The Snowflake from the Snow

By Stan Persky | June 16, 2009


A man is riding on a bus across Turkey, more than a thousand kilometres, from Istanbul in the west, to Kars, a provincial city in the far northeastern corner of the country near the Armenian-Georgian borders. It’s wet and snowy. He’s a Turkish poet, in his early 40s, known as Ka, the acronym of his given and family names, Kerim Alakusoglu. For the past dozen years he’s lived in political exile in Frankfurt, Germany (“even though he had never been much of an activist”), but was permitted to return to Istanbul for his mother’s funeral, and now, a few days later, he’s on his way to Kars, ostensibly as a journalist sent to cover the municipal election (which the local Islamist party is poised to win) and to investigate a rash of mysterious teen suicides by what are known as “headscarf girls.” His editor in Istanbul also mentioned in passing that a former university classmate of Ka’s, the beautiful Ipek, divorced from her husband Muhtar, was living in Kars at the old family hotel, the Snow Palace, with her father and sister.

Three-quarters of the way across the country, Ka has to change buses at Erzurum for the local one to Kars. It begins to snow. “It was heavier and thicker than the snow he’d seen between Istanbul and Erzurum. If he hadn’t been so tired, if he’d paid more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realized that he was travelling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen from the start that he had set out on a journey that would change his life for ever.” The word for “snow” in Turkish, kar, can be seen as snugly nesting between the names of Ka and Kars; and perhaps even K., the protagonist of Kafka’s The Castle is lurking somewhere in the shadows of these alphabetical affinities. Ka might have turned back, says the narrator of Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow (2002; translated into English by Maureen Freeley, 2004), which I re-read recently.

Instead, Ka is thinking only about the weather and poetry. “The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the busdriver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him ‘the silence of snow’.” He sees the “snowflakes whirling ever more wildly in the wind” not as portents of a blizzard, but as “a sign pointing back to the happiness and purity he had once known as a child,” as a memory of innocence that allows him to momentarily “believe himself at home in the world.” Ka, wrapped in an elegant charcoal-grey overcoat bought in Frankfurt, slips from revery into long-sought sleep.

While he dozes, the narrator, who is named “Orhan Pamuk,” takes a moment to quickly fill us in on Ka’s background. “But I don’t wish to deceive you,” says the narrator, “I’m an old friend of Ka’s and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars.” With that, we’re on our way into a fairy tale for adults in which the snow never stops falling, into A Thousand and One Turkish Nights where the magic of the magic realism is real, into a book about politics, God, love, and poetry. Snow, by the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, is also, I’m pretty certain, one of the great novels of the decade.

Once in snowbound Kars, after a night’s sleep at the Snow Palace, Ka notices on an early morning walk that the snow, “veiling as it did the dirt, mud and the darkness,” continues to speak to him of purity,

but after his first day in Kars, it no longer promised innocence. The snow here was tiring, irritating, terrorising. It had snowed all night. It continued snowing all morning, while Ka walked the streets playing the intrepid reporter — visiting coffee-houses packed with unemployed Kurds, interviewing the voters, taking notes — and later, when he climbed the steep and frozen streets to interview the former mayor, the governor’s assistant, and the families of the girls who committed suicide. But it no longer took him back to the snowy streets of his childhood… Instead, it spoke to him of hopelessness and misery.

In the poorest part of Kars, the Kaleati district,

The scenes he saw as he hurried under the ice-covered branches of the plane trees and the oleasters — the old, decrepit Russian buildings with stovepipes sticking out of every window, the thousand-year-old Armenian church towering over the wood depots and the electric generators, the pack of dogs barking at every passer-by from a five-hundred-year-old stone bridge as snow fell into the half-frozen black waters of the river below, the thin ribbons of smoke rising out of the tiny shanty houses of Kaleati sitting lifeless under their blanket of snow — made him feel so sad that tears came to his eyes… These sights spoke of a strange and powerful loneliness. It was as if he were in a place that the whole world had forgotten; as if it were snowing at the end of the world.

Within a few pages, Pamuk has immersed us in a world that is at once like a children’s snowglobe, and yet simultaneously presents a grimly realistic panorama of the various contradictions and circumstances — secularism versus faith, ethnic minorities, poverty and backwardness, a society of surveillance, gossip and violence  — that engulf contemporary Turkey and beyond, the whole played out in a remote crossroads of the world’s troubles.

