The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, like Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev, creates characters who are thoroughly human, sympathetic and unique. His people, and he counts himself among them, are both hostages to personal hope and instruments of historical circumstance; captives of their own convictions and the certainties of others. Like Chekhov, Pamuk deploys a realism that represents the tragic and the comic as the same thing. Like Turgenev, he refuses to allow history or politics to diminish humanity. Neither does he romantically color human weakness or moral lapse. Melodrama is the stuff of distraction. Perfection is the province of monsters and artists.
"Snow" was finished in December, 2001, and published the following year in Istanbul under the title "Kar." The principle definition of kar is "snow"; so it appears in Maureen Freely's artful translation. Besides snow, the dictionary also defines kar as: account; benefit; gain; profit; take; takings; and bank. As a verb, kar means: to do, to make, to create; to produce.
The novel is at first glance a sharply drawn, picaresque political adventure interwoven with a love story and punctuated by odd incident and peculiar violence. Its hero, Ka, is a kind of holy fool for language, a blocked Turkish émigré poet returned from exile in Germany. The plot follows him on journalistic assignment to the provincial city of Kars in Northeast Turkey--adjacent to Georgia, Iran, and Syria, once part of Armenia. There's a municipal election coming up, and a series of suicides among schoolgirls forced to abandon their Islamic headscarves has attracted interest in the Western press. Self-consciously a somewhere that's nowhere now, Kars is the scene of a lot of history, a domicile for religious enthusiasm and long-standing grudge. All the time, it snows.
At second glance, "Snow" reveals itself as a narrative of classic Arabic-Persian construction--a series of tales-within-a-tale, supremely instanced in the "Thousand and One Nights"--crossbred with the vertiginously reflexive modern novel, à la Nabokov. The narrator, Ka's longtime friend who later identifies himself as a novelist named Orhan, announces in the first chapter that the story's told as Ka lived it. The significance of the events for Ka, and so for Orhan, derives initially from the depth and quality of Ka's human encounters as he pursues both love, in the person of the beautiful Ipek, and his assignment for the Istanbul Republican.
But it's the return of Ka's poetic inspiration for the term of his stay, the Rilkean angelic speech unbidden and unexpected, that magnetizes Ka's visit to Kars and gives his life narrative meaning. An exaltation may be immeasurable, but that doesn't make it happy.
The poems come to him on the job, or on the way from meeting to meeting. Walking room to room, sometimes in the middle of conversations or interviews with the subjects of his article. Not one comes by willing it. They arrive 19 in all. The connection between the inspirational source and its appearance--between art and life if you will, or truth and speech, or the sacred and profane, eternal and temporal--has a quirky way of sticking an odd elbow through the fabric of being.
One of Ka's journalistic sources is Serdar Bey, the publisher of the Border City Gazette (circulation 320). The Gazette practices a kind of pre-emptive journalism: writing stories about future events in the past tense. When Ka reads an article stating that "Ka, the celebrated poet, who is now visiting our city, recited his latest poem, entitled 'Snow,'" at a live telecast from the National Theater, he objects: "I don't have a poem called 'Snow,' and I'm not going to the theater this evening."
"Don't be so sure," the publisher replies. "There are those who despise us for writing the news before it happens. They fear us not because we are journalists but because we can predict the future; 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."
Muhtar Bey, Ipek's ex-husband, is the mayoral candidate for the Party of God. He's also an appliance dealer, and a frustrated poet. When Ka interviews him, Muhtar describes his secret religious conversion at the lodge of the Kurdish sheikh Saadettin Efendi, his discovery of the spiritual key, and his double life as a secularist by day and monotheist by night. Muhtar's conversion led to the end of his marriage (no more sneaking off at night to pray), and to his writing "an important poem.... As a poem it was flawless. I swear to you," Muhtar tells Ka. He sent the flawless poem to a literary magazine, Achilles Ink, but it never appeared.
Embittered, Muhtar sought solace from his sheikh. But the old saint, he lamented, "knew nothing of modern poetry, René Char, the broken sentence, Mallarmé, Joubert, the silence of an empty line.
For her part, Ipek, when queried about the suicides, had said, "The men give themselves to religion, and the women kill themselves."
And Blue, a celebrity political Islamist hiding in Kars, who came to Kars to stop the suicide epidemic, suddenly pulls his interviewer, Ka, close to him, kisses him on both cheeks and says: "You are a modern-day dervish. You've withdrawn from the world to devote yourself to poetry. You would never be the pawn of those who would denigrate innocent Muslims."
