Denver Bar Association
May 2005
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Book Review

by Greg Rawlings



by Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed by Greg Rawlings

Languorous, discursive, yet altogether engaging, Orhan Pamuk’s novel, Snow, is a nearly perfect late-winter read. Pamuk is Turkey’s premier novelist, as well as its most popular, which is a rare combination in any culture.

Turkish novelists, or writers in general, have seldom gained much credence in Western circles. Harold Bloom, in his excellent, if aggravating, The Western Canon, fails to list a single modern Turkish writer in his listing of canonical works and writers. Then again, he also leaves off the great Albanian novelist Ismael Kadare, so the great Bloom is far from infallible. That, or he has something against modern Eastern Mediterranean literature. Whatever the reason, more and more opinions place Pamuk squarely in the hunt for a Nobel Prize in Literature in the near future. So, join the bandwagon before all the good seats are taken.

Pamuk’s Snow is a fine place to start. The story concerns the exiled Turkish poet, Ka, who returns home to bury his mother and track down the beautiful Ipek. Ipek, it seems, has departed Istanbul and traipsed off to the hinterlands, to a remote village called Kars, with her politically minded husband. Here, she and her equally-striking sister, Kadife, run a hotel with their aging father. There is more, of course, much more. Despite the words of the Koran, young girls have been committing suicide, rather than remove their head scarves, as ordered by the government. The epicenter of this disturbing outburst is Kars.

With such a crisis, it’s not just Ka who arrives in the village. Government agents, the legendary Islamist leader (and alleged terrorist) known as Blue, a traveling theater group with something more than greasepaint and soliloquies on its mind, the military and the secret police — a myriad of groups with a myriad of agendas. Then comes the snow. And more snow. And yet more snow. Until the village isn’t merely remote, it’s entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Lines down, roads blocked — a perfect recipe for utter chaos, which, of course, ensues.

In this over-spiced stew of a backwater, Ka pursues Ipek, modern secular Turkey pursues agents of its Islamist past, children pursue their elders — all over too much raki and all buffeted by too much snow. There are lengthy discussions of religion and love, the east versus the west, the power of television and the immediacy of theater. Lives are risked and won or lost. Unthinkable secrets tear lovers apart or throw them together. Lies stain the air as blood stains the snow.

That Pamuk weaves all these threads together as deftly as he does borders on the miraculous. That he tells such a tale in a manner that effortlessly drags you from your comfy chair in a Denver coffee house to Kars, bloodstained crossroads of history, astounds. That he fully conveys the depth of tragedy with language that never strays far from pure poetry makes Snow a masterpiece. Shelve this book with Garcia-Marquez and Lowry, with Vargas Llosa and Kadare, but make sure you read it first and read it well; my guess is that you’ll never forget it.

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