On that first morning in Kars, Ka checks in with his eastern Anatolian journalistic colleague, Serdar, editor of the Border City News (circulation: 320, most of which are government agency subscriptions). The journalist takes the poet through the snowy city, with its architectural vestiges of the Russian-Armenian-Ottoman past, for requisite visits to the police, the deputy governor, and the families of the dead girls. Kasim, the beer-bellied assistant chief of police offers Ka “protection” in the form of a plainclothes tail, which will be provided whether or not it’s wanted, and despite Ka’s protestation, “If Kars is a peaceful place, then I don’t need protection.” But, then, Kars is not a peaceful place; rather, it’s a nexus of suspicion where all strangers, and much of the citizenry, are under constant and mutual scrutiny. The deputy governor, “a squirrel-faced man with a brush mustache,” is primarily concerned with damage control in the presence of a journalist from Istanbul who might spread bad news about the suicide girls and make the local authorities look bad; or worse, news that might be picked up by the European press, thus further humiliating tension-ridden Turkey. Then there are the homes and families of the girls who committed suicide:

The two men were shown to old divans and crooked chairs in tiny, icy rooms, with bare earthen floors or cheap carpets. Sitting next to stoves that gave out no warmth unless stirred continuously or electric heaters that ran on illegal power lines, and silent televisions that no one ever turned off, they heard the never-ending woes of Kars…

Among those woes is the intractable and puzzling epidemic of self-murder, as suicide is known in some languages. The girls are inspired by the Islamic revival to don headscarves, but in secular Turkey, the authorities, backed by the ever-present spectre of the coup-prone army, ban the wearing of head coverings in public institutions, such as the schools the girls attend. Unaccountably, some of the girls kill themselves. But why? As declarations of belief, or for more mundane reasons, like boyfriend trouble? The government’s anti-suicide posters, proclaiming “Human beings are God’s masterpieces and suicide is blasphemy,” seconded even by the local Islamic establishment, appear to have little effect, and may only inflame the situation. It is a mystery unlikely to be solved, but one that ominously pulsates within the snow-blanketed city.

Back at the Snow Palace for a brief mid-day pause of warmth and rest in his room, Ka receives a message from Serdar to return to the newspaper office. Just as he’s about to exit the lobby,

he was stopped dead in his tracks; for just at that moment, coming through the doors behind the reception desk, was Ipek, even more beautiful than in Ka’s memory… His heart began to pound. Yes, exactly — that’s how beautiful she was. First they shook hands in the manner of the Westernized Istanbul bourgeoisie, but after a moment’s hesitation they moved their heads forward, embracing without quite letting their bodies touch, and kissed on the cheeks. “I knew you were coming,” Ipek said as she stepped back.

All of this — the first morning’s walkabout in Kars, the initial forays into the themes of Pamuk’s novel, the encounter with Ipek (they agree to meet at a nearby pastry shop in an hour) —  is but a curtain-raiser to a plot of Byzantine complexity and velocity. It’s an  entangled narrative made more dense by the propensity of the characters to tell further tales, parables and premonitions of their own, and by the appearance of transcripts, manuscripts and descriptions of inspired poems. Finally, there’s the sub-textual principle of the text, a continuous suggestion of the half-hidden symmetry, or doubling of characters and events.

“Pamuk” the narrator turns out to be a kind of Doppelganger or mirror of Ka the poet, and is fated to retrace much of Ka’s own odyssey. Ka’s beloved Ipek has a refracting sister, Kadife; both of the sisters will turn out to be involved with an alleged Islamic terrorist who bears the curious moniker, “Blue”; Blue has a counterpart in a revolution-minded actor named Sunay; a fundamentalist student from the local religious high school, Necip, whom Ka shortly meets, has a best friend, Fazil, who is his psychological twin; and the mirror-like pairings extend to the novel’s horizons. Pamuk’s characters are persuasive as people, but they are also a schematic of possibilities. Yet the resultant pattern, woven as elaborately as a Turkish carpet, is surprisingly easy to follow in the hands of its skilled storyteller. As the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, one of many enthusiastic reviewers of Snow, aptly puts it, Pamuk is “narrating his country into being,” providing an “in-depth tour of the divided, hopeful, desolate, mystifying Turkish soul.”


