Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Country: Turkey (3 of 52 for 2013)
Baked Good: Spinach-feta börek

SnowSnow by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Why I picked this book: First pick of the year for the World's Literature Group in GoodReads. Plus I have always wanted to visit Turkey, and had this book on my shelf for a year.

Ka, a poet exiled from Turkey, returns to his home country to write about a series of young girls who have been committing suicide in the city of Kars. At least, that is the reason given at the beginning. It gets more complicated once you find out that a woman he has loved also lives there, and is recently divorced.

I was interested in the story of Snow, and of the imagery (how snow masks violence, how snow can be isolating, the uniqueness of snowflakes - these are repeated themes). I was particularly interested in the poems, but the reader never gets to read them. While the narrative gives a good excuse in the end, I was unable to let go of my disappointment over being denied such a central element of the story. There are frequent comments about how poets separate themselves from what is going on, to preserve their hearts and to let the poems come to them through events, such as here:
"Ka had explained to me that when a good poet is confronted with difficult facts that he knows to be true but also inimical to poetry, he has no choice but to flee to the margins; it was, he said, this very retreat that allowed him to hear the hidden music that is the source of all art."
But since we don't see inside of the poems, it suffices to separate the reader from Ka's true emotions and feelings about almost everything.

The other issue that interfered with my enjoyment of the story is the narrator. It is a friend of Ka's who is telling about Ka's journey, recreated through journals, newspaper articles, and interviews. This isn't immediately apparent, but isn't a spoiler to say so, I don't think. Because of this tactic though, it removes the reader even farther from the central emotion of the story. I had also guessed at one event that I suspect was supposed to be a great reveal, although the narrator frequently stumbles over himself to tell the juicy bits of a story, forcing him to go back and try to put it into context. Amusing, yes. Frustrating, also yes.

Another element I struggled with was the reaction to violence. The director of the Institute of Education is killed in front of Ka and Ipek, and while they leave the cafe rapidly, there isn't a sense of danger. Neither is there a sense of fear when people are killed by revolutionaries in public. That didn't seem true to life, and I think I'll blame the unreliable narrator. I get that Ka was putting his emotion into his poetry (which we never see), but what about everyone else living in Kars? Why go to a theater where there was violence at the last performance in that space, only to experience violence again? I will allow that I may not be reading between the lines enough, or that the narrator is glossing over the details most people would give. It made it very hard to connect to.

Other little bits on writing and poetry and happiness:

"Only people who are very intelligent and very unhappy can write good poems. So you heroically undertook to endure the pains of faithlessness, just to be able to write good poems. But you didn't realize then that when you lost that voice inside you, you'd end up all alone in an empty universe."

"But doesn't life make us unhappy?"
"We do that to ourselves."

"Only the purest poets allow love into their hearts in time of revolution."

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