Saturday, November 21, 2009

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Desperately seeking a literary work to get me out of my recent reading rut, I turned to a novel suggested by one of the listers on the College Board listserv for A.P. English instructors ... and the novel turned out to be one of the best things I've read all year.

Set in Istanbul in the early 1990s, Snow tells the story of an exiled Turkish poet, Ka, who returns to his homeland posing as a journalist who is reporting on a recent series of suicides by young girls (these "Suicide Girls" have been struggling with the social and religious implications of covering their hair with the traditional headscarves). Ka is suffering from a profound writer's block -- and a blizzard is just beginning that will eventually seal off the residents of Kars for the next few days -- but Ka's return creates a sensation as he encounters members of a local theater troupe, fundamentalist radicals, Turkish law enforcement, and Ipek -- a beautiful woman who exposes Ka to love *and* the ability to once again compose poetry.

A simple summary, of course, doesn't give you much of a feel for the power of the prose, achieved through compelling conversations between characters that explore the various interpretations of words and actions that make up the belief system of Islam. For me, some of the most fascinating passages involved characters as they discussed the actions within a publicly televised play, and what social and religious implications those actions held for viewers. Pamuk's portrayal of both liberal and conservative Islamic mindsets remains compassionate throughout the narrative, offering the reader a rare glimpse of the impetus behind the tensions that continue to exist between Middle Eastern and Western lifestyles.

There is also a subtle complexity to the storytelling that I found enjoyable. Part of that subtlty comes from Pamuk himself, who is ultimately a character within the story (and who, it is revealed, is telling us this story four years hence). Additionally, I found delightful Pamuk's descriptions of the nineteen poems Ka comes to compose while in Kars; as readers, we are given vague sketches of each poem -- its composition, its style, its themes and images -- yet never given the actual poems ... which somehow heightens the overall effect and power of each poem.

A thoroughly enjoyable book that I highly recommend! Check it out.

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