Back at Serdar’s office, where his two sons are running off tomorrow’s edition on an ancient German press, Ka reads an item headed, “Night of Triumph for the Sunay Zaim Players at the National Theatre.” When Ka arrived in Kars the night before, he had briefly glimpsed, among the travellers waiting for their luggage, the faintly familiar faces of Sunay Zaim and his touring theatre company, formerly “leading lights of the revolutionary theatre world” back in the 1970s, now reduced to down-at-the-heels shows in the remote provinces.

But in Serdar’s Border City News, that night’s performance, which has yet to occur, is reviewed with lavish praise in a journalese of cliches and press release puffery. The show was received with “thunderous applause,” the paper reports. “The people of Kars, who have long been yearning for an artistic feast of this calibre were able to watch not just from the packed auditorium but from the surrounding houses,” thanks to Kars Border Television’s first live broadcast. The story describes the station’s “tireless” efforts to string cable from their transmission headquarters through the city’s snow-clogged streets to the theatre, and salutes the civic spirit of citizens who allowed the cable to pass through their open front windows into their apartments and out through their back gardens “to avoid snow damage.”

At the bottom of the item, the article records that the show “included republican vignettes, the most beautiful scenes from the most important works of the Western Enlightenment and… poems in praise of Ataturk and the nation. Ka, the celebrated poet, who is now visiting our city, recited his latest poem, entitled ‘Snow.’ The crowning event of the evening was a performance of My Fatherland or My Scarf, the Enlightenment masterwork from the early years of the republic, in a new interpretation entitled My Fatherland or My Headscarf.”

Ka looks up from the freshly-inked sheet. “I don’t have a poem called ‘Snow,’ and I’m not going to the theatre this evening. Your newspaper will look like it’s made a mistake,” he says.

“Don’t be so sure,” Serdar tells him. “There are those who despise us for writing the news before it happens… You should see how amazed they are when things turn out exactly as we’ve written them. And quite a few things do happen only because we’ve written them up first. This is what modern journalism is all about.”

The newspaper that reports on the future, and the clunky running of cables through people’s living rooms for the first live TV broadcast in Kars, is Pamuk’s neat bit of satiric (and oddly plausible) magic realism, both about the nature of the media and the quest for modernization. “I know you won’t want to stand in the way of our being modern,” Serdar adds, “you don’t want to break our hearts, and that is why I am sure you will write a poem called ‘Snow’ and then come to the theatre to read it.”

So, the story about to unfold will include a real theatre, and its real curtain is about to go up on the “former leading lights of the revolutionary theatre world,” except that their concern with be less with “revolutionary theatre,” and more with a revolution in a theatre. The famous gun that always hangs on the mantlepiece in the first act, will not only be fired in the last act, but will contain real bullets, and be aimed at the audience. By now we have enough of an idea of what’s in store for us, that a scene-by-scene reprise is unnecessary. The concluding symmetry that awaits us, one that we can anticipate and has already been prepared in the narrator’s opening remarks, will be the mirror-journey to Kars by “Orhan Pamuk” some four years later to gather the details of the story he’s telling.

Although there are frequent passing references to Turkish history, Pamuk doesn’t need to dwell on them, because he can take it that his Turkish readers will be familiar with details they absorbed in their tattered schoolbooks. For those of us outside such ingrained knowledge, about the only Wikipedia-level bit of potted history that’s helpful is the story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the founder and first president of the modern Turkish republic that emerged from World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. During the approximately decade-and-a-half reign by Turkey’s most prominent former military leader-turned-politician something happened in Turkey that didn’t really occur in any of the neighbouring Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. Ataturk, who was familiar with the European democracies, emerged in his native land garbed in a Panama hat and suit rather than the traditional fez, rode in touring motorcars, and offered a thorough-going program of 20th century political, religious, economic and social modernization.

The program is wreathed in historical debate and details that need not detain us here, but its primary broad strokes included: the separation of mosque and state, with the secularism of the latter clearly predominant; the formal liberation of women; an attempt at multi-party, multi-ethnic democracy (albeit a democracy guaranteed by military force prepared to step in to prevent religious or tribal backsliding); and a sweeping array of social reforms. Ataturk even called in U.S. philosopher John Dewey in the early 1920s to help set up a modern educational system in Turkey. The Arabic script in which Turkish was written was changed to Latin letters.