At the beginning of his story, while the bus to Kars pushes on through the blizzard, Pamuk quotes a line from one of Ka's early poems: "It snows only once in our dreams." This only-onceness would be a trope on the scientist's rule that every snowflake has six sides and crystalline structure, and every snowflake is unique. It's a simple leap from snowflake to individual soul, though the snowflake melts and soul does not; the point of the snowflake-to-poem correlation would be the unique utterance inside the recognized shape. Unlike the snowflake, the poem does not melt; unlike the soul, the poem is material, it is recorded.
The Novelist Orhan, sifting through the notebooks and effects Ka left in the four years following his journey to Kars, is able to reconstruct in vivid detail the circumstances and perhaps even the stimuli of Ka's inspirations, 19 in all, in a fashion that's to me entirely convincing. Orhan describes his novelistic sources, his retracing Ka's steps and talking to all the surviving participants who crossed paths with Ka in those sublime days. Orhan discovers a map drawn in one of the many notebooks of exegesis that Ka filled while refining and arranging his book of poems, "Snow." The map is a snowflake: three intersecting axes, with three poems each at six ends, and one poem in the middle.
It's possible, reading from the list of Ka's poems in the order he wrote them at the back of the book, to pinpoint the page in the novel where each poem occurred. Only the poems themselves, set down in the poet's green notebook, are missing.
Prose isn't a happy environment for poetry, anyway. For every successful biography of a poet-like, say, Richard Holmes' "Shelley: The Pursuit"--there are hundreds of labored exegeses and self-serving interpreters; Murasaki's poems in the "Tale of Genji" are social occasions, not motives; the "Vita Nuova" succeeds as a Tale of Poetry, but Orhan Pamuk is not trying to convince us that Ka is Dante. Subjected to the winds of taste, the poems in Ka's "Snow" would melt.
The absent poems are the novelist's pretext, not the poet's. These poems, like the region where they come from and like the white space in Mallarmé, draw strength and reality from their absence. All implication, with no information to disturb the void.
And so, while Pamuk's novel has a sociability and what I might call a kind of practical humor that puts one foot firmly on the journalistic earth, the book's intimations of meaning and respect for the human heart point toward the empty shelf with the dust outline where the Grecian Urn once stood. "Snow" can be read like a dream, or a dream foretold.
Take the single syllable, Ka. The modernist says, "K," that's Kafka's Joseph K. Even more, "Snow"'s thwarted guilt and oppression suggest "The Trial" and "The Castle"; Ka's goofy, inept, and self-defeating tango with the possible marks him as an Islamic soulmate of Kafka in his "Letters to Milena", advancing toward and recoiling from the prospect of human happiness. There's hope, the sage of Prague observed, but not for us.
KA, as his name appears in a typo in the Border City News, can be read as the initials of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish secular republic. A British Imperial legacy like Turkey's national borders, Ka is also the python (a python's a Greek prophet) from Kipling's "Jungle Books."
Closer to home, and older and deeper, ka is that part of the Egyptian soul where the individual personality resides, and survives death.
In chapter 31 of the novel, competing factions in Kars convene to write a statement which Ka is supposed to get published in Germany. Only appearance in the Western press will make the people of Kars real--not for the West, perhaps not even for Istanbul, but most certainly for themselves. One high school student wants the statement to read: "We're not stupid, we're just poor." It's the cry of the overlooked, the voice of one who, could he only prove he exists, might survive life.
One difference between political life and the arts is that a successful politics cannot leave everybody on the other side dead. It has to seek accommodation. That each side hates all others is no wonder. But to be social means one's willing to live and let live, to live in suspense. Only plays and novels and movies have to end in resolution.
In an essay, "The Anger of the Damned," which appeared in the November 1, 2001 issue of the New York Review of Books, Pamuk wrote about his desperate solitude as he sat in an Istanbul coffee house and watched the World Trade Center towers collapse. He had lived in New York, walked the downtown streets, met with people in the towers. Now, leaving the coffee house, Pamuk met an old man, a neighbor who had not yet seen the horror on TV but had heard the news. "Sir," Pamuk's neighbor said, "...they have bombed America. They did the right thing."
Pamuk was three months short of completing "Snow" when this voice of higher resentment led him to wonder if, in turn, the American response would include a righteous nationalistic rage, fueled by which "some will find it easy to speak words that might lead to the slaughter of other innocent people. In view of this," Pamuk allowed, "one wants to say something."
He already had. The novel "Snow" now reads like a kind of preemptive prophecy. It's filled with the voices of those beyond the reach of glamour, magic, or aestheticism, voices that cluster around a novelist's sublime poet and his imaginary poems. The novelist also lays the only onstage murders at the feet of the two men in Kars "who have read T.S. Eliot." Remember the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's unfortunate "review" in which he admired the orchestration of the WTC attacks? The idea's to be only half in love with easeful death.