30 December 2005

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

I mentioned to L when we were in Seattle the other week that Snow is either very bad or high literature. It walks that line, and I think most of the time it leans toward the latter. It's a story set in a snowed-in town called Kars, in eastern Turkey, and focuses on the main character, Ka, a poet, who has come to town ostensibly to write a story on a rash of suicides by local girls but in fact has come because he is in love with a local beauty. The novel is fairly masculine, which in itself isn't usually a problem for me (exception: Catcher in the Rye) but here just becomes kind of stifling after awhile.

The prose is solid, and very occasionally even brilliant, and the depiction of the characters, from Ka himself to the first-person narrator that inserts himself in odd places throughout, to Ipek, the focus of Ka's love, or even Blue, the rebel Islamist, is very well done, particularly as you simultaneously find yourself not really knowing the characters and knowing them quite well. The novel has a very Eastern European/Russian feel to it as a result: it reminded me of Gogol, with the main character going to visit all of these other characters and asking them things, describing them, but always from the narrator's fairly narrow perspective, so we end up chuckling sometimes at the descriptions but never quite fully trusting anyone in the book, from Ka on down.

the political backdrop for the novel involves an anti-secularist movement within Turkey, with overtones of Kurdish separatism/nationalism and a range of different Islamist groups. Theater also figures prominently, which has an interesting layering effect for the book: it is a novel about a poet who often watches TV broadcasts of plays which sometimes bleed into way-too-realistic "performances."

So if you like Russian novels, and can embrace the masculinity, I think this could be a good read. Or, if you're up for a bit of a hard slog to expand your reading horizons a bit, but not necessarily with a huge payoff, then I'd go for it. Others really liked the book—Salon put it on their best books of 2004. I'm not so sure.

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