The variable successes and failures of those efforts can be left to interested readers willing to pursue the topic. Rather, the point here is a recognition that the republic straddling the Bosphorous Straits that link the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (and ultimately the Mediterranean) can claim legitimacy as a genuine gateway between East and West (as its romantic tourist advertising incessently proclaims). As Pamuk says elsewhere, in “In Kars and Frankfurt,” his acceptance speech in October 2005 for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association, “Of course there is an East-West question, and it is not simply a malicious formulation invented and imposed by the West,” even though “most of the time it carries an assumption that the poor countries of the East should defer to everything” proposed by the West. Rather, Pamuk insists, “The East-West question is about wealth and poverty and about peace.” In addressing his listeners, members of a European Union in which Turkey seeks membership, Pamuk reminds them that “those who believe in the European Union must see at once that the real choice we have to make is between peace and nationalism. Either we have peace, or we have nationalism.”

By contrast, much of the rest of the region has retained or returned to many of its traditional institutions. Monarchic and/or authoritarian rule, religious sectarianism, patriarchal tribalism, theocracy and near civil war, replete with terrorism, continued to be the source of much of the turbulence in places like Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan throughout the first decade of the present century. This is not to claim that Turkey is without a repressed history (of the Armenian genocide of World War I), or a history of repression (against the minority Kurds). The country of the mid- and late-1990s portrayed by Pamuk in Snow is tensely poised between its amibitions for membership in the European Union and its own Islamic “revival,” but its political and social strains are recognizably modern in ways that make nearby national entities appear entrapped in feudal backwardness, not withstanding their penchant for modernized technology, up to and including nuclear weapons. If the claim that Pamuk is “narrating his country into being” is a bit grandiose, his tour of the convoluted and divided national “soul” succeeds in making Turkey interesting far beyond the tourist attractions of beautiful, melancholy Istanbul.

In Kars, Ka falls in love, meets all the local Islamist politicos, imams, and on-the-lam terrorists, becomes inadvertently involved in a local revolution which occurs in the town theatre, and most important of all, is unexpectedly visited by his long-absent poetic muse and is impelled to write an extraordinary serial poem, whose structure is based on the shape of, what else?, a snowflake.

Snow is a book of conversions and apostasies. The thematic that I somehow missed in my first reading of Pamuk and found most poignant when I re-read it a few years later is the longing for God that afflicts so many of the characters in this snowstorm of a novel, including Ka himself. Of the dozen or more scenes in which spiritual yearning is thrashed out, Ka’s visit to Ipek’s ex-husband, Muhtar, epitomizes the lure of the Islamic revival, a subject not only central to Snow, but one that of necessity has become a preoccupation of the West in the present decade.

Ka, Ipek and Muhtar were all university classmates in Istanbul a dozen years before, in the early 1980s. Typical of their generation, Ka and Muhtar were secularists, aspiring poets, young Marxists. When Ka visits his former school acquaintance at the headquarters of the Prosperity Party in Kars, “now here was Muhtar running on the Islamic fundamentalist ticket” as its mayoral candidate, “something he would have found despicable ten years earlier…”

Muhtar relates the story of his conversion, how he was transformed from an unhappy, raki-inebriated, failed poet with a failed marriage, into a believer, through his fateful meetings with a local religious teacher, the Kurdish sheikh, Saadettin Efendi. “I was accepted into the group and taken into this bright and warm little house,” Muhtar recalls.

Inside, the people were nothing like the hopeless and downtrodden folk who populate Kars: they were happy… Something was happening that I had secretly dreaded for a long time and that in my atheist years I would have denounced as weakness and backwardness: I was returning to Islam… A feeling of peace spread through me. I had not felt that way for years and immediately understood that I could talk to [the sheikh] about anything, tell him all about my life. And he would bring me back to the path I had always believed in, deep down inside, even as an atheist: the road to God Almighty. Just the promise of salvation brought me joy.

Yet the conversions are attended by inevitable doubts. Already Ka hears “not serenity but disillusionment in Muhtar’s voice.” But the longing for meaning is mutual. Ka tells Muhtar, “I live a very solitary life in Germany. When I look over the rooftops of Frankfurt in the middle of the night, I sense that the world and my life are not without purpose. I hear all sorts of sounds inside me.” What sorts of sounds, Muhtar wants to know. “It may just have to do with fear of getting old and dying,” Ka says, then adds, “If I were an author and Ka were a character in a book, I’d say, ‘Snow reminds Ka of God.’ But I’m not sure that would be accurate. What brings me close to God is the silence of snow.”

