Monday, February 25, 2013

International Fiction Book Club Meeting (February 20, 2013) - "Snow" by Orhan Pamuk




        The evening of February 20, the International Fiction Book Club met at the historic Blum House, next door to the Collinsville Memorial Public Library, to discuss the novel, Snow, by the Nobel winning Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk.  Pamuk claims to being a writer interested in innovative techniques that expand the possibilities for the art of the novel.  He makes a point in interviews of denying that he is a political writer though he is pummeled with questions concerning the various political controversies that exist in his homeland, Turkey.  In an interview with the Paris Review, he explains that when he became famous in the mid 1990s he was asked by “old leftist authors and the new modern liberals” to join left wing causes and sign petitions showing his support politically.  As a result, the establishment carried out a campaign of “character assassination.”  That is when he decided to write a political novel.  He wanted to explore the situation of secularism versus Islamic fundamentalism and his “own spiritual dilemmas” coming as he did from an upper middle-class family in Istanbul.

        Snow delivers on all fronts.  The narrator (named Orhan) follows the path taken by the poet, Ka, an emigrant to Germany 12 years earlier because of left-wing affiliations during a military coup.  Ka returns to Istanbul for his mother’s funeral and accepts an offer from a newspaper editor to take a press pass and investigate a recent wave of teenage girl suicides in the remote city of Kars.  Kars lies at the crossroads of Armenian, Russian and Kurdish architecture and cultural influences.  A wild card in the form of the beautiful Ipek, recently divorced from an old friend in left-wing causes but who is running for mayor for the Islamic Party, spurs Ka’s interest and he accepts the assignment.

        Sound a bit confusing?  Well, the tension grows as Ka meets Ipek and is shown around the city.  He learns the Mayor was recently assassinated.  As he interviews the families and townspeople, different stories emerge about what caused the suicides.  The Islamists claim the girls killed themselves because they were expelled from school for wearing headscarves but a tangled web of other reasons entwine Ka in role of mediator amidst both a blizzard that cuts off the city from the outside and a coup de théâtre in which students from the Islamist High School are gunned down during a theatrical performance in the National Theater.  Ka is seen as a Western spy but also as a poet of some renown.  He is questioned as to whether or not he is an atheist.  He witnesses the assassination of the Director of Education and is given a beating by the Secret Police.  He agrees to wear a tape recorder and meet with the alleged leader of the underground Islamist terrorists, Blue.  But Ka is, first and foremost, a poet.  A poet who has not written a poem for 4 years.  He is also a seeker of happiness as he confesses to Kadife (Ipek’s sister) who is having a love affair with Blue.  “Life’s not about principles, its about happiness.”

        Pamuk, or Orhan as narrator, speaks directly to the reader on several occasions and this serves to intensify the reason for the telling of Ka’s story.  We know that Ka is doomed but are taken in by his strong feeling of love for Ipek.  He receives inspiration at the most inopportune moments and proceeds to write 19 poems during his 3 day stay in Kars.  The poems, however, are never printed in the novel and are never found by Orhan.

        It was my opinion that, although I was riveted by the entire book, the best chapter was about two-thirds through when the narrator goes to Frankfort to try and piece together evidence of the poetry Ka wrote while in Kars.  Another member commented that it was poetry that prevented Ka from achieving his goal of happiness.  This is true not only literally but symbolically.  We discover that it is the narrator’s goal to write a book about Ka’s poetry from Kars.  Toward the end of the book Orhan is speaking with Fazil, a surviving ember of the Islamist High School who has since started a new life with Kadife.  Fazil asks, “if the poems are missing, how can you write a book about them?”  Orhan admits its a mystery but the reader then realizes the novel in hand is that book!

        I hope I didn’t give away too much.  Believe me, I only skimmed a small part of the surface of a rich novel that exists on many levels.  Highly recommended by an author who certainly deserved his Nobel Prize.

        We next meet on March 20th to discuss Reservation Blues by the Native American writer, Sherman Alexie.  Feel free to pick up a copy at the front desk and join us.

Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk