The Dangerous Edge of Things

A short article on Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow I wrote for a chinese book review.

It’s an utterly nostalgic, sentimental impulse that lets the poet Kerim Alakusoglu visit the remote and forlorn Anatolian border town of Kars in Orhan Pamuk’s internationally acclaimed novel Snow (turkish: Kar, 2002). Hoping to re-connect with the Turkey of his childhood and youth after 12-years of German exile, and longing to meet a college love whom he knows to be recently separated from her husband, he sets on a two day bus trip to the east. This trip is going to confront him with more than a healthy dose of present-day Turkey’s problems and of his own shortcomings.

Ka, as the poet has himself called in a convenient shortening of his name’s initials, has taken the assignment to investigate a series of girls’ suicides in Kars and report about the forthcoming local elections for a liberal Istanbul newspaper. But he is not a journalist, just as little as he is a political person, in spite of his seemingly political past. He’s just an embittered man in the middle of his biological lifespan who has not written a line of poetry for years, who has lost most of his beliefs and convictions, who clings to his brittle hopes while at the same time mistrusting every prospect of possible happiness.

Already on the way to his destination a heavy snow fall sets in that is going to tie Ka to the place for several days. Such the stage is set for the unfolding drama, a noisy farce painted in blood-red against the beautiful and silent background of majestic white.

The year is 1992, Turkey still ruled by Kemalist secular forces with a strong and iron backing of military and secret police. And Kars, we are about to learn, is a place where many of the conflicts that haunt this country until the present day combine: It has its share of islamists, Kurdish nationalist militants, disappointed socialists. Another spectre of the past is visible in form of dozens of Armenian buildings, until the year of 1915 homes of a minority that was brutally swept away in a genocide Turkey has yet to acknowledge. But mostly, Kars is poor, it’s a shabby, godforsaken place.

Our poet Ka establishes himself in the run-down hotel where Ipek, the woman he has decided to fall in love with, lives with her father and her sister Kadife. Kadife is the leader of the local Islamic ‘headscarf girls’ who claim the right to cover their heads, against the norms of the secular Turkish state.

Ka’s early research into the suicides proves to be fruitless – no general motive shows up, and there seems to be only a loose connection to the pending religious conflicts. But Ka is increasingly drawn into the local power field. As he is meeting dignitaries and spiritual leaders who try to imprint on him their conflicting aspirations, views and intentions, his desperate attempts to stay away from any commitment are viewed with more than a trace of suspicion by his environment.

And suddenly things accelerate dramatically: In Ka’s presence a local school director is murdered in a tea house because he had forced girls to take off their scarfs during lessons. Students of a religious college introduce Ka to the charismatic islamist militant Blue, who denies being involved with the murder. One of the students confesses his love for Kadife, while another one is mourning the loss of his girlfriend who was one of the suicide victims.

In the midst of all this ensuing chaos, Ka rediscovers his poetic voice. Poems assault him with the force of a ‘call of nature’: More than once he has to interrupt his current doings to rush and find a quiet place, tea house or staircase, to write down the words that come to his mind.

But writing is not going to be his only, not even his foremost concern: While he is about to read the first of his new poems during a televised event in the local theatre, a grotesque military coup is staged under the direction of a famous actor. Several students of the religious college and some bystanders are shot. This bloody incident is the pivotal moment of the novel and opens the way to the coming events with all the farcical grandiosity of a Pirandello play.

In the following hours and days Ka will meet inspiration, bliss, betrayal and desperation, as he is hopelessly struggling to pursue his fragile vision of love and happiness while at the same time staying out of all entanglements.

Pamuk’s novel is a masterpiece of multi-layered and multi-faceted tale-spinning. The snow of its title provides not only a convenient background for the story, snow crystals serve also as its core symbol for the multiple aspects of life and personality: 19 poems are the result of Ka’s visit to Kar, the city of snow. In a peculiar move, Ka locates these poems against the joints and tips of a six-branched snowflake, constructed around the three axes of logic, imagination and memory.

With his characteristic awkwardness and failing escapism the novel’s hero Ka is at the same time offspring, catalyst and victim of the conflicts of his culture. Like in the complex prism of a snow crystal, the different angles of the story refract the light of every possible interpretation: Neither are we allowed to take side for the forces of secular modernisation, who are unmasked as not less fundamentalist and dogmatic than their islamist counterparts. Nor is it in any way possible to associate with these islamists and their hopeless search for an unquestionable identity. But also Ka’s romantic individualism is shown to be an impossible stance, upholdable only in the isolation of exile in his solitary Frankfurt flat.

All positions are exposed in their deadly futileness, while at the same time their proponents are treated with greatest respect, their voices heard with deepest sympathy. Once, in a heated discussion about the key points of a joint political statement for a german newspaper, a youth is quoted with the sentences: “We’re not stupid! We’re just poor! And we have a right to insist on this distinction!”

If there is a message in this at all it tells us that for the sake of humanity we have to be patient with the fooleries and inconsistencies of mankind, even if they lead to unavoidable bloodshed and misery. One of the mottos of the book quotes the poet Robert Browning: “Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things. / The honest thief, the tender murderer, / The superstitious atheist.”

Orhan Pamuk has often claimed to be an non-political writer. In the heated political climate of Turkey with its passionate and often violent factions this can be seen as a prudent strategy for survival. But with the recent novels, Pamuk is leaving his secure refuge: In “My Name is Red” (2000), a historical crime story set around a 16th century coterie of miniature painters in the Ottoman court, the political subtext – islamic orthodoxy being increasingly and inescapably subverted by individualist western influence – is still hidden behind a wall of irony and erudition, protecting the author from the wrath of simple-minded readers of islamist and nationalist creed alike.

Snow is a far more accessible and vulnerable piece of literature. But in the end it has taken a direct oral statement of its author in a recent interview with a Swiss newspaper to make Pamuk the target of a dirty public campaign. In it the author had mentioned the Armenian genocide, a taboo topic that has a broad majority of his fellow countrymen up in arms within fractions of a second. When Pamuk, who is immensely successful in his home country as well as internationally, will receive the prestigious Peace Award of the German Book Sellers Association on October 23, he is at the same time expecting trial in his home country for “insulting turkishness and the turks”, facing up to three years in prison. This is a sad and paradoxical reward for his being one of the very few voices in his country who are able to look even at the darkest and most dangerous edges of things without losing their courage, sincerity and love.