“The religious right, this country’s Muslim conservatives . . .” Muhtar was speaking rapidly, as though willing himself to be carried away by a false hope. “After my years as a leftist atheist, these people come as such a great relief. You should go and meet them. I’m sure you’ll warm to them, too.”

Pamuk takes seriously the possibility of God as one of the paths to happiness, and “happiness,” that seemingly banal notion, is one of the recurrent, constant themes of Snow. For all its shopworn quality, the incessent desire for happiness is one of the dimensions that makes Pamuk’s novel a “large” work. Certainly, it’s a motivation for “love,” but in the tempest-tossed relationship Ka has with Ipek, the certainties of mutual possession and boundless happiness spill over just as suddenly into agonies of waiting, doubt, and intimations of betrayal.

If the belief in God or love resembles a storm that alternately rages and subsides, one source of happiness that at least leaves an artifactual remainder on the page is the poem. At one point, fairly early on in the story, Ka is in the town’s bleak railway station disputing theology with three boys from the religious high school. One of them, brasher than the others, sneers, “Mr. Poet, Mr. Ka, you’ve made no secret of the fact that you were once an atheist. Maybe you still are one. So tell us, who is it who makes the snow fall from the sky? What is the snow’s secret?”

For a moment they all looked across the empty concourse to watch the snow falling on the tracks.

What am I doing in this world? Ka asked himself. How miserable these snowflakes look from this perspective; how miserable my life is. A man lives his life, and then he falls apart and soon there is nothing left… Like a snowflake, he would fall as he was meant to fall; he would devote himself heart and soul to the melancholy course on which his life was set. His father had a certain smell after shaving, and this came back to him now. Then he thought of his mother making breakfast, her feet aching inside her slippers on the cold kitchen floor. He had a vision of a hairbrush; he remembered his mother giving him sugary pink syrup when he woke up coughing in the middle of the night; he felt the spoon in his mouth.

Notice there is no ellipsis between the gloomy ruminations in the middle of a seemingly inconsequential debate with the schoolboys and a sudden avalanche of childhood memories.

As he gave his mind over to all such little things that make up a life, as he thought how they all added up to a unified whole, he saw a snowflake.

And so it was that Ka heard the call from deep inside him, the call he heard at moments of inspiration, the only sound that could make him happy: the sound of his muse. For the first time in four years, a poem was coming to him. Although he had yet to hear the words, he knew that it was already written… He told the three youths that he was in a hurry and left the deserted, filthy station. He hurried through the snow, thinking all the while of the poem he would write when he was back in the hotel.

Ka threw off his coat the moment he entered his room. He opened the green notebook he’d brought with him from Frankfurt and wrote down the poem as it came to him, word by word. It was as easy as following dictation whispered into his ear, but nevertheless he gave the words on the page his full attention…

The poem comprised many of the thoughts that had come to him in a rush a short while earlier: the falling snow, cemeteries, the black dog that had been frolicking happily around the station, an assortment of childhood memories, and the image that had lured him back to the hotel, Ipek —  how happy it made him just to imagine her face. But also how terrified! He called the poem “Snow.”

The prediction of Serdar, the publisher-editor of the Border City News, is fulfilled, and Ka will recite his poem at the theatre that evening. What’s more, in addition to recording extensive notes in his journal about what he saw in Kars, Ka will write 18 more interlinked poems in his green notebook that together add up to a book-length work bearing the name of its first poem. It’s the quest for that missing book that will provoke the narrator Orhan Pamuk’s own journey to Kars and Frankfurt, and eventuate in a novel about that search, titled Snow. Like Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, a story about a story, Pamuk’s Snow is a novel about, amid much else, a book of poems called Snow.

In modern English-language poetry, the sort of interlinked poems that Ka writes in Kars was discovered or invented by the mid-20th century San Francisco poet Jack Spicer in his book After Lorca (1957). Spicer and his poet colleague Robin Blaser dubbed this form the “serial” poem, a form whose unit of composition is the “book” (using that word in a way slightly different from its conventional reference).

