Magazine article The New Yorker

Anatolian Arabesques; Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

Anatolian Arabesques; Books

Article excerpt

Orhan Pamuk's new novel, "Snow" (translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely; Knopf; $26), abounds with modernist tracer genes. Like Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," it bares its inner gears of reconstituted memory and ends by promising its own composition. Its hero, a poet, goes by the name of Ka, a hard-to-miss allusion to Kafka's K., the hero of "The Castle." Its setting, the forlorn provincial city of Kars--though kar means "snow," Kars is an actual place, in Turkey's northeastern corner, near Armenia; it was destroyed by Tamerlane in 1386 and occupied by Russia off and on in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries--suggests, in four hectic days during which the city is snowbound, the mountainous, debate-prone microcosm of Thomas Mann's sanatorium in "The Magic Mountain," with a lethal whiff of Dostoyevsky's unnamed "our town" in "The Possessed." The airy spirit of postmodernism also haunts the shadows and spiral staircases of Pamuk's intricate narrative. Like Italo Calvino, Pamuk has a passion for pattern-making; he maps Kars as obsessively as Joyce did Dublin and marshals the nineteen poems that Ka writes there into the form of a diagrammatic snowflake. Not that "Snow" doesn't flow, with suspense at every dimpled vortex. Like Raymond Queneau, Pamuk is gifted with a light, absurdist touch, spinning out farcical plot developments to the point of implying that any plot, in this indifferent and chaotic universe, is farcical. He is attracted to the unreal reality, the false truth, of theatrical performance, and "Snow," in its political aspect, pivots on two nights of performance at the Kars National Theatre, in which illusion and reality are confoundingly entwined.

The comedy of public events, where protest and proclamation rapidly age into melodramatic cliche, overlays certain tragic realities of contemporary Turkey: the poverty of opportunity that leads unemployed men to sit endlessly in teahouses watching television; the tension between the secularism established by Kemal Ataturk in the nineteen-twenties and the recent rise of political Islam; the burning issue of women's head scarves; the cultural divide between a Westernized elite and the theistic masses. In its geography, Turkey straddles Europe and Asia; its history includes a triumphant imperial episode under the Ottoman sultans and, after long decline, a secular, modernizing revolution under Ataturk. Tradition there wears not only the fez and the turban but the uniform of the Islam-resistant Army.

Ka, a forty-two-year-old, unmarried Istanbul native who for twelve years has lived as a political exile in Germany, comes to Kars, which he briefly visited twenty years ago, in order to investigate and report on, for a friend's newspaper, a local epidemic of suicide among young women, and to look up a university classmate, the beautiful Ipek, who, he has learned, is separated from her husband, Muhtar. Muhtar, another old acquaintance, is running for mayor; this election is one of the threads that are all but buried in the subsequent days beneath a veritable blizzard of further complications and characters. The Anatolian venue, its deteriorating architecture poetically redolent of former Armenian and Russian inhabitants, is populated by Turks whose names have, to an American reader, a fairy-tale strangeness: Ipek, Kadife, Zahide, Sunay Zaim, Funda Eser, Guner Bener, Hakan Ozge, Mesut, Fazil, Necip, Teslime, Abdurraham Oz, Osman Nuri Colak, Tarkut Olcun, and (Ka's full name, which he suppresses) Kerim Alakusoglu.

In his temporary role of journalist, Ka is given access to a succession of local viewpoints, ranging from that of the deputy governor (who tells him, "If unhappiness were a genuine reason for suicide, half the women in Turkey would be killing themselves") and the benign religious teacher Sheikh Saadettin Efendi to that of the outlaw terrorist Blue and Ipek's sister, the scarf-wearing Kadife, who in the end proposes that women commit suicide to show their pride: "The moment of suicide is the time when they understand best how lonely it is to be a woman, and what being a woman really means. …

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