise) about the headscarf girls, but even Kadife eventually gives them up for the ghost. Ka's character is just one more to add to the list: he's created out of the events in Kars, even as he exists (somewhere) in a "pure" form, in his poems. For me, then, the novel is less about Ka, and more about the desire to eliminate those contradictions by picking a side--to make Ka either the character he is (as he appears in the novel) or the character Orhan would like him to be (as he must be in the poems). But hard as he tries, Orhan can't quite pull it off.


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