Distinguishable from the modern “epic” and other “long” verse forms, in the serial poem each poem stands on its own, and yet integrally connects to the other poems that make up the “book.” As Spicer once described it, “It’s as if you go into a room, a dark room, and the light is turned on for a minute, then it’s turned off again, and then you go into a different room where a light is turned on and off.” Sometimes that succession of briefly lighted rooms becomes a house, or a book. Furthermore, as is the case with Ka’s Snow, Spicer conjoins to the serial poem an Orphic theory that the poem is transmitted, from an unknown outside source, by a process of “dictation.” The source of the poem, whether muse or Martians or whatever, of necessity makes use of the poet’s own biographical details, memories, and ideas (what Spicer called “the furniture in the room”), but the poem that eventuates is not an “expression” of the poet’s life so much as it is a message transmitted from “outside,” even if the outside is not outside ourselves, but is something more like our collective linguistic consciousness.

By happenstance, I was raised among poets, and perhaps it is the familiarity with the poetic process that I acquired there that so convinces me of the authenticity of Pamuk’s account of writing poems, which in turn tends to reinforce my trust of the other aspects of the novel, from its ambivalent politics to its recreation of the streets, buildings and people of distant Kars. Of the various books that have attempted to describe or include works of art, Pamuk’s Snow, among its other virtues, is perhaps the most accurate in its account of making art. It compares favourably to such novels as Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (which includes an appendix of the poems referred to in the fiction) and to Joyce Cary’s persuasive description of making paintings in The Horse’s Mouth. In Snow, the act of writing the poems is described, as are their contents, and even theorised (by Ka) as being structured by the axes of a hexagonal snowflake. Of course, the poems never appear, but dissolve like those self-same snowflakes, serving as one of the powerful enticements that draw us into Pamuk’s snowy labyrinth of desire, spiritual yearning, politics, and art.


Pamuk recurrently describes himself as a man “who shuts himself up in a room.” In his Nobel Prize speech of December 2006, “My Father’s Suitcase,” he says, “When I speak of writing, what first comes to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid the shadows, he builds a new world with words.” In “The Implied Author,” a talk given at an American university in spring 2006, Pamuk reiterates this image: “For thirty years I’ve spent an average of ten hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk.” He adds, “Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing. When you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day…” In any case, as Pamuk told his Nobel audience, “The starting point of true literature is the man who shuts himself up in a room with his books.”

However, Pamuk admits that “once we shut ourselves away, we soon discover we are not as alone as we thought. We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other’s people’s stories, other’s people’s books… the thing we call tradition.” Pamuk affirms literature “as the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself.” Societies flourish insofar as “they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors, and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signals that dark and improvident times are upon us.” The writer who shuts himself up in a room has the possibility of discovering “literature’s eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own.”

For English-language readers, Pamuk emerged from the room in which he had shut himself up only in the first decade of this century. Though he had written a half dozen novels since the early 1980s, it was only with his sixth novel, My Name Is Red (1999; translated into English, 2001), which won the 2003 Impac Dublin prize, that he achieved broader literary recognition. That was the impetus for further translations, honours, and life as a sometimes reluctant public figure which followed in quick succession. Snow, published in Turkey in 2002 where it was a 100,000-copy bestseller, was translated into English in 2004 to wide acclaim; in 2005 Pamuk was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association; Istanbul: Memories of a City appeared in 2005 in multiple translations, including English.

In the same year, 2005, Pamuk rather unwillingly became the focus of political debate when he was charged with uttering remarks, about the Armenian genocide and the situation of Turkish Kurdish people, that allegedly violated certain nationalist laws against insulting Turkey, charges that were eventually dropped on the eve of the trial, in the wake of international protest. The following year, 2006, Pamuk was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. There was, as often occurs with the Swedish Academy’s choices, some grumbling that Pamuk had been selected for political reasons. Sometimes, the complaints about the Nobel Prize winner are justified. But in this instance, the body of Pamuk’s work suggested that he was a worthy companion to such other 21st century Nobel recipients as Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter, J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul. In 2007, Pamuk published Other Colors, a volume of essays, talks and interviews that had been significantly expanded from an earlier volume of the same title that appeared in his native tongue in 1999; and a new novel, The Museum of Innocence, already published in Turkish, was slated for publication in English translation in 2009. Apart from his requisite but sporadic public appearances, Pamuk, as he told a Paris Review interviewer in 2005, remains shut up in a room in a “flat overlooking the Bosphorus with a view of the old city. It has, perhaps, one of the best views of Istanbul.” It also has within it one of the best observers of Istanbul, and points East and West.

The near-unanimous chorus of acclaim elicited by the publication of Pamuk’s Snow is such as to require some reprise of the book’s reception among English-language reviewers. John Updike immediately picked up on the novel’s abundance of “modernist tracer genes. Like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, it bares its inner gears of reconstituted memory and ends by promising its own composition.” Its setting echoes “the mountainous, debate-prone microcosm of Thomas Mann’s sanitorium in The Magic Mountain… Like Italo Calvino, Pamuk has a passion for pattern-making; he maps Kars as obsessively as Joyce did Dublin…” Updike presciently suggests that “Pamuk, young as he is [born in 1951], qualifies as [Turkey’s] most likely candidate for the Nobel Prize… To produce a major work so frankly troubled and provocatively bemused… entirely contemporary in its settings and subjects, took the courage that art sometimes visits upon even its most detached practitioners.” (John Updike, “Anatolian Arabesques,” The New Yorker, Aug. 30, 2004.)

Margaret Atwood, as noted, credits Pamuk with “narrating his country into being,” and also finds Snow “not only an engrossing feat of tale-spinning, but essential reading for our times.” She says, “Kars is finely drawn, in all its touching squalor, but its inhabitants resist ‘Orhan’s’ novelizing of them. One of them asks him to tell the reader not to believe anything he says about them, because ‘no one could understand us from so far away.’ This is a challenge to Pamuk and his considerable art, but it is also a challenge to us.” (Margaret Atwood, “Headscarves to Die For,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2004.) Veteran literary critic Richard Eder calls Pamuk “the great and almost irresistibly beguiling Turkish novelist.” The snow, he says, “is of surpassing beauty and hauntingly rendered. For Pamuk, beauty does not redeem the tragic horrors begotten by human passions and obstinate memory. Neither do the horrors diminish it.” (Richard Eder, “A Blizzard of Contradictions in Modern Turkey,” The New York Times, Aug. 10, 2004.)

Christian Caryl identifies Dostoyevsky as “the literary forebear whose spirit haunts this book most palpably… The Possessed, driven by moral quandaries posed by terrorism and political extremism is a particularly strong influence… Where Pamuk really excels in this novel is in the deftness with which he allows these forces to tug at one another.” Unsurprisingly, Pamuk is the author of the introduction to the Turkish translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, which he declares to be “the greatest political novel of all time.” Says Caryl, “Pamuk the novelist illuminates his country’s quandaries of identity, and the crisis of confidence between Islam and the West, with an imaginative depth we had not known before.” (Christian Caryl, “The Schizophrenic Sufi,” The New York Review of Books, May 12, 2005.)

One significant voice of dissent from the general praise bestowed on Pamuk is that of the self-professed “contrarian” critic Christopher Hitchens, who is suspicious of the search “for a novelist in the Muslim world who could act the part of dragoman, an interpretive guide to the East,” a role into which he sees Pamuk as being too-conveniently cast. Hitchens finds the novel’s characterizations “disappointing, precisely because its figures lack the crystalline integrity of individuals,” the work as a whole “prolix and often clumsy,” and he’s not at all happy that “the author leaves no room for doubt that he finds the Islamists the most persuasive and courageous.” This last is a curiously skewed reading of Pamuk’s refusal to demonize the book’s religious characters. But at the time he was reviewing Snow, Hitchens was embroiled in an acrimonious debate regarding both Islamists and his own support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which might have warped his perception of other writers’ treatment of similar issues. (Christopher Hitchens, “Mind the Gap,” The Atlantic, October 2004.)

The occasional dissent aside, Snow was the novel that made readers ask what Pamuk calls “the question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question: Why do you write?” In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Pamuk replies,

I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey… I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else… I write to be happy.

Even the dissenting Hitchens grants that Pamuk’s Ka moves between “visions of snow in its macrocosmic form — the chilly and hostile masses — and its microcosmic: the individual beauty and uniqueness of each flake. Along the scrutinized axes that every flake manifests he rediscovers his vocation and inspiration as a poet.” It was Yeats, in “Among School Children,” who famously asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Among the lengthy list of reasons to write, Pamuk might add that he writes to distinguish the snowflake from the snow.


Berlin, June 16, 2009


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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