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Not since Boris Pasternak refused the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958 has a Nobel laureate regarded the award with such mixed feelings as Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. He set out to be a political dilettante, as befits a postmodern European novelist, and to his profound consternation has had to become a man of principle. That in no way diminishes the poignancy of Pamuk’s position, but it makes him more interesting than the average martyr, in a postmodern sort of way.
I reviewed his most important book Snow two years ago,  and have just read it again, working through a box of oval Turkish cigarettes. Unlike Austrian pornographer Elfriede Jelinek, 2004’s winner, or last year’s laureate, the tedious Harold Pinter, Pamuk richly deserves his award. British playwright and critic Simon Gray produced the definitive critique of Pinter, who wrote gnomic verses and sent them to various literati. Pinter sent a poem to Gray that reads in its entirety: “I saw Len Hutton in his prime/Another time/Another time.” After some weeks he called Gray to ask his opinion; Gray returned, “I am sorry, Harold, but I haven’t finished it yet.”
Whatever the political motivations of the Swedish Academy might have been, Snow is an indispensable tale of civilizational tragedy. The pity is that Pamuk’s own case would have made an even better novel; in the best self-referential fashion, he has become the protagonist of his own fiction in the theater of the real. Jorge Luis Borges would have been amused.
When Pamuk told a Swiss interviewer in February 2005 that Turkey had massacred “a million Armenians” during World War I (the actual number was more than twice that), he joined a number of Turkish academics who broached the great taboo of Turkish history. But he underestimated his country’s swing toward political Islam under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The following June, Turkey enacted the notorious Article 301 making it a crime to “insult Turkishness,” and Pamuk was charged retroactively. A storm of international protest persuaded the Turkish government to drop the charges, but Pamuk now lives in effective exile in New York, where Columbia University shelters him with a visiting professorship.
During a June 2004 visit to Turkey, US President George W. Bush offered:
The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has said that the finest view of Istanbul is not from the shores of Europe, or from the shores of Asia, but from a bridge that unites them, and lets you see both. His work has been a bridge between cultures, and so is the Republic of Turkey. The people of this land understand, as that great writer has observed, that “what is important is not [a] clash of parties, civilizations, cultures, East and West.” What is important, he says, is to realize “that other people in other continents and civilizations” are “exactly like you.”
The bridge has fallen, leaving Pamuk gasping for breath on the Western shore. Turkey’s Western loyalties were founded upon a secular nationalism that sought to bury Islam under modernizing reforms. Pamuk’s theme in Snow is the horrible emptiness of secular Turkey, with its poverty, inertia, bureaucratic sclerosis and official brutality. Thoroughly secular in upbringing and outlook, Pamuk nonetheless evinces profound sympathy for the Islamic loyalties of the Turkish poor, as well as the terrible attraction that political Islam holds for Turkey’s disappointed elite.
The poet Ka, the novel’s protagonist, has fled Turkey for Germany after a military cracked down on left-wing intellectuals. His poetic faculties dry up in Germany, but reawaken during a winter’s journey to the eastern border city of Kars, where he has traveled to report on a wave of suicides by young women. Depression lies as heavy upon eastern Anatolia as the snow that isolates Kars from the rest of the world. Dead-eyed, the jobless spend their days watching television in tea-houses. Young women expelled from schools for refusing to remove the Islamic headscarf in keeping with Turkey’s secular law hang themselves in protest.
Kars, as I noted in my 2004 review, was an Armenian city when World War I broke out. The Armenians were butchered, and their churches, some a thousand years old, remain as a ghastly admonition to the impoverished and largely idle Turkish inhabitants. “The Turks of Kars,” I wrote, “live on foreign ground, buffeted by the Westernizing ideas of Kemal Ataturk and the Arabic ideas of the Koran. Ultimately they have nothing of their own, and dwell on the idea of suicide.” There is a museum of “Armenian massacres,” Pamuk’s narrator notes dryly, which surprises the odd foreign visitor, for it represents the genocide as Armenian murder of Turks.
Ka has an ulterior motive, to seek out the beautiful Ipek, a schoolmate who recently divorced and might be available. Her former husband Muhtar has become the leader of the local Islamist party, and tells Ka about his conversion from secular leftist to impassioned Muslim:
Years went by, the military took over and we all went to prison, and like everyone else, when I was released I drifted like an idiot. The people I had once tried to imitate had changed, those whose approval I once wanted had disappeared, and none of my dreams had come true, not in poetry or in life … It was as if I’d been erased from history, banished from civilization. The civilized world seemed far away [from Kars] and I couldn’t imitate it.
Muhtar resolves to die by freezing, but is interrupted by followers of a Sufi sheikh whom he meets and resolves to follow. His poetic faculty returns and he reverts to politics, but as an Islamist rather than a Marxist.
Contact with people of Islamic faith rekindles Ka’s long-dead poetic voice as well. He becomes embroiled in the vicious intrigues between the Islamists and the local security forces, who use him to flush out a notorious Islamist terrorist nicknamed “Blue.” Blue, it emerges, has dallied with Ka’s beloved Ipek. Wearing a tape recorder with the police on his heels, Ka meets with Blue. He tells the terrorist, “Before I got here, I hadn’t written a poem in years … But since coming to Kars, all the roads on which poetry travels have reopened. I attribute this to the love of God I’ve felt here.”
Blue responds, “In a place like this, if you worship God as a European, you’re bound to be a laughing-stock. Then you cannot even believe you believe. You don’t belong to this country; you’re not even a Turk anymore. First try to be like everyone else. Then try to believe in God.”
The security forces kill Blue in a night of grotesque violence. Ipek abandons Ka in disgust. Ka returns to Germany distraught, where he is gunned down in the street some time later. The cycle of poems Ka has composed in Kars is lost forever. At first this struck me as an irritating conceit: if poetry is the subject of the novel, one might expect the author to provide some actual poems. But there is a deeper and more disturbing point. There is no “there” in modern Turkey, Pamuk seems to say. The Islamism of Muhtar and even Blue is not the Islam of the past, but a vehicle for ex-Marxists who have lost their intellectual compass. The Islam of the brutalized and brutal Anatolian peasants is a protest against a world in which they have no place.
Blue, the doomed terrorist, demands that Ka “be like everyone else” rather than masquerade as a Turk while his soul resides in Europe. But Blue is as globalized as Ka, or indeed the author. He eschews the cigarettes of his own country in favor of Marlboro Reds, an expression of globalized American taste as insipid as California Zinfandels or Ralph Lauren suits. Blue not only smokes them, but praises them in panegyrics: “Ah, the best thing America ever gave the world were these red Marlboros. I could smoke these Marlboros for the rest of my life.” That is as close to poetry as we get in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow.
1. In defense of Turkish cigarettes, August 24, 2004. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Faber and Faber Ltd, August 2004. ISBN: 057121830X. Price: 17 pounds (US$31.85), 448 pages.