One gets an idea that a novel may be a bit of all right when three heavyweight writers step to the scale with vastly different readings of it. John Updike liked Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (2005), though he was discouraged by its tonal resignation; Christopher Hitchens panned the novel, imputing to its author a cowardly skirting of contemporary history and moral sympathies; and Margaret Atwood raved about it, though mostly from the gender angle. That all three eminent writers are off base (at least Atwood covered well what she did focus on) is another feather in the lapel for Pamuk, who continues to confound ideologues, whether aesthetic or political or cultural, and astound with complex stories – one might call them postmodern fables – engaged with human dilemmas in prose both practically intelligent and mysterious.
I dislike plot summary reviews in anything but barebones-impetus outlining, so here goes. The narrator (whose story is told by a fictional Orhan Pamuk who will be inserted into the novel after the half-way point) travels to Kars, a crushingly impoverished town in northeastern Turkey, after a twelve year political exile in Frankfurt, ostensibly to attend his mother’s funeral, but really to catch up with a flame (Ipek) from his teen years when they lived in Istanbul. A snowstorm redundantly shuts off Kars from the outside world, Turkey or otherwise, and narrator Ka gets on as a journalist to investigate a story about girls and women of the town who commit suicide as a response to Ataturk’s legacy of monochromatic secularism. The girls, you see, have been forced to remove their head scarves at school.
The plot, like any good postmodern romp in the bed of Pynchon or Tarantino, quickly evolves into a labyrinthine series of twists which incorporate past elements but also further mysteries that take our befuddled guide into zones where he can only record. And it’s this recording, this wise and careful observation, that the above three reviewers seemed to miss. Regarding Updike, of course Ka’s reaction is passive and halfhearted. That’s the point. The novel is titled so, and the snowstorm is a giant sledgehammer of a hint, in order to underscore Pamuk’s intention. (Hitchens makes this mistake, too.) Pamuk, through his main character, but also through the poor (in spirit and physical resources) town residents, reveals how inertia is self-perpetuating, a law of physics. Hitchens wants a heroic attempt through the lens of political morality, but nothing in the novel lets the subjugated off the hook, though Pamuk does succeed in painting them with sympathetic colours. The Muslim terrorist Blue? Hitchens thinks he gets singled out as the strong candidate for our approval, but Pamuk’s point is that – though Blue is imprisoned – the secular military are there to keep power. The spiritually gentle, of which Pamuk has much to say through several remarkable characters, don’t pose a threat, so of course they aren’t going to get the same kind of “martyrdom” as the troublemakers.That said, Hitchens is astoundingly obtuse about the young Muslim students Necip and Fazil. Pamuk's attitude towards them is complex. He gently mocks them (Hitchens misses the point of the stilted dialogue -- some people do talk that way), but he also saves a large piece of his fictional heart for those two, caught up in religious narrow-mindedness, secular indifference and selfishness, and economic and intellectual stagnation throughout the town.
Atwood eschews tonal preferences and political siding for pointless gender speculation on what drives men to write puzzle-within-puzzle-within-puzzle novels. (Because a woman protagonist would be snuffed out before the first plot twist resolution, she concludes. I’m not sure I follow, since a woman author can choose any character – male or female, bold or tentative – she wants as a spokesperson.) But she makes some on-the-mark points about situational gender roles, even if they’re relatively reductive.
Snow’s scope lends itself to thematic concentration. Unfortunately, the peculiar and consistent concerns of these authors in their own creative writings spill over into their reviews, and were one to consult them before reading Pamuk’s masterpiece, the general impression of the novel might be one of a polished or cracked pane rather than a sun-refracting cathedral mosaic. I choose that metaphor with care because, ultimately, the book is worshipful and spiritually investigative. Its many scenes of ghostly night-walking overseen by the hidden, lurking informers and military low-level collection men, its interior philosophical jousting between sexual need and solitary meditation, its heartbreaking rendering of the protagonist’s last days in Germany and the follow-up questing by character-Pamuk in securing Ka’s 19 poems in a book form that may or may not exist – these and other considerations show the author in a mood both expansive and quiet, and there’s no getting around the incredible feeling of desperation mixed with the occasional balm of understanding that suffuses the novel’s conclusion.