Saturday, January 14, 2012

Snow: This is why I read Orhan Pamuk

It's been a gorgeous winter in Dallas - with the sun rays streaming through the blinds on to my living room from morning through late afternoon. The bright, sunny days with highs touching 70s at times are as far removed as can be from the snowy, stark and silent streets of Kars. And yet, such is the power of Pamuk's prose that during all those hours spent reading his masterpiece, I felt like I was in Kars.

Early on in the novel, snow - one of the recurring themes in the novel, makes an appearance.

...he peered into the wretched little shops and bakeries and broken down coffee houses that lined the streets of Erzurum's outlying suburbs, and as he did it began to snow. It was heavier and thicker than the snow he'd seen between Istanbul and Erzurum. If he hadn't been so tired, if he'd paid a bit more attention to the snowflakes swirling out of the sky like feathers, he might have realized that he was traveling straight into a blizzard; he might have seen at the start that he was setting out on a journey that would change his life forever and would have chosen to turn back.
Trimmed down to its very basics, Snow is the story of Ka, a Turkish poet exiled in Frankfurt, who comes to the remote Eastern border city of Kars to investigate the string of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear head scarves. But he is also there because of memories of a beautiful woman named Ipek.

In the whirlwind three days that follow, a blizzard isolates Kars from the rest of Turkey as roads and rails are blocked; the boundaries between art and life are blurred as a theater troupe stages a farcical coup; people are killed as political intrigue involving the Kurds, Turkish Republicans, and Islamists deepens; Ka finds sudden inspiration as poems magically start coming to him as he falls desperately and passionately in love with Ipek and realizes that the only happiness he can know is spending the rest of his life with her in Frankfurt; and we encounter a handsome and charismatic Islamic terrorist as Ka begins to question his beliefs on atheism and wonders about God and his existence.

Throughout the novel, Pamuk gives us a glimpse of what makes Turkey and Kars in this case, unique. The chequered history and a melting pot of civilizations which makes it hard for its people to find their identity.

As he gazed at the grand old buildings on either side, admiring their handsome doors, their generously proportioned eaves, their beautiful friezes, and their dignified but timeworn facades, Ka had a strong sense of the people (Armenians who traded in Tiflis? Ottoman pashas who collected taxes from the dairies?) who had once led happy, peaceful and even colorful lives here. Gone now were all the Armenians, Russians, Ottomans and early Republican Turks.....

As we get to know about the life of the people in Kars - the poverty and hopelessness, the struggle to define their identity and religiousness, the constant conflict between East and West: manifested not only in religious beliefs but also in values, morality, culture and a way of life; we are slowly drawn towards the people in this far away city and we begin to understand their hopes and fears, their needs and desires. Coupled with the constantly falling snow which shrouds the city in silence and a sense of desolation, it is easy to see why the novel effortlessly transports the reader to a different world.

And then there's Ipek. Ka's is so enamored by her beauty that he cannot think of a life without her. It is this fear of losing her and losing his last hope of finding happiness that makes him so vulnerable and humane. Even when Ka's friend (who is narrating the whole story) meets her, he is left amazed.

Ipek was more beautiful than anyone could have imagined. At this dinner, where I had my first glimpse of her, I mush confess to have found myself stunned, bedazzled and deeply jealous. ... I was beset by all manner of those feelings that women of exceptional beauty never fail to inspire; gazing at this paragon before me, I felt myself crumbling, I felt possessed.

Love, God, happiness, patriotism, change - the themes that make up Snow are universal and timeless. The setting, though (for an Indian residing in a secular US), is totally different. And the greatness of this novel lies in the lucidity and honesty with which it manages to blend the familiar with the unknown. Everyone should read this. If not for the commentary about modern day Turkey told in a mash up of political thriller, travelogue, historical fiction and drama; then for the sheer joy of discovering how a great book can make you feel.