- Snow, and: The White Castle
Snow, Orhan Pamuk's most recent novel and his most widely acclaimed book to date, is arguably the crown jewel among his works, responsible for pushing him to win the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature. The White Castle (1991) is his third novel, and the first to be translated from Turkish into English. It was followed by translations of The Black Book, The New Life, My Name Is Red, Snow and the memoir Istanbul.
Though Pamuk has claimed not to have a political agenda, his writing often feels overtly political, particularly with Snow, the first of his books to be set in contemporary times and outside Istanbul. The action takes place primarily in a remote, impoverished city in eastern Anatolia, Kars, which has been in the news for its recent streak of suicides among young women forced to remove their head scarves by their schools. Ka, the novel's protagonist, is a native of Istanbul and a poet who has been living in exile in Frankfurt for twelve years, unable to compose a poem. Upon returning to Turkey for his mother's funeral, he travels to Kars, purportedly to write a story for an Istanbul newspaper about the young girls' suicides, though his truer intentions reside in winning the heart of Ipek, a former schoolmate who is now divorced from her husband, an old friend of Ka turned Islamic fundamentalist. Ipek now lives with her family at [End Page 154] the Snow Palace Hotel in Kars, where Ka is staying. The novel depicts Ka's attempt to learn and write about the disenfranchised population of Kars, though he himself is not the narrator, as he has already been assassinated before his story can be told. Instead a friend of his, who also happens to be called Orhan, tells the metafictional story within the story, giving life through writing to Ka, who sought to give life through writing to the people of Kars.
The book opens with Ka's journey to Kars in the midst of a snowstorm (Kar, not incidentally, is Turkish for snow). This snowstorm of all snowstorms brings much of the activity in Kars to a standstill and makes returning to Istanbul an indefinite impossibility for Ka. As he wanders the desolate streets of Kars, Ka makes little progress in his investigation of the suicides. Instead he encounters distrust on the part of the Islamic fundamentalists as well as the secular government, both of whom instinctively hold Ka in suspicion for his fancy overcoat and sophisticated mannerisms, acquired in Istanbul and Germany. Ka's snow-covered Kars is filled with desperation and unemployed men, and the ruins of the formerly expansive Ottoman Empire, as well as vestiges and pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and aggressive propagator of Turkey's Westernization, who banned, among other things, head scarves.
Despite the influence of the West on Pamuk's writing, Snow, and a good deal of his other work, seems to mourn the loss of the once glorious Ottoman Empire and lament Ataturk's hacking away at the roots of history. At the very least, Pamuk's work suggests the impossibility of escaping history through denial or through dismissing one's own culture in favor of Western attitudes. As Snow's devout young women who don head scarves in defiance of secular authority illustrate, the roots of tradition run very deep. Even atheistic Ka is mesmerized by what he finds in Kars, a place he traveled to looking "for childhood and purity." In fleeting moments of ecstasy, Ka too feels that he has found God. Inspired both by his love affair with Ipek and by what he finds in Kars, Ka writes his first poem in years, titled "Snow." It is the first of the nineteen poems he composes through the course of the novel, all of which come to him effortlessly, in miraculous bursts of inspiration. The hold of the city on Ka seems to derive from its significance as a historical hotbed, a place...