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"No one who is even slightly westernized can breathe free."
on August 22, 2004
The rich story-telling tradition of the Middle East enlivens Turkish author Pamuk's novel about the residents of Kars, a town in the remote northeast corner of Turkey, once a crossroads for trade between Turkey, Soviet Georgia, Armenia, and Iran, but now a place of enormous poverty. Ka, a poet with writer's block, arrives in Kars at the beginning of a three-day blizzard, sometime in the early 1990s, to investigate a spate of suicides by young women forbidden to wear headscarves in school, but he is also there hoping to reconnect with his life-long love, Ipek, who is now single.
All the conflicting political and religious movements of the country are exemplified in Kars--socialism and communism, atheism, political secularism, Kurdish nationalism, and the most rapidly growing movement, Islamist fundamentalism, and Ka comes into contact with all of them. As he investigates the girls' suicides and becomes reacquainted with Ipek, he also witnesses the coffeeshop shooting of the Director of Education, the man who has carried out the government's orders to ban the "headscarf girls" from school. His assailant is a young member of the Freedom Fighters for Islamic Justice, a group Ka comes to know. A military coup at the National Theater begins when soldiers burst in, shoot randomly into the audience, kill a number of people, then round up "dangerous" citizens, including some of the people Ka has visited. Ultimately, Ka's life is in danger, and Ipek must choose whether to go with him to Germany or to stay in Kars.
Articulate in its depiction of almost inexplicable contradictions, Snow is not a western novel and does not adhere to western literary conventions of plot or character. The execution of the Director of Education, the army coup, and the follow-up are used primarily as vehicles for exploring the many competing philosophical and political movements, a focus on abstractions rarely seen in American literary fiction. The plot is absorbing for a reader who is interested in politics and religion, but the novel may be slow for readers looking for a plot- or character-based novel. The characters, while intriguing, are more representative of types than individuals.
Published in Turkey and Europe before September 11, the novel has an ominous prescience to it. Rich with insights into rapidly rising fundamentalist movements and why they seek our destruction, this haunting novel is many-leveled, beautifully wrought, and complex. Packed with ironies, dark humor, and enough symbolism to keep a symbol-hunter busy for days, this realistic depiction of the environment in which extremist movements take root and flourish is a chilling reminder of how the world has changed. Mary Whipple