Love story set in cauldron of pious fervour

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Orhan Pamuk

Faber & Faber, 12.99

ORHAN Pamuk lives in Istanbul - an altogether different place from the backward, rural Turkey he evokes in this walloping novel. Snow is a serious chunk of prose that dishes out lessons to most of its characters, trapped as they are in a rutted mindset. At the same time, it jogs the reader into rethinking simplistic notions of what it means to be a Muslim.

Set in 1992, it tells the story of Ka, a poet, once exiled in Germany and now returned in the guise of a journalist to investigate a spate of ‘holy’ suicides in Kars, near the Armenian border in northern Turkey. The Islamists are set to sweep the board in local elections. The ardent ‘headscarf girls’ and their suicides have caught the national interest. As Ka arrives, the snow is falling, the town is sealed off and the old Russian-style houses are softly blanketed. The mood is one of eerie anticipation.

Ka discovers a small community in ferment, under surveillance and closely policed. He finds the beautiful Ipek, a woman he knew at university, now divorced from the Islamist party’s leader. We quickly learn that Ipek’s presence, foreknown to Ka, was his true motivation for coming to Kars. In the course of barely a handful of days, a million things happen.

Despite this, Ka never files reports to his Istanbul paper. Instead he composes topical poems inspired by the drama unfolding around him. A man is shot in front of his eyes in the New Life Pastry Shop. Ka is then taken for questioning by the police. He is made a fuss of by the local impresario, who books him to appear in a televised concert. He meets in secret with the charismatic ‘Blue’, the outlawed militant leader who is also the lover of Ipek’s pious sister Kadife.

Later Kadife will shoot a man, Ipek and Ka will discreetly declare their love, Blue will be captured and then released, a coup will occur, and Ka himself will come under threat, yet will be (for reasons best withheld in the interests of plot) indifferent to his fate.

The story is tenderly told by Ka’s friend Orhan. At the heart of the book lies a paradox. Its characters are vulnerable, quixotic, palpably human, twisted in on themselves, yet open to conversation. They open their hearts, their beliefs, their prejudices to Ka - they force him to think.

Yet there is evil here, jealousy mixed with lust. "Listen to me," Ka tells Kadife. "Life’s not about principles, it’s about happiness." Lifelong happiness for Ka means eloping with Ipek.

The author keeps us hooked on the lovers’ fates while allowing the voices of scriptural Islamists to vie with the whispered opinions of the ‘modernists’.

When the book came out in Turkey it provoked the ire of both sides by showing that two sides are not enough - there are many hues of Islam. Snow seems an aptly mutable metaphor, not to say title, for a book so plainly spoken. It is a stirring read, an epic poem of sorts to tolerance mislaid, and to hope reclaimed.