One of the jacket blurbs on the paperback edition of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow declares that the book heralds the return of the political novel. I don’t know that the political novel ever went away or, indeed, what a political novel is, exactly, but I do know that the phrase cannot contain this first-drawer work of literature.
Snow’s themes and ideas are complex enough to absorb seminars by themselves. Isolation–political, psychological, romantic, artistic–is but one of the concepts that is intertwined in the interior and exterior lives of the characters as well as the overall action of the novel. The concept of authority–where it rests and how it is exercised in government, families, friendships–moves the plot through the streets of the storm-isolated town of Kars where the novel is set. Kars itself is at once the place where nearly all the action occurs and a metaphor for Turkey and even for the emotional lives of the characters. The analyst who diagrammed the travels of protagonist Ka through its streets might be rewarded with meaning kin to Leopold Bloom’s meanderings through Dublin. And these don’t begin to exhaust what all could be termed main themes. The book is resplendent with them.
Literature itself is a main character. The protagonist Ka is a writer who has come to Kars ostensibly to report as a journalist (though he is primarily a poet) on the upcoming elections. He has endured a long creative dry spell, but his return to the town of his youth sparks new inspiration, and he writes a number of poems. The reader gets to see very little of their content, but the occasions for their composition are all integral to the movement of the action. And, once again, a study of their order and the circumstances under which they were written could consume a considerable course of study.
Important also, arguably the most important, is the title metaphor. Snow isolates Kars for most of the time the novel spends there. It controls the actions and thoughts of many of the characters. The pivotal events would be impossible without it. Artistically and psychologically, the structure of the snowflake becomes not only a figure for Ka’s interior life, but a diagram for universal system of thought, artistry, and psychology. Exploring its ramifications would reward a great deal study. Ka places his Kars poems, for example, in various locations on the diagram of the snowflakes six poles according to a system of concepts and emotions he has devised. And that system is meant to reflect no less than a structure of the universe. A cliche idea, I thought, to see the universe in a snowflake, no two of which are alike as we’ve been told and told and told. But Pamuk renders the whole idea marvelous.
Adding still another dimension to all this complexity is the narrator, who we think at first is the omniscient author, but who soon turns out to be someone who knows or has known the protagonist in the past, then turns out to be someone who is a bit of detective trying to sort out . . . but I’m giving too much away. The novel is in one sense a mystery along with all its other senses.
Finally, on the political/cultural level, westerners seldom get a chance at insight into the mind of the Muslim world. I’m not talking here about political posturing or slaughter of innocents or quaint costumes. I’m talking about a first-rate artist showing us what it means to live constantly with the idea that your culture is inferior, playing catchup with a world that has passed you by and judges you while glancing over its shoulder as it speeds far down the road ahead. It’s not an idea you necessarily accept or live by, but it permeates your world like a bad smell you can’t get rid of. Snow gave me some insight into why cultural understanding is so difficult to achieve, and it didn’t give me a great deal of hope that it was going to happen in the near future.
However, Snow did reinforce my conviction that art can transcend–at least for the space of a book or ballet or play or symphony–all the bombs and hatred-spewing presidents and Ayatollahs. And to anyone who cares to take the trouble the exploration of just this one work of Pamuk’s could last for years. I’m not going to dive in to that extent, but I am going to read more of this Nobel guy. Come back later and see what